Commons, a Model for Managing Natural Resources

Reinventing physical commons and social public goods in the information era

, by AIGRAIN Philippe

This article was published in the spring 2010 issue of the French journal Multitudes: It is reproduced with authorisation.

A first "coalition of the commons" was formed in the 1990s and 2000s in reaction to the brutal expansion of intellectual property rights in the fields of culture, software or seeds. Can this coalition now extend its reach and incorporate the protection of natural commons, social public goods and human development?

The commons: a new continent

For 60 years, the surge in information technologies (in computers, but also in the domain of biology for example) followed by universal networks like the Internet, have rejuvenated the commons. This assertion may come as a surprise to some readers. Aren’t we living in the era of commodification of information and knowledge? Haven’t we been witnessing, over the past thirty years, property monopolies (patents, copyright, author’s rights, ownership rights in databases) expanding and strengthening more than ever before? Aren’t we seeing the information capitalism of proprietary software, of centralised media and publishing, and of the pharmaceutical industry generating tremendous profit margins?

Yet before these proprietary responses came about, computerisation was primarily a means to increase access to and reuse data, knowledge and calculation methods, as represented in “computerised form”. The years from 1950 to 1970, with their strong culture of sharing and accessibility, could be described as a time when the commons were undergoing a silent emergence [1]. When information is separated from its support, it is by nature infinitely reproducible. It is almost impossible to enclose it in a proprietary package, especially if this information needs to remain “usable” as a product. This is the contradiction in which the music industry found itself by wanting to prevent recordings from being copied while at the same time allowing consumers to listen to them. [2]

The seeming paradox of powerful industries thriving on monopolies of information reproduction (software, media, pharmaceutical industry and seeds) at the very moment these monopolies are weakened by the diffusion of technologies is easily explained. Information monopolies are undoubtedly fragile, but the profits they make are disproportionate to those of traditional industries. The complete decoupling of the retail price from the cost of production is an irresistible prospect for investors. In the seventies, the Industry Advisory Committee on Trade Negotiations, run at the time by IBM, Monsanto and Pfizer, began a project of globalising extensive, rigid monopolies, patents and copyright. The TRIPS [3] agreement was signed in 1994 and would serve to concretise this project.

A first coalition of the commons [4]

Many actors of civil society ventured to resist this attempt to expand intellectual property rights, which led to a recognition of what different kinds of commons... have in common. This period (1994-2005) brought together different movements: the movements for free software, collaborative creation, and access to knowledge together with the movements for access to health and for the defence of farmers’ rights in their fight against seed companies and GMOs.

Creative Commons Man. Source : Mickipedia (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The mutual recognition of these different movements resulted out of a sense of being up against similar adversaries. They themselves were aware that they had similar concerns. A fundamental characteristic of activists in the domain of the information commons is that they are as committed to creating commons as much as they are to defending them against property rights. It was during the late 1990s that the breadth of this voluntary creation of commons came to light, with the growing awareness of the significance of the free software movement. Although the concept had come about fifteen years earlier, the free software model had for a long time been considered, outside of its inner circle, as marginal. People slowly became aware that it formed the backbone of the Internet and the Web, and that its innovative and collaborative model was of great relevance to the entire sphere of the production of information artefacts (i.e.: creations, works, data and tools able to be represented in “computerised form”). Several years later, the significance of the “commons-based peer production” [5] model has been demonstrated across extremely diverse fields: free encyclopaedias (Wikipedia and others), scientific articles, and free-access data, collaborative expression and creative works with the Creative Commons and Free Art licences, farmers seed networks, and new pharmaceutical innovation models.

Gradually the sense of a common cause and project became more and more engrained. To pursue this common project, it was important to recognise both how software and seeds are alike (they contain information) and how they are profoundly different: for example, pure information only refers to an abstract machine as far as software is concerned, whereas for seeds, genetic information can only be expressed in a particular physical environment. It took some time for this initial coalition of commons to develop but it is now well established. Moreover, this has resulted in the production of new affirmative visions and new narratives: new public domains and information commons had to be defended against the Tragedy of the Enclosures [6], and fostered by positive intellectual rights rather than restrictive rights (rights to prohibit). James Boyle was the first to articulate this shared vision in his article “A Politics of Intellectual Property: Environmentalism for the Net?“ [7], in which he predicts that the recognition of commons of knowledge may be able to shift politics just as dramatically as environmentalism did in the 1970s.

However, the question of how far this rediscovery and this reinvention of the commons is able to go remains unanswered. Can it bring a new youth to physical commons (air, water, environment, climate) and social public goods (education, public health, reducing inequalities, urban public spaces)? Can the first coalition of the commons assist the efforts of those striving to defend and reinvent physical commons and social public goods in a hostile context?

