Eric Kluitenberg on Sun, 11 May 2014 05:44:47 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Contestation and Sustainability of the Digital Commons

Dear nettimers,

This text is an expanded version of talk given at the Art of Resilience conference, organised by the RIXC center for new media culture in Riga, Friday October 5, 2012.
The text will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Acoustic Space Journal: 
Smite Rasa, Smits Raitis, Medosch, Armin (editors), (MAH) Techno-Ecologies II, Acoustic Space Vol. 12, RIXC: Riga / Liepaja: LiepU MPLab, 2014
The new issue will come out at the occasion of the opening of the Fields exhibition and the Art+Communication Festival 2014.

Contestation and Sustainability of the Digital Commons
by Eric Kluitenberg, Amsterdam, May 2014.

There is a growing body of research and literature on shared resources of knowledge and cultural production as a commons [1]. Unsurprisingly much of this research focusses on the role that digital media and the internet in particular play in constituting these new forms of the commons. The availability of digital cultural and knowledge resources online has fundamentally changed the nature of these resources, making them at the same time more accessible, but also easier to capture and lock down. The educational, emancipatory, and empowering potential of a blossoming digital commons is undeniable and clear for every person that has used the internet for more than a single afternoon, but the dilemma’s involved in establishing and maintaining such digital and online common resource pools are far from settled and deeply contested. I want to devote specific attention here to the dilemma’s involved in the longer-term sustainability of digital and online cultural resources, which is as much a political and economic as it is a cultural question of utmost urgency and importance.   

Elinor Ostrom, whose research on the commons was awarded the Nobel prize for Economics in 2009, and commons theorist Charlotte Hess describe the ‘Commons’ as a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people (Hess & Ostrom, 2007, 4). Typically these resources are governed by mechanisms that operate outside the traditional confines of the market and the state to regulate their use and ensure their long-term sustainability. Although a broad variety of commons and common-pool resources [2] exist, Ostrom and Hess suggest that “the unifying thread in all common resources is that they are jointly used, managed by groups of varying sizes and interests” (Hess & Ostrom, 2007, 5).

In traditional economics the knowledge commons is understood as a pool of ideas from which it is hard to exclude anyone once created or discovered (ibid, 8), and access to and use of them does not limit others in their acces and use (of ideas). However, in a digital context more and more forms of knowledge can be captured and made subject to property regimes [3] (think for instance of DNA sequencing and patented research data), while the digital infrastructures needed to produce these capabilities and make them accessible require massive investments and constant maintenance to be sustained. In the classic analogy, the ideas found when reading a book (as intangibles) are public goods, while the book itself (as a material artefact) is classified as a private good (Hess & Ostrom, 2007, 9) In the digital context knowledge is increasingly treated as a private good unless it is deliberately made accessible for common use, for instance via open access publishing. However, this move to create and maintain digital knowledge and culture commons requires extensive operational resources.

This is the fundamental dilemma that all digital knowledge and cultural commons resources face: At first glance the digital technologies seem to offer unprecedented opportunities to share knowledge and culture on an in principle planetary scale, and at lowest costs. Yet, these resources can only be sustained through continued investments of capabilities (money, skills, technical infrastructure, maintenance, resource management). Traditional economics is quick to suggest that only markets or public infrastructures are able to sustain such common resources. However, in doing so these actors will inevitably limit access to these resources, either by requiring payment for access (market), or through regulatory exclusionary measures (state). The real promise of the digital commons, however, lies in open and unfeathered access for anyone to the shared resources, not presupposing either fees or exclusive permissions.

The commons proposes a model where collective ownership and governance of shared resources offers an alternative for privatisation by the market or regulatory control by the state. And the research of Ostrom and many others has shown that under the right conditions this is not only a viable, but also a rational and efficient model for creating, managing, and protecting such shared resources, and thus ensure their long-term sustainability. The question then is what the conditions are for such commons resources to thrive? And more specifically how does this work in the case of shared digital and online knowledge and cultural resources?

Eliminating Some Common Noise

While the intention of this short examination of this wide ranging field (the evolving digital commons) is primarily practical, it is nonetheless necessary to first address some common misguided pre-occupations with regards to questions of sustainability of the commons, digital or otherwise.

First of all, the field seems to be hampered by a persistent legal and regulatory preoccupation, which is not to suggest that legal and regulatory questions surrounding the commons are not important, or that they can somehow be escaped or avoided, but they should not be the starting point of a consideration. The future development of the commons is first of all a political and an economic question. It is a question in other words of will (power) and of rationality in choosing how best to govern shared resources that we collectively depend on.    

An eternal debate that apparently needs to be addressed in any discussion of the commons is the deplorable ‘tragedy of the commons’, where overexploitation and terminal exhaustion seem to be the inevitable fate of any commons that is freely accessible, as outlined by Biologist Garret Hardin in his infamous paper “The Tragedy of the Commons:” of 1968. Repeated research by economists and commons scholars has, however, found that Hardin’s view is mistaken in four important respects: (1`) Hardin discusses open access rather than managed commons, (2) he assumes little or no communication between those who share (in) the commons resource, (3) he assumes that people act only in their immediate self-interest (rather than taking some extent of joint interest into account), and (4) he only offers two possible solutions for over-exploitation: privatisation or government intervention (Hess & Ostrom, 2007, 11), thus excluding the possibility that local communities can (and in fact do overwhelmingly) introduce forms of collective self-governance that produce effective and locally specific solutions for sustainable exploitation of shared resources. [4]  

A further misconception that might occur here is to equate the discourse of the commons with some form of benevolence. While some of the protagonists of the commons might indeed be motivated by a sense that the creation of shared resources is ethically the right thing to do, and contributes to the greater good of society as a whole and therefore for all its citizens, the point of Ostrom’s research has been to emphasise that such self-governed shared resources can and do lead to efficient and rational solutions for the governance of limited resources. 

Enter the Commons

When first writing about the digital commons in 2003 I began my investigations by looking at the dictionary definitions of the word ‘commons’. In the Webster on-line dictionary I found perhaps the most interesting one: 

Main Entry: 2common Function: noun Date: 14th century
1 plural : the common people
2 plural but singular in construction : a dining hall
3 plural but singular or plural in construction, often capitalized
a : the political group or estate comprising the commoners
b : the parliamentary representatives of the commoners c : HOUSE OF COMMONS
4 : the legal right of taking a profit in another's land in common with the owner or others
5 : a piece of land subject to common use: as a : undivided land used especially for pasture b : a public open area in a municipality. [5]

I was particularly struck in this definition by point 4: “the legal right of taking a profit in another's land in common with the owner or others”. The assertion of this legal right to take a profit in a commons, as long as you do not exclude others from doing the same, immediately made me aware that the notion of ‘the commons’ could not be conceived of as in opposition to ‘the market’. Much rather it seemed to operate, curiously, somehow complementary to the market. Taking a profit in a commons in common with others did not imply the privatisation of the commons, as this would mean excluding access for others. Yet, the problem of (over-)exploitation and depletion of the commons is immediately discernible in this principle.

In other words, we need a more differentiated view of the commons if we are to understand its relationship to market mechanisms as well as understanding how sustainable commons resources can be created

>From Common Land to Digital Commons:

While the dictionary definition cited here focuses primarily on the notion of common land, it is not hard to translate the principles outlined here to the digital domain. Digital commons, following these principles would then be digital and on-line resources subject to common use. Furthermore, we would have to accept that this would entail the legal right of taking a profit in another's on-line resources in common with the owner or others. This profit taking principle is controversial in the context of the digital and online commons, however, I consider it also as essential to include this principle in a consideration of an economics of the (digital) commons to understand both its inherent rationality, and for identifying possible models for longer term sustainability of the digital commons.

