understanding knowledge as a commons

Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom have just published a volume entitled Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. The following is a brief excerpt from my own chapter that refers to several other contributions and introduces the idea of knowledge as a commons:

Just as a village common is composed of shared grass, a knowledge commons is composed of shared knowledge. Hess and Ostrom note that knowledge involves discrete artifacts (such as articles, maps, databases, and web pages), facilities (such as universities, schools, libraries, computers, and laboratories), and ideas (such as the concept of a commons itself). Thomas Jefferson already realized that ideas are pure public goods, for “he who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Facilities are usually rivalrous, yet they can be run as commons and can house shared artifacts–as Benjamin Franklin demonstrated when he founded the first public lending library. Both the library building and its collections were shared, even though they were scarce and rivalrous.

In the age of networked computers, many artifacts that would have been rivalrous can be digitized, posted online, and thereby turned into public goods. Computer networks can themselves be seen as facilities that overcome some scarcity problems. The number of potential exchanges among people (or machines) that are linked in a network rises geometrically as the network adds members. Therefore, the more users, the better the network serves each user as a tool for communication and research.

I admire commons such as public libraries, community gardens, the Internet, and bodies of scholarly research because they encourage voluntary, diverse, creative activity. However, I have distinguished between a libertarian commons and an associational commons. In a libertarian commons, anyone has a right to use (and sometimes also to contribute to) some public resource. This right is de facto if no one is able to block access to the good or if no one chooses to do so. The right is de jure if it arises from a law or policy that guarantees open access. In contrast, an associational commons exists when some good is controlled by a group. As [James] Boyle notes, “the commons is not the same as the public domain; successful commons are frequently characterised by a variety of restraints–even if these are informal and collective, rather than coming from the regime of private ownership.”

There is an important category of commons that are owned by private nonprofit associations. The owner (a formal organization) has the right and power to limit access, but it sees itself as the steward of a public good. As such, it sets policies that are intended to maintain a commons. For example, an association may admit anyone as a member, on the sole condition that he or she protects the common resource in some specified way. (Libraries tend to function like this.) Or a group may only admit those who have special qualifications, but impose obligations on its members in order to enhance the public good. (Scientific and professional associations often use this model.) Religious congregations, universities, scientific organizations, and civic groups differ in their rules and structures, but they often have this function of protecting or enhancing a quasi-public good.

[I then defend the associational commons and argue that to sustain it, we must find ways to include young people in its governance. That has been the agenda of our small local experiment, the Prince George’s Information Commons.]

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