From environmental commons to social commons

For both the environmental and social commons, the last thirty years of the twentieth century have been an era full of contrasts. The commons were recognised as they never had been before, but the effects of this recognition were greatly limited by the domination of economic reductionism and the market fundamentalism of this era. Following the efforts undertaken in 1972 in Stockholm, biodiversity, the climate, and generally speaking, “the health and integrity of the earth system”, as well as the right to development and poverty reduction, were recognised as commons or global shared objectives at the international summits that took place in New York and Rio in 1992. [8]

The recognition of physical commons and social public goods didn’t just come out of nowhere. An intellectual response to the Tragedy of the Commons model had been developed in the 1980s. Garrett Hardin, in his 1968 article [9], asserted that the commons were extremely vulnerable to the pressure of increased use, whether for demographic or economic reasons. Under threat of destruction or overexploitation, they should, according to Hardin, either be converted into private property to ensure they are protected and preserved by their owner, or managed by the state, which he judged to be inherently ineffective and corrupt. Elinor Ostrom’s [10] work demonstrated that Hardin had overlooked a third form of management different to that of private ownership and public ownership: management of the commons by the communities that use them. She demonstrated [11] that this kind of management can take many forms depending on the nature of the commons (pasture land, forests, water, fisheries) and that it is generally effective when there is no external destruction.

However the recognition of the commons was undone as fast as it was established due to an adverse ideological and institutional environment. Only the Convention on biological diversity provided the institutional mechanisms to make it legally binding. The majority of the other international texts mentioned above are inherently declaratory or, in any case, don’t have the same weight as the various international agreements connected to the World Trade Organization. Different interest groups across many sectors rallied to refuse the strongly resonant sense of the commons and of humanity’s shared heritage, preferring the notion of “global public goods’, which overlooks the question of property and of who is the steward and trustee of those goods. These tensions were particularly fraught in relation to water issues. The World Water Council refused to recognise water as a commons, as advocated by figures such as Riccardo Petrella, and described access to water as a vital need, not a human right. [12] There were also tensions, although not as tightly intertwined with the influence of economic interest groups, around whether the statute of global commons should be attributed to resources such as forests (considered carbon sinks) or to the development needs of poorer countries.

Apart from the progressive exhaustion of market and proprietary fundamentalism in light of the adverse impacts of the policies applied in their name, the concept of human development played an important part in fostering the fragile recognition of the commons. It is impossible to reduce the Human Development Index, which was elaborated in the nineties, to a single economic measure. [13] The comprehensive vision of human development that underpins it would later make it possible to recognise the strong relationship between the commons (free-access educational tools and resources, generic drugs, access to information produced by public bodies, healthy environment, urban spaces) and essential social public goods (education, health, social justice, good governance, housing.) Putting human development at the forefront of the international agenda was also a way of avoiding the issues being reduced to a confrontation between the priorities of different countries. The global North’s concerns with protecting the commons and the global South’s concerns for development could come together under the same banner.

The initial make-up of an alliance between those defending access to knowledge and advocates of global social justice and development was thus forged. Over the last few years, a coalition of NGOs from both the global North and South, from emerging countries (Brazil, India, Argentina, Chile, etc.) and developed countries has been articulating information and development commons together in a new way.

As a result of this, the World Intellectual Property Organisation adopted an agenda for development, and the World Health Organisation worked on initiating new forms of innovation and sharing of the global research effort. These developments are still insufficient to change the overall direction of these organisations, which remain heavily influenced by powerful private interests. But they are the beginning of a shift, which is visibly worrying for advocates of proprietary globalisation. More recently, at the climate summits, new coalitions took form between those advocating for effective policies to limit humanity’s contribution to climate change and defenders of global social justice.

The time is thus ripe for a new school of political thought to take shape, based on a common approach of the commons and of social public goods. The rest of this article explores two fundamental questions which this school of thought will have to address.

The modern governance of physical commons and social public goods

Like the physical commons, the information commons are extremely diverse. They are diverse in their status, which today take the form of licences or terms of use, but which can be seen as genuine “constitutions of commons”. [14] This diversity is also evident in the various ways in which the projects that nurture the commons are governed, in the types of organisations that are the trustees of these commons, and in the relations between the commons themselves and the economic activities that draw on them and sometimes contribute to them. The information commons are a laboratory for new systems of governance. Two important examples can be mentioned here:

  • The process of revising the free GNU GPL licence, which brings together stake-holders of extremely different natures, from major companies like IBM and Intel to community development projects, from users in Government administrations to individual contributors. [15] Everyone wants a licence which effectively establishes and protects common goods, but their motives are very different, which can create contradictory pressures in relation to the licence’s actual content.
  • The internal governance of the Wikipedia project which, contrary to the caricature of lawless management, has set up a whole set of rules and systems to protect the main features of the free encyclopaedia.

At the same time, the governance of physical and social commons has to adapt to new conditions. Although extremely valuable, traditional community management systems are limited in certain respects and require some realigning. Indeed, they rely on individuals being firmly committed to the community and a relatively precise definition of the community’s limits. These conditions are getting harder to meet, due to the expansion of exchanges as well as to the desire of individuals to break free of the community. Belonging to a community is never set in concrete: individuals are always willing to be part of a community, to invest their energy in it, but they don’t “belong” to it, or if they do, it’s often a sign of subjection rather than of free choice.

The information commons have been facing these sorts of issues, typical of the digital age, for a long time. For decisions concerning commons which are authentically non-competitive like free software, there is room for freer forms of community management. If they are unsatisfied with its focus or with the way it’s set up, those involved in developing free software can “duplicate” the commons, and continue their development in a different framework or with other objectives. This explains how a huge range of different forms of governance are able to exist, from hierarchical organizations with cooption (including those run by companies) to organisations which are completely non-hierarchical. This diverse, dynamic form of governance can’t be transferred to physical commons or social public goods. A specific use of an urban area may put pressure on another use, and this area can’t be duplicated to make both uses compatible. In this case, sharing a commons implies negotiating and understanding that its future relies on shared political choices, the consequences of which will affect everyone. There are other more inspiring processes of governing information commons, which are more adapted to governing physical and social commons, such as those relating to resources which remain rare despite informational abundance or which inherently have to be shared, such as those mentioned above: licences, codes of conduct or terms of use, content of a particular article. Systems are currently being tested across a wide array of fields (biological innovation, access to knowledge and culture, local charters, city planning, education, public health). They introduce participative processes at key stages: problem definition, programme creation, monitoring. Currently the level of actual participation in these processes is limited due to uncertainty regarding their real influence and to the time-consuming nature of traditional forms of participation (meetings and workshops).

Will information technologies find a balance between the flexible, asynchronous forms of interaction made possible by the Internet and intense, face-to-face forms of interaction?

The relationship between the commons and the economy - Reinventing the social dimension.

How the commons and the economy sit together is one of the major political questions of our time. Even amongst those who recognise the value of the commons, there are varying, if not opposing, views when it comes to determining their relationship with the monetary economy.

There are four main models, and it’s clear that the balance between these models needs to be experimented with and discussed for each type of commons or social public good:

  • private investment, with tax incentives to stimulate and direct this investment;
  • the mutualisation of the conditions of existence of a commons between its users (sharing of costs);
  • tax and public policies aiming to ensure the existence of a commons or a social public good;
  • Direct or de facto distribution [16] of a basic income to all those potentially contributing to the commons.

Even in the field of information commons, differences exist which require treating different sectors differently. In far as free software is concerned, it seems that a combination of the first (private investment with incentives) and the last (distributed contribution to individuals) models strikes the best balance, although the role public policies play, particularly those relating to research, is often under-estimated. Insofar as scientific knowledge is concerned, the excessive role given to private investment (often at taxpayers’ expense) has contributed to the development of enclosures and to an impoverishment of the scope and direction of scientific research. In regards to cultural works, it seems that a combination of all four models is the best answer, provided there is significant emphasis on social mutualisation, which fosters cultural diversity, that the role of private investment does result in restricted access to cultural commons for monopolistic, commercial purposes, and that governance of public funding for the cultural sector becomes (as it used to be) a subject of political debate and democratic decision-making.

There is also great diversity in the relationships between the physical commons and social public goods and the economy. However, it seems necessary to limit the role of private investment to:

  • the supply of specific means (i.e.: buildings, transport infrastructures, pharmaceutical innovation or, more generally, technological innovation, with guarantees in situations of disproportionate proprietary control over its direction) and specific services which contribute to social public goods;
  • the economy of using the commons’ positive externalities (value-added services benefiting from the commons’ existence).

In other words, the focus on protecting, maintaining and producing physical commons and social public goods requires a governance system that is based on a new combination of social stakeholders (sharing their resources) and public policy rekindled by new forms of democratic governance. The practical establishment of this form of governance of social public goods is made more complicated by the fact that it is impossible to think uniquely in terms of stakeholders’ status (private or public, profit or non profit): a shop next to a public space can contribute to the quality of this common area, whereas street furniture with advertising on it, installed by a local government by way of tender, is to some extent the privatisation of a public space. Governance thus needs to be attentive to the overall qualitative result, without slipping into administrative micro-management.

To sum up, the task of reinventing social public goods and the physical commons is now well on the agenda. It promises to be a complex one, but it is that of initiating a new democratic era.