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= "The Commons is a general term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest. Studies on the commons include the Information Commons with issues about Public Knowledge, the Public Domain, Open Science, and the free exchange of ideas -- all issues at the core of a direct democracy." [1]

See also: The Commons FAQ


It should be noted that the 'Ostromian' definition that we use here, has been critiqued for the distinction that it puts between humans and the environment, seen as resources for human use, and that current definitions should be updated to reflect the interdependency of humanity as integral part of nature and other living beings, from which it is not separate. We welcome updated definitions that would reflect such an insight.


1. Michel Bauwens:

At the P2P Foundation, we settle around the following definition.

A commons is

  1. shared resources (i.e. there is something objective about it)
  2. maintained or co-produced by a community or group of stakeholders (hence: a subjective activity and choice, 'there is no commons without commoning') and
  3. it is managed according to the rules and values of that community ('autonormativity'), which makes it also an alternative governance and property regime.

This definition distinguishes us from all those

  • who replace the objectivity of the commons with a generic metaphysical principles (1),
  • who believe it is synonymous with common goods only (2) and
  • who deny it is a property and/or governance form (3).

2. Christian Siefkes:

Goods which are jointly developed and maintained by a community and shared according to community-defined rules. [2]

3. Yochai Benkler:

"The salient characteristic of commons, as opposed to property, is that no single person has exclusive control over the use and disposition of any particular resource in the commons. Instead, resources governed by commons may be used or disposed of by anyone among some (more or less well-defined) number of persons, under rules that may range from “anything goes” to quite crisply articulated formal rules that are effectively." enforced. (Benkler, 2005:61)

4. Anthony McCann [3]:

"Whether people are referring to the parliamentary enclosures in England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries or to the more recent critiques of “corporate enclosure”, there have tended to be two dominant characterizations of “the commons”.

In the first, people have conceived of “the commons” as a particular character of uncommodifying social relations in a localized context of community. It is important to note that, in the literature on the parliamentary enclosures, this has tended to be the characterization of “the commons” adopted by critics of the broad social changes that enclosure brought about. This can primarily be characterised as a relationship-centred approach to “the commons”, whereby “the commons” is understood to refer to a particular character of social relations that are constituted, at least in part, by an ethic of interdependence and cooperation (see, for example, E. P. Thompson 1968, 1993; Neeson 1993). The key point has been, however, that the relations in question are of a peculiarly uncommodifying character. As the editors of The Ecologist note: “[The commons] provides sustenance, security and independence, yet … typically does not produce commodities. Unlike most things in modern industrial society, moreover, it is neither private nor public” (Goldsmith et al. 1992:7-8).

The second dominant characterization of “the commons” is as a resource-pool to be managed. Within the literature on parliamentary enclosure, this has tended to be the characterization of “the commons” adopted by those very much in favour of enclosure as a means of enacting economic progress and the capitalist ethos. The term “commons”, in this sense, refers to resources “held in common” or managed in such a way as to allow common access. Again, “the commons” is often considered within a context of community, but the community does not need to be localized or situated. As there is no necessity for a resource management model of “the commons” to consider experiential or broader social psychological elements, the community in question may have the character of an “imagined community” or a simplistic and reductionist abstraction." (

See also: the definition of Commons-Based Peer Production

5. An often used definition is the one found in the World Conservation Strategy Report of 1980:

“A commons is a tract of land or water owned or used jointly by the members of a community. The global commons includes those parts of the earth’s surface beyond national jurisdiction —notably the open ocean and the living resources found there—or held in common—notably the atmosphere.”

Source: World Conservation Strategy. Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, Prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Chapter 18, “The Global Commons”, 1980.

6. David Bollier:

The commons “refers to that vast range of resources that people collectively own, but which are rapidly being enclosed: privatized, traded in the market, and abused.”

Source: David Bollier, “Reclaiming the Commons,” Boston Review, Summer 2002.

7. Helene Finidori:

"Commons can be described in a variety of ways and along several dimensions. The three below function together as a whole:

  • As object, the commons are the Common Wealth, the assets that we inherit or create, use and change, and that serve our livelihood (our natural, social and cultural resources, genetic and biological diversity, knowledge, etc), that people pass on to future generations. These assets need to be nurtured, (re)generated and to be indiscriminately accessible to the greatest number. They must therefore be protected against capture, over-exploitation, depletion and abuse.
  • As practice, the commons are the Common Ethos of which people are an integral part; the culture and the relationships they build with each other, with their resources and with the earth, the ways of being and doing in common (caring, sharing, nurturing, replenishing our common assets with discernment, transparency, empathy, equity, justice, mindfulness…). This practice critically depends on sustained and adaptive know-how, on increased knowledge flows, and continuous collaboration and learning including ways of working together on problem solving. This practice takes multiple forms and names. Sustainable living and development is one of them.
  • As result, the commons are the Common Good, the outcomes of the practice (access, capacity, well being, quality of life, prosperity, abundance). They are the life blood of the process, those that make the world thrive, and become in turn assets to nurture…

Because of the relationships and interactions between these various elements, the commons are generative systems, which provide the tangible conditions that empower and enable communities in relation to their purpose and to the ecological contexts they find themselves in, at various levels and scales.

From this perspective, commons may serve as a medium for accelerating the adoption of sustainable practices that address social, environmental and economic dimensions in a sustainable, cohesive and interconnected manner. They can also serve as a vetting system to assess the impact of sustainability policies and practices." (


Alain Lipietz:

(Editor’s note: All italicized words here are the original French.)

"My first annoyance, is the insistence, in most of the articles, that the commons is a word of English or Anglo-Saxon origins altogether! It is not English, but French — and more precisely, Norman. That is doubly important. When the Normans of William the Conqueror conquered England in 1066, they imposed an existing form of feudalism. They spoke in French of course, i.e. in a mixture of words of Latin origin and secondarily Germanic. In feudalism, the public goods or goods for public usage have two names, according to their owner: commun, which is the communal property of the peasants, and banal, which is the Lord’s property — mainly the mill, bread oven and forests. Commun is therefore a legal term of feudalism, and a term of Latin origin.

First, a word about its feudal character. If the peasants, whether serfs or free, own land in common — besides the soil on which they are attached and the lord’s land on which they must perform chores — such possession does not prevent them from having to share the fruit of their work with their lord, in the form of tax (the taille). The social relationship of commun is structured, determined and dominated by the feudal relationship. Feudalism, like capitalism, is a social organization, and as such, can never be reduced to one relationship. It is an articulation of many social relationships. Some of them may seem to us more “progressive” than others, yet they remain ancillary to a societal form of domination.

But the commun is certainly one of the most permanent, and potentially the most progressive, of all forms of social organization. Here we must invoke the Latin origin of the word. Commun comes from munus, which means both “gift” and “duty.” To receive a gift — a munus — is to be obliged to respond with a “counter-gift.”

According to Polanyi, there are three ways to socialize the work of human individuals: trade (I give to you for you to give to me); redistribution (the state collects from every one to give to everybody); and reciprocity: I give because I trust that when I need it, the society will give to me. From the word munus is evidently derived “com mun“ ( “co” meaning “together”). This is the system of donations and duties that governs what the com mun auté (“com mun ity “) has in common. This community has usually a system of political leadership of its own: the municipalité (“municipality”). Cipal comes from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “chief” or “head.” This chief must act with “munificence,” offering gifts for community assistance, festivals and monuments." (


Michel Bauwens: "The commons consists of any common resource that is available to all (but this notion can be defined locally, or specifically as 'everybody in category x'), and as such there are many type of commons but basically two: physical resources or man-made.

The commons is also a series of specific institutional formats used to manage such common resources.

And finally, it is the political/social movement that promotes them.

I see open/free, participatory/p2p, and commons are a related 3-legged stool of paradigms:

  • free and open ensures access to the raw material to build the common
  • participatory refers to the process of broad participation in order to actually build it
  • the commons is the institutional format used to prevent private appropriation of said creations
  • the circle is closed when commons-generated material is again free/open raw material for the next cycle of the Circulation of the Common.

Relation between the definitions of the public domain and of the commons

Most of the time, both concepts are used interchangeably, though the Commons seems to overtake the Public Domain in terms of popularity. The public domain concept relates the 'outside' of the intellectual propery system, i.e. items without copyright, and thus stresses the open access features: nobody can be excluded. The Commons stresses the absense of state, corporate and individual control, in favour of distributed control, and is related to non-private and non-state common property regimes.

For an investigation of the differences between the concepts, see the essays by James Boyle, at (The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain) and (The Opposite of Property)

Introductory citation by David Bollier

"The commons is a new way to express a very old idea — that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all. The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, water, the oceans, wildlife and wilderness, and shared “assets" like the Internet, the airwaves used for broadcasting, and public lands. The commons also includes our shared social creations: libraries, parks, public spaces as well as scientific research, creative works and public knowledge that have accumulated over centuries.

This is our common wealth, or the commons. The strange thing is, we have forgotten how to recognize the commons and act like the rightful owners of our own riches. Too many people blindly accept the “enclosure" of our commons, which transforms shared resources enjoyed by all into private commodities available only to those who can afford them. Part of the problem is the narrow version of economics that dominates in the United States today -- a version that presumes that the only important wealth is created through market exchange. We, the commoners, know otherwise." (


"Every commons has four characteristics: a resource; the people who share it (users, managers, producers and providers); the value created through its production or preservation; and the rules that govern it." (

The main variables of a commons

  • a resource (replenishable or depletable)
  • the people who share this commons (users, managers, producers and providers)
  • the rules governing people’s access to — and benefit from — these common resources
  • the value created through the preservation or production of these common goods

The Building Blocks of the Commons

Silke Helfrich et al on the building blocks of the commons:

"The first building block is material. It relates to the resources themselves. They can be physical, such as water, soil and the atmosphere, or intangible, such as genetic information, software code, algorithms and cultural techniques or even the time at our disposal. All these are common pool resources. We all have natural entitlements to use them.

The second building block is social.

It refers to people who make use of these resources. The idea of the commons is inconceivable without it being linked to people engaged with each other to manage a resource in specific social milieus. Knowledge can be used by people to make a diagnosis or find a cure. Cultural techniques can be used to create something new. Resources are converted into commons by the people who collectively use them.

The third building block is regulatory.

This encompasses the rules and norms governing the management of the commons. These vary greatly. Regulating the use of bytes and information is quite different from managing natural resources such as water and forests. What is common to all of them is that every community of users decide for itself how their resources are to be managed. This can succeed only if a group of people evolves a collective understanding of how a resource should be managed. The complex social process behind this is called “commoning” a term recovered from medieval times by the historian Peter Linebaugh. In this sense, the commons is a “verb,” not a “noun.” From this “commoning” there emerge rules and norms which are to be negotiated in processes that are often conflict-ridden." (

Source: from a conference backgrounder "The Commons - Prosperity by Sharing" by Silke Helfrich, Rainer Kuhlen, Wolfgang Sachs, and Christian Siefkes


See the overview Commons - Typology by Stefan Meretz, and additional typologies by Yochai Benkler and others.

Three Competing Definitions of the Commons

Marc Bosch i Matas :

Commons as a resource.

"The first conception is linked to economy and economic thought. In 1954, Paul Samuelson published the seminal work “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure” categorising goods in four categories according to their caracteristics of excludability and rivalrousness of their consumption. Common-pool resources would be those resources which are non-excludable, like public goods, but rival in their consumption. This meant that users cannot prevent new users from consuming this resource but they cannot sustain too large a number of users.

Rational-choice theorists have taken from this point of view coining the concept “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Being non-excludable but rival, users will tend to free-ride on the efforts of others, consuming too much and not contributing to their maintenance. Thus, all commons, unless privatised, will tend to disappear. This conception is very much linked to neo-classic economics where all individuals are rational and oriented to their own profit. It also has an implicit assumption, that private property is the best solution for providing resources in a sustainable way.

Commons as a resource managed by a community.

In 1990, Elinor Ostrom challenged the view that commons were doomed to privatisation or disappearance. In her book “Governing the Commons” she investigated several successful cases of communities managing commons. The research showed it was possible without a top-down authority, privatising them, or consuming them to their exhaustion. To do so, they would need social institutions of trust, shared responsibilities, penalties for free-riders… This approach would be linked to sociological thought and introduces ideas of social relations, power, institutions. Thus a commons becomes so because a community of “commoners” manages and consumes it.

There are two main sub-branches within this approach. The first stems from neo-institutionalist theory and focuses on questions such as “who gets to use the commons in a concrete situation and who sets the rules to do so?” On the other hand, the current linked to critical social theory focuses on their potential to disrupt Capitalist institutions. Both traditions see the commons as modes of exchange of goods and services that are neither state nor market. The “critical” tradition, then, sees this as an opportunity to create alternatives to Capitalism, as well as spaces that can turn into higher-scale mobilisations against the system.

However, asking questions about “who gets to use the commons and who decides” brings us to who should do so. In the following paragraphs I will review the line of thought that has tried to answer this question.

Commons as a right

This tradition is possibly the oldest and yet the smallest of the three. The first definition of the commons comes from pre-modern England and referred to shared grazing fields. The tradition continued with juridic decisions establishing that the public as a whole could access some resources (essentially open spaces). This would be true even if the public would be “disorganised”, i.e. not bounded in a formal political institution. Thus, a commons becomes defined by a normative conception of justice and is thus linked to the fields of law and political theory. In the Anglo-saxon tradition (see the article ‘The Commedy of the Commons’ by Carol Rose), this was that commons should be beneficial to the general interest. Commons were spaces that would serve social purposes, particularly commerce, and thus open access would make them more valuable to the community as a whole. Yet, this is not the only possible definition. The Spanish philosopher of law José Luís Martí Mármol proposes a new conception in the book ‘The republican conception of property‘. There he understands commons as goods publicly owned (through the state or not) which would harm common good if they should be privatised. In any case, most conceptions of commons as a right tend to value general interest as more than the sum of particular benefits and a more or less egalitarian distribution of resources. Thus, they oppose the neoclassic inspired vision that the privatisation of the commons would be the best option for the maximum overall happiness.” (

Natural, Social, Knowledge Commons

"There are many different kinds of commons, although the kind that is perhaps most often the topic of discussions about the commons is the material commons made up of natural resources valuable to human activity. These resources are almost always “rival goods” in the sense that their use prevents others from using them, which means that their use is also almost always subtractive, meaning that use subtracts from overall amount off resources in the commons.33 These are the kind of commons that Garrett Hardin famously claimed were heading toward a tragic end due to rapid depletion from over-use by individual actors racing to take as much for themselves as they could.34 Of course, Hardin’s commons was actually a straw figure composed of natural resources not subject to any social arrangement since, as will be explained further below, by definition a commons includes a system of rules governing its use that would make the kind of free-for-all Hardin describes impossible.

A second kind of commons are social commons, which are “organized around access by users to social resources created by specific kinds of human labor,” such as “caring for the sick, the elderly, and children; educating children; maintaining households; finding or creating pure water; removing waste; even policing.”

A third kind of commons is knowledge commons, “organized around shared intellectual and cultural resources.” It can be argued that in many contexts, unlike material resources, these intellectual and cultural resources are non-rivalrous and nonsubtractive because one person learning or using knowledge does not prevent another person from doing the same. Further, a knowledge commons can be generative in the sense that it “can ‘scale up’ as it develops: the more users, the better the commons functions, since the marginal cost of adding users is zero, and new users are not only the recipients of the gifts of non-rival knowledge from others in the commons, but also reciprocate by producing new knowledge for them refined on the basis of knowledge previously received.” (

Source: from the Report: Imagining a Traditional Knowledge Commons. A community approach to sharing traditional knowledge for non-commercial research. IDLO, 2009. By Elan Abrell et al. [4]


The Old vs. the New Commons

Discussion by Howard Rheingold at

"The last several years have seen a proliferation of resources identified as commons (these include the Internet, health care, urban space, the atmosphere, etc.). To begin to track and interpret these innovations, we need a working definition of what can be considered a new commons.

To date, the only work attempting to define new commons is Charlotte Hess' 2000 paper:

Hess, Charlotte. 2000. "Is There Anything New Under the Sun? A Discussion and Survey of Studies on New Commons and the Internet." Presented at "Constituting the Commons: Crafting Sustainable Commons in the New Millennium," the Eighth Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, Bloomington, Indiana, USA, May 31-June 4, 2000.

(Available on the Digital Library of the Commons

At that time, Hess wrote:

"This paper examines questions of the "new commons" -- an area of study that some define as technology-driven, human-made common pool resources (CPRs). The diverse subjects include urban shared space, highways, genetic data and the Internet. These might also include global commons such as the use of the atmosphere, air slots, and the radio spectrum. Many new commons operate on local, regional, and global levels. New commons can also refer to new areas study in the “traditional” natural resource oriented CPR literature. The "new" CPRs share some characteristics with "traditional" natural resources but also have unique properties."

After seven more years of studying this, Hess now thinks new commons are distinguished from traditional commons not by their necessarily being technology-driven (fisheries are very technology-driven), nor necessarily by their being human-made resources as opposed to natural resources (irrigation systems are human-made). Rather, Hess thinks "the “new” pertains to new institutional arrangements created to manage and sustain some kind of shared resource. Whatever the type of resource, the "new" is the new group of people and corresponding rules created in order to preserve/sustain that resource."

Hess cites Lin Ostrom's definition of institutions:

…institutions are the prescriptions that humans use to organize all forms of repetitve and structured interactions including those within families, neighborhoods, markets, firms, sports leagues, churches, private associations, and governments at all scales. Individuals interacting within rule-structured situations face choices regarding the actions and strategies they take, leading to consequences for themselves and for others.”

(Ostrom, Elinor. 2005. Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 3.)

So new commons can also be created within traditional commons. Growing examples are groups focused on instituting ecotourism or preventing invasive types of landscape change.

Most resources can be commons if they meet certain criteria. These criteria are not absolute, but rather represent a continuum between opposing poles. Also, different commons may meet some of the criteria and not others. So a new commons is a resource that meets a preponderance of the criteria to a substantial degree. There is no hard-and-fast checklist for determining whether a resource, action, or institution is a new commons. Discussing the criteria, case by case, is part of the purpose of this website." (

On the Difference between Common Pool Resources and Common Property Regimes

George Caffentzis in a presentation on the Neo-Hardinians scholars of the Commons:

"Scholars in the neo-Hardinian tendency have carried on many important empirical studies of common property systems across the planet as well as have made a number of important distinctions in the study of common property. This is not the place to assess their empirical studies (cf. the extensive bibliography on Private and Common Property Rights in (Ostrom 2000: 352-379) and the Digital Library on the Commons mentioned above), but their most important theoretical distinctions are worth reviewing, since some can be useful to the anti-capitalist commonist movement.

Of course, the primary one is between common property and open access regimes, since the confusion between them is the basis of Hardin's deduction of the tragedy of the common. Common property regimes are "where the members of a clearly demarcated group have a legal right to exclude nonmembers of that group from using a resource. Open access regimes (res nullius)-including the classic cases of the open seas and the atmosphere-have long been considered in legal doctrine as involving no limits on who is authorized to use a resource" (Ostrom 2000: 335-336). On the basis of this distinction, common property and open access regimes are mutually exclusive and anyone who had as their political ideal the creation of an open access regime would not be a supporter of the commons.

The second important distinction is between a common-pool resource (which is a thing or stuff) and a common property regime (which is a set of social relations). A common-pool resource is such that (a) "it is costly to exclude individuals from using the good either through physical barriers or legal instruments and (b) the benefits consumed by one individual subtract from the benefits available to others" (Ostrom 2000: 337). Because of its two defining characteristics, a common-pool resource is subject to problems of congestion, overuse and potential destruction. Access to, withdrawal from, management and ownership of such a resource can be in the form of a common property regime, but it need not be. "Examples exist of both successful and unsuccessful efforts to govern and manage common-pool resources by governments, communal groups, cooperatives, voluntary associations, and private individuals or firms" (Ostrom 2000: 338). Much of the work of the neo-Hardinians has been to study what attributes of common-pool resources that "are conducive to the use of communal proprietorship or ownership" and what attributes of common-pool resources that "are conducive to individual rights to withdrawal, management, exclusion and alienation" (Ostrom 2000: 332).

The neo-Hardinians, however, seem to be less interested in the fact that not all common property regimes involve common-pool resources. On the contrary, when we examine the history of common property regimes, we must conclude that many have been based on non-common-pool resources. For example, money income, personal belongings, literary texts, and even children have been communalized. Thus the 15th century Taborites' first act of forming their community was to dump all their personal belongings in large open chests and begin their communal relations on an even footing (Federici 2004: 54). On the basis of the history of common property regimes it is difficult to decide what types of goods are "conducive" to private property and what kinds of goods are "conducive" to common property.

The third important distinction is between common-pool resources (e.g., a fishery, a river) and public goods (e.g., knowledge of a physical law, living in a just and peaceful society). They share one characteristic, i.e., it is difficult to exclude people living within the scope of these resources or goods from their enjoyment. But they also differ in another characteristic, for a common-pool resource like a fishery is reduced when something of value like a particular fish is withdrawn from it while a public good like knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not diminished when still another person uses it to construct a new engine." (

Difference between the Public Domain and the Commons

1. Vinay Gidwani, Amita Baviskar:

"While the terms “public” and “commons” sometimes truck interchangeably, there are crucial differences between the two. “Public” is a juridical category, firmly in the ambit of state and law, which limns a contrast to that which is “private”. The commons, historically and etymologically, are that which lie at the frontiers, or within the interstices, of the ­terri­torial grid of law. They exist as a dynamic and collective ­resource – a variegated form of social wealth – governed by ­emergent ­custom and constantly negotiating, rebuffing, and evading the fixity of law (cf Thompson 1993). In a sense, ­commons thrive and survive by dancing in and out of the State’s gaze, by escaping its ­notice, because notice invariably brings with it the desire to transform commons into state property or ­capitalist commodity." (

2. Andrew Rens reminds us of an important distinction. He starts by quoting James Boyle:

- “The term “commons” is generally used to denote a resource over which some group has access and use rights—albeit perhaps under certain conditions. … Some would say it is a commons only if the whole society has access. That is the view I will take here. The other difference between public domain and commons is the extent of restrictions on use. Material in the public domain is free of property rights. You may do with it what you wish. A commons can be restrictive. For example, some open source software makes your freedom to modify the software contingent on the condition that your contributions, too, will be freely open to others…So these are working definitions of public domain and commons. But why should we care? Because the public domain is the basis for our art, our science, and our self-understanding. It is the raw material from which we make new inventions and create new cultural works.” (p39)

This distinction is not only clear to lawyers, David Bollier begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting, a journalist turned technology policy expert has also released a book under an open licence entitled Viral Spiral (free download) and he describes the difference in non lawyer terms here:

- “The public domain is an open-access regime available to all; it has no property rights or governance rules. The commons, however, is a legal regime for ensuring that the fruits of collective efforts remain under the control of that collective. The GPL, the CC licenses, databases of traditional knowledge, and sui generis national statutes for protecting biological diversity all represent innovative legal strategies for protecting the commons.

Being a lawyer I’d want to complicate Bollier’s description just a little, the public domain is subject to governance rules, rules which allow the incorporation of the public domain into an all rights reserved intellectual property claim, but don’t permit the exclusion of others from that element of the public domain. So for example one can use a mathematical formula in a patent, the patent can exclude others from making a similar invention but they can use the formula elsewhere. Another example would be that one can copy a text in the public domain for example Bleak House, and claim copyright (a peculiar type of copyright called a published edition) not in the copy but in a reformatted version. As a result someone can’t run off hundreds of copies of your new edition although of course someone else can put out their own printed version of Bleak House.” (

Ecological vs. Civic Commons

Vinay Gidwani, Amita Baviskar:

"Two types of urban commons are worth foregrounding in this regard: (1) ecological commons (such as air, waterbodies, ­wetlands, landfills, and so on); and (2) civic commons (such as streets and sidewalks, public spaces, public schools, public ­transit, etc). Each of these is rapidly diminishing due to erasure, enclosure, disrepair, rezoning, and court proscriptions, replaced in many instances by new – privatised, monitored – public spaces, such as malls, plazas, and gated venues." (

Commons vs. Commodity

Vinay Gidwani, Amita Baviskar:

"To summarise, “commons” stand opposed to “commodity”, as several scholars have noted (Neeson 1993; Linebaugh 2009; De Angelis 2007; Bakker 2007; Reid and Taylor 2010; Walljasper 2010). Less remarked is the fact that each denotes a logic of social relations that entails particular deployment of labour’s use-value. In one instance, labour’s use-value is directed to the production of a community resource and part of its capacity for surplus ­labour is returned to the commons; in the other, labour’s use-value is captured primarily as use-value for capital. We can imagine these two logics as stand-ins for two disparate systems of value, both normative in their thrust." (

Discussion 1: The unreality of the Tragedy of the Commons

A Defense of the Commons

Well-written plea for the importance of the 'environmental' commons.

"The environment isn't just about nature anymore. It has become a metaphor for a battle against market — and sometimes governmental — encroachment that extends to virtually every corner of our society. Everything is up for grabs. Everything is for sale. Politicians and the media are essentially oblivious, just as they were oblivious to the threats to the environment before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, about the dangers of the pesticide DDT. There isn't even a word for this encroachment and loss, except for the tendentious euphemism "growth."

It is significant, then, that an old term is reappearing to describe what is being threatened. It is "the commons," the realm of life that is distinct from both the market and the state and is the shared heritage of us all. Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist and environmental activist, writes about the commons of water and seeds. Lawrence Lessig, an author and lawyer, describes the innovation commons of the Internet and the public domain of knowledge. Others are talking about the atmospheric commons, the commons of public squares, and the commons of quiet.

People don't generally connect seeds and bytes, aquifers and silence. But the concept of the commons shows them to be aspects of the same thing, with political, legal, and environmental implications that could be far-reaching.

It is not whether there will be more government or less, but whether the market will be able to expropriate everything. In an "ownership" society, what happens to the realms that belong to all of us together, as opposed to each of us apart? If the atmosphere, say, is a commons, then we start to see that polluters are trespassing on something that is ours, and that we hold in trust for future generations. The same goes for the gene pool, cyberspace, the broadcast spectrum, the world's water, and the still of the night. If such things are commons, then we have rights regarding them — common property rights. And that changes everything."

The preindustrial commons provided livelihood and material sustenance, and in the developing world, it still plays that role….. But increasingly the commons today meets a different kind of need: refuge from the market and its frenzied pace. It provides such things as open space, access to nature, the conviviality of public squares…. It produces by not producing in the narrow economic sense. Each new step of market encroachment has increased the need for counter-production of this kind – for quiet instead of noise, for open space instead of development, for seed banks instead of genetically modified organisms." (

The Cornucopia of the Commons


On the non-problem of freeloading in filