What Do Commons Have In Common?

Thanks to Dan and the Prawfs crew for having me! Blogging here is a nice distraction from the Red Sox late-season collapse.

I thought I’d start with a riddle: what do roller derby, windsurfing, SourceForge, and GalaxyZoo have in common?

Last week, NYU Law School hosted Convening Cultural Commons, a two-day workshop intended to accelerate the work on information commons begun by Carol Rose, Elinor Ostrom, and Mike Madison / Kathy Strandburg / Brett Frischmann. All four of the above were presented as case studies (by Dave Fagundes, Sonali Shah, Charles Schweik, and Mike Madison, respectively). Elinor Ostrom gave the keynote address, and sat in on most of the presentations. It’s exciting stuff: Mike, Kathy, and Brett have worked hard to adapt Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development framework to analysis of information commons such as Wikipedia, the Associated Press, and jambands. Yet, there was one looming issue that the conferees couldn’t resolve: what, exactly, is a commons?

The short answer is: no one knows. Ostrom’s work counsels a bottom-up, accretive way to answer this question. Over time, with enough case studies, the boundaries of what constitutes a “commons” become clear. So, the conventional answer, and one supported by a lot of folks at the NYU conference, is to go forth and, in the spirit of Clifford Geertz, engage in collection and thick description of things that look like, or might be, commons.

As an outsider to the field, I think that’s a mistake.


What commons research in law (and allied disciplines) needs is some theories of the middle range. There is no Platonic or canonical commons out there. Instead, there are a number of dimensions along which a particular set of information can be measured, and which make it more or less “commons-like.” Let me suggest a few as food for thought:

  1. Barriers to access – some information, like Wikipedia, is available to all comers; other data, like pooled patents, are only available to members of the club. The lower the barriers to access, the more commons-like a resource is. 
  2. State role in management – government may be involved in managing resources directly (for example, data in the National Practitioner Data Bank), indirectly (for example, via intellectual property laws), or not at all. I think a resource is more commons-like as it is less managed by the state.
  3. Ability to privatize – information resources are more and less subject to privatization. Information in the public domain, such as Shakespeare’s plays, cannot be privatized – no one can assert rights over them (at least, not under American copyright law). Some information commons protected by IP law cannot be privatized, such as software developed under the GPL, and some can be, such as software developed under the Apache License. The greater the ability to privatize, I’d argue, the less commons-like.
  4. Depletability – classic commons resources (such as fisheries or grazing land) are subject to depletion. Information resources can be depleted, though depletion here may come more in the form of congestion, as Yochai Benkler argues. Internet infrastructure is somewhat subject to depletion, while ideas or prices are not. The greater the risk of depletion,the less commons-like.

Finally, why do we care about the commons? I think that commons studies are a reaction to the IP wars: they are a form of resistance to IP maximalism. By showing that information commons are not only ubiquitous, but vital to innovation and even a market economy, legal scholars can offer a principled means of arguing against ever-increasing IP rights. That makes studying these resources – and, hopefully, putting forward testable theories about what are and are not attributes of a commons – vital to enlightened policymaking.

Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg.

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