In developing such models for longer term sustainability of the digital commons we furthermore need all three main actors that have entered the stage of the commons so far: obviously the commoners themselves, the people and organisations who create shared resources, the market in its broadest sense, and the state. A complicating factor in all of this is that each of these can act both in a complementary as well as an antithetical fashion. It all depends on the specific roles these actors are allowed to assume, whether or not a sustainable model for the digital commons might emerge. The idea that the commons can simply replace the functions of the state or the market, or somehow make them redundant, to me seems for the foreseeable future both unrealistic and even dangerous - particularly with regards to the role of the state and public institutions. Again, we need a differentiated and careful analysis and process of modelling, not singular preoccupations or grand gesture sweeping statements to achieve progress towards a sustainable digital commons. 

Some years ago, Harvard Law professor and co-founder of the Creative Commons Lawrence Lessig visited Amsterdam and at this particular occasion was speaking in the Waag Society’s Anatomical Theatre to a rather small crowd of local digerati. Lessig was speaking on the evolving battles between copyright holders in the entertainment industry and file-sharers who were increasingly branded as pirates. Lessig observed: “There is a war going on, a war between copyright and piracy. And we need to bring a balance back to this fight..”.

The first thing I particularly disliked about his comments was the war metaphor. We were already burdened by a US-lead War on Drugs, followed by a “War on Terror”, and now we were witnessing the onset of a “War on Piracy”? The metaphor also seemed to imply a similar asymmetrical investment of capabilities by the state and market versus those civic actors could possibly mobilise. It suggested an image of virtual trench warfare that has indeed come to dominate the sharing versus piracy debate in recent years.

Instead of speaking of a ‘war’, I would prefer to say: There is a conflict of interest between those parties seeking the commodification of information and knowledge, and those seeking to enhance the cause of the common good of knowledge.This conflict is political and it is economical. The conflict is political, because knowledge is power. Having access to knowledge determines the degree to which any single actor, individual or organisation, can take control of her, his, or its destiny, and increasingly so in a context of massive digital interconnectivity. The conflict is economical, because the commons resources need to be sustained and constitute economic value that can be exploited in a market place. Hence there is an inherent drive towards privatisation of the resources if there are no proper principles of governance in place, and the means to impose them.

This political and economic battle is, however, more diversified than the simple opposition of copyright and copyleft. Different and often initially opposing interest are at stake, but also different conceptions tend to produce disagreement. In the case of the digital commons we mostly refer to cultural commons, comprising the totality of cultural expressions that can be accessed, distributed and experienced with digital and online means, and knowledge commons, comprising the totality of knowledge resources that can be accessed, distributed and used with digital and online means. Here some fundamental debates are on-going, for instance the commons versus public domain debate, where the first (commons) implies ownership by a group of commoners who share the resource among themselves and with others, whereas the latter (public domain) asserts a sphere where things exist outside of property rights, subject to appropriation by anyone and no one in particular. The commoners will insist that resources need to be maintained and looked after to flourish, while the public domain constitutes a sphere of ultimate freedom and possibility maximising the possible gains to be had from any given resource available in the public domain. 

In the case of the Creative Commons, the project is usually regarded as a highly successful and pragmatic intervention creating a space of shared cultural and knowledge resources that operates within the confines of existing intellectual property rights regimes and therefore does not require massive political interventions to operate (changes in copyright law being notoriously undoable). However, here the debate rages on about the notion of “Some Rights Reserved” versus the abolishment of copyright and Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) altogether that some protagonists of an expanded public domain argue for. The most popular cc license is still the “Attribution-NonCommercial” version [6], which is a far cry from the freedom of the public domain (although Creative Commons now also offers public domain tools [7]), but also is in direct contradiction with the fourth principle of the cited dictionary definition of  the commons, the legal right to take a profit in a commons resource in common with the owner and others.

In a more general sense we find very different interests in the culture and knowledge industries depending on the different roles of the principal actors. Three main parties can be distinguished here: content producers versus mediators versus the public at large. They each have very different and partly opposing stakes here. Content producers want to be able to do their work professionally, be paid for what they do and produce and be able to build a sustainable practice for themselves, sharing without retribution is not an obvious or logical choice for them. Mediators want to create channels of acces for knowledge and cultural products, and like content producers want to build a sustainable practice for themselves. Enabling sharing without retribution is not a logical choice for them, but they also will find strong incentives to minimise the costs of access to the cultural and knowledge products they want to distribute, as is evidenced in the remarkable disparity between mediators shares and producers shares in revenues in for instance the music industry, but also in academic publishing. The public at large, finally, wants to get affordable, preferably free, and easy access to the full breadth and wealth of cultural and knowledge products and will generally follow the path of least resistance to obtain this.  

All these contesting views and positions further indicate the need for a differentiated analysis of the digital commons, its politics, economics as well as its ethics.

Values of the Digital Commons

Before venturing more deeply into the economic mechanisms of the digital commons it is important to emphasise some of the core values that inform its constitutive principles. 

* Access is the obvious starting point of any commons resource - without acces to the resource sharing cannot take place and the value of the resource remains locked up. 
* Distribution is a very important aspect of the digital commons. In particular the sophistication of peer to peer distribution technologies (P2P) such as for instance the widely used bittorrent protocol have created highly differentiated low cost distribution infrastructure that utilise local resources of ordinary internet users to combine them into ever evolving distributed content delivery structures.
* Sharing is the act that enables the creation of common pool resources. This can be organised collectively or individually, but involves by necessity a social process of exchange and usually communication about the resource that is shared. While the ethical impetus is clear, sharing can also act as an effective instrument for efficient resource allocation. 
* ReMix / ReUse are crucial values of the commons. A true commons is never a mute resource, but rather a productive source for the creation of new products, cultural expressions, and new forms of insight and knowledge that build on the wealth of shared resources in the digital commons.
* Learning; the educational potential of shared digital commons resources is evident. Low costs accessibility to high-quality cultural and knowledge is particularly relevant for economically disadvantaged zones of the planet and society to bridge knowledge gaps and increase their potential for self-reliance.
* Co-operation is vital for the longer-term sustainability of common pool resources, particularly those that are naturally scarce. Developing efficient fors of collective governance requires intricate modes of co-operation, that should ideally be scalable and transferrable. The remarkable rise of free and open source software has proven this model in the digital domain, but similar cases can be made for traditional forms of the commons (land, water, air, fisheries, etc.).
* Social Production refers to processes of collective productive processes that can create and extend the commons and may at the same time operate in a market environment. Open source software production is a clear example of such social production processes, but the model applies also in other sectors of the economy.
* Empowerment can be regarded a key-value of the commons, digital and otherwise. The commons is principally oriented on self-organised and self-reliant solutions to immediate economic, material and immaterial needs. The strengthening of the social process through social production serves to empower individuals and groups to accommodate local needs. 

Economies of the Commons
‘Paying the Costs of Making Things Free’

In a series of three conferences, organised in 2008, 2010, and 2012 called “Economies of the Commons” [8], we explored in a broad coalition of cultural organisations and initiatives the question what commons based approaches might mean and contribute to creating widely accessible cultural and audiovisual media collections online. While the series was informed by critical theory on the commons and its underlying economic principles we focussed specifically on cultural resources in the digital domain, and on online audiovisual resources because they are most resource intensive and therefore hardest to sustain. 

At the beginning of the first Economies of the Commons conference we stated that the aim of these gatherings was to raise the economic competence of cultural and public sector organisations. With this we meant not that these organisations should adapt to the logic of market, but rather that these organisations need to understand the economic logic and mechanisms at work in a connected economy so that these can be put at the service of the aims public sector and cultural organisations try to achieve.

By looking both at large public organisations as well as independent initiatives, all of whom were exploring how to create public access to audiovisual online cultural resources, we were able to study the issues they run up against at vastly different scales. One principal insight results from this close examination became clear early on: The idea that there could be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to the question of creating and sustaining these resources (particularly a ‘killer revenue model’), does not hold up. Instead we found out that it is necessary to look at a patchwork of different solutions that work in different combinations in specific local contexts. Most often these would rely on a mix of public, community and derivative (including market-based) sources of support.

Based on these insights we concluded that the commons and the market are often wrongfully pitted against each other.  A strong  space of open and shared resources is much rather a prerequisite for a flourishing 21st century information economy. The creation of commons resources in the digital domain avoids unnecessary replication costs. For purely digital products the costs are mostly contained in the creation of the first copy, while storage and distribution, while by no means free are much less cost-intensive. Making first copies available in commons resources (for instance after their initial market cycle is over and first copy production costs have been recouped), drives down transaction costs involved in reuse of materials tremendously. the commons and the public domain can thus be seen as raw materials and the common pool resources as infrastructure for new cultural and knowledge production in the digital domain.

We could also clearly see that public support still has a role to play: While for instance crowd funding and crowd sourcing strategies offer exciting opportunities, especially to engage audiences much more actively in the process of producing new cultural products, as yet they do not scale to match existing public institutional and funding infrastructures. Crowd funding is also not reliable enough for long-term planning required for instance for the large scale archiving institutions we worked with in the conference series (Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision, Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, BBC Archives, British Film Institute, Eye Institute and others). It is much more useful to consider them as complementary mechanisms to provide tailored solutions for local needs.

Public institutions can, for instance, provide larger scale infrastructures for the digital commons, making knowledge and cultural resources out of public holdings available for reuse in the digital domain, by schools, publishers, media producers as well as individuals and civic initiatives, thus contributing to the digital commons as well as to a thriving information economy. We found that public / collective arrangements are a much more cost-effective way of dealing with the Indirect distributed costs in various knowledge production processes (whether public or market driven). As a result in all these sectors costs are driven down for the system as a whole, and overall efficiency of the system is greatly enhanced. The digital commons thus provides a measurable rational beneficial economic effect.

More important still than trying to fit the commons approach to an existing market logic is that we need to understand the new forms of value creation that happen in these commons environments and around such open and shared resources. It is crucial to recognise that these exceed the narrow definition of a market based on monetary exchange - as is evidenced in our list of values of the digital commons, which include social values (involvement, co-operation), cultural enrichment (building on the common global heritage), as well as local and individual empowerment.  

The rationality of the digital commons at the level of society as a whole is clear. What is holding us back in delivering on this promise are primarily vested interests in the cultural and knowledge industries, whose specific interests (read: revenue models) are not served by the digital commons. Given the scale of these interests (in global entertainment and media conglomerates, global science publishers, patented knowledge pools in pharmaceutical industries and beyond) it is unthinkable that a thriving digital commons will come about on its own, or purely out of grassroots civic initiatives. A political intervention is clearly necessary here to shift emphasis from IPR monopolies to digital common-pool resources. Neither civic initiatives, new and emerging market players, commons initiatives, nor legal interventions of the creative commons type on their own will be able to effect the required changes. Therefore the public sector, foremost the state, has an important role to play to create the prerequisites for a flourishing digital commons.

Revenue Models for the Digital Commons

In the absence of such strategic intervention at the state level it is useful to conclude here with a brief examination of ‘tactical’ models that can sustain commons based initiatives in the digital domain for the intermittent period. The most immediate need for most digital commons initiatives is finding secure levels of funding to sustain operations. These will in most case typically consist of a combination of different instruments, each with specific capabilities and limitations:

Donations are attractive as sources of ‘free money’ not tied to specific return services that initiatives a high degree of flexibility and policy freedom. Donation collection mechanisms are also well established on the internet.
The main problem of this form of funding is the absence of long-term prospects. Even for a super high profile project such as Wikipedia the reliability of donations as a revenue source is highly uncertain and for the longest time the financial horizon of the initiative barely exceeded a six months time frame, while for the myriad of users the idea of lossing wikipedia within half a year seemed simply inconceivable.
Donations are also highly sensitive to economic fluctuations, which impedes their longer term reliability further.

Public Funding
Public funding is obviously the ‘classic’ model of financing services in the public (common) interest via tax revenues. Where available this funding instrument should be cherished and where possible extended. Especially in a transparent democratic process it allows for a maximum focus on content and (longer term) policy for cultural and public interest organisations.
An important consideration here is that funding depends on a legitimisation strategy, which suggest an interesting potential cross-pollination between the commons and the public sector. Commons driven initiatives demonstrate the involvement of citizens in the project which should be an added recommendation for public support. More importantly though, contributing the results of projects enabled by public support to the digital commons could be considered as an important prerequisite for obtaining this public support. Public funding would thus directly contribute to the growth of the digital commons and thus create further indirect public benefits through availability in the commons. 

Similar to public funding sponsorship involves a legitimisation strategy to make an activity eligible for support - the activity has to either benefit the common good or the specific interests of the sponsor. ‘Legitimacy’ of the project is passed on by the project to the sponsor / ‘patron’ in return for financial and material support.
Besides the obvious limitations in policy freedom for projects and organisations depending on sponsorship for key resources this source of funding is also highly sensitive to economic fluctuation.

Crowd Funding
Crowd funding has become truly fashionable right now, and also quite successful. Following the early successes of Kickstarter and Indiegogo a wide variety of crowd funding platforms has emerged on the internet, often catered to specific local needs and interests. 
Comparable to donations and sponsorship crowd funding is highly sensitive to economic fluctuation. 
Crowd funding is mostly successful for high-profile projects and thereby tends to replicate the ‘reputation economy’ of traditional (mass-) media forms and established cultural industries. 
Curiously  crowd funding generally still replicates the ownership model of traditional cultural industries, i.e. it promotes and funds project in which there is a limited or exclusive ownership of the project’s results and its Intellectual Property Rights.
Here ‘Crowd Funding for the Commons’ is required as a principle. The simple idea that projects funded by the crowd, the public, also need to become available to the public by entering and being available in / to the commons.
The crowd funding platform Goteo is one of the earliest examples that adopted this logic. However, this mechanism does not have sufficient scale yet to create a significant impact. Many content producers meanwhile prefer the closed IPR model of mainstream crowd funding platforms.

Open Access Publishing
Perhaps the most promising and already very successful model for enlarging the (knowledge) commons is the practice of open access publishing. The economic model is split between the user / consumer- and the producer side of the product: Users / consumers are given free access to resources (optionally to read or view / use / copy / modify). The producers of the content (research institutions / universities / professional content producer) pay for dissemination. The publisher provides publishing and dissemination services as a regular paid-service in the market place.
Results of projects thus become immediately freely accessible in the commons upon the moment of publishing and directly enlarge its scope and significance. The issue here is that the system relies on indirect forms of (public) support - mostly of publicly financed institutions (universities / research centres) that want to make their results publicly accessible and are able to pay for them. An effective political intervention here would be to make open access publishing mandatory for publicly financed research institutions and projects, thereby maximising the delivery of public benefits of the initial public investment (tax payer money).  

Distributed Micropayment Systems
A rather experimental and new approach to creating revenue for commons based projects in the public domain is the use of distributed micropayment systems. The best example here as yet might be Flattr [9]. Flattr organises a central allocation of user / crowd funding for projects, while the individual user decides locally to support projects by ‘flattering’ a project, in effect clicking a Flattr button on the website of  participating on-line open access projects, much like the well known ‘like’ buttons of social media platforms.
The system calculates an automatic proportional distribution based on user’s seed funding divided by number of Flattr clicks in a given period (for instance a week or month). Individual contributions can be small but the cumulative effect could be potentially substantial, while the donation threshold is low. The main drawback of Flattr and other micro payment systems, so far, is that the scale funding remains rather small in comparison to mainstream crowd funders such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

Hybrid Business Models
Some initiatives have explored the complementarity of commons and market based approaches quite literally. Such hybrid business models usually consist of a combination of open access to the core product, combined with paid services and / or derivative paid-for products.

Example 1: Prelinger Archives.
Prelinger Archives consists of a (physical) collection of over 60,000 "ephemeral" (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films, brought together by film maker and archivist Rick Prelinger. In 2002 acquired by the Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Prelinger Archives retained 5000 copies in a digital format taken from the original footage and has started a process of transferring these to publicly available viewing copies distributed via, where currently about 3000 movies are available. [10] Individual users can freely access and reuse a large movie collection from the archive for free via
The collection and service is sustained by selling stock footage as high-quality film print or digital video for professional media producers. Prelinger’s decision to make viewing copies freely available in the public domain on the internet had a rather unexpected result for the business side of his archive. Because of the increased visibility of the materials and the collection, and the enthusiastic response of online audiences who created an entire new archive of Prelinger mash-up movies, the revenues of the professional part of the organisation doubled in the first year the materials were made available at

Example 2 - The Music Industry:
Most analysts expect that because of technological factors selling music will not in itself be enough to sustain a substantial business volume for music vendors in the future. One radical model to innovate the music related businesses and at the same time make the poisonous debate on ‘piracy’ would be to make recorded music available for free as digital files for free, while creating derivative added value services, such as (exclusive) packaging, annotation and documentation, merchandising, new revenue streams via live-performances, creating exposure for related products.
A growing number of musicians is now also creating these kinds of mixed business models for themselves, making music available online for free listening, sometimes free download, selling music or asking donations (pay what you want), creating merchandising and special editions offers, and using increased visibility online to enhance other aspects of their professional practice (performance, teaching, workshops, lectures, studio sessions, etc.).   

To conclude: 
What should guide the debate on the future development of the commons, digital and otherwise, is its rationality, its efficiency in resource allocation, its ability for expanded forms of value creation, and its capacity for delivering broad public benefits. The commons does not replace the market, but instead complements and enhances it, in particular by alleviating unwarranted market distortions caused by monopolised resource allocations. There is a danger, however, in considering the commons as a magical formula that will make public institutions and infrastructures  redundant. As I have shown repeatedly here, public institutions, both public sector and cultural organisations as well as state institutions play a crucial role in creating the prerequisites and infrastructures for the commons to thrive, also and particularly so in the digital domain. 


1]  A highly recommended overview of the diversity of research and activity around the commons can be found in the recent anthology “The Wealth of the Commons  - A World Beyond Market & State” (Bollier & Helfrich, 2012), edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich. The book is freely available online here:  
2]  Common pool resources are shared resource systems that consist of “types of economic goods independent of particular property rights” (Hess & Ostrom, 2007, 5)
3]  James Boyle speaks about a ‘second enclosure of the commons’ involving the capture of the ‘intangible commons of the mind’ in new intellectual property regimes enabled by information processing technologies. (Boyle, 2008, 42-53)
4]  For a more extensive discussion of the research on systems of self-governance of the commons a good point to start is reading the Nobel Prize acceptance lecture delivered by Elinor Ostrom on December 8, 2009: 
Beyond Markets and states: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. 
5]  Webster on-line dictionary,  (accessed March 2003)
8]  The archive of the conference series can be found at:

Principal Sources:


David Bollier & Silke Helfrich, eds. (2012): The Wealth of the Commons - A World Beyond Market & State, Levellers Press, Amherst (Mass.).
James Boyle (2008): The Public Domain - Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, Yale University Press, New Haven & London.
Charlotte Hess & Elinor Ostrom (2007): Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.).
Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons (1990): The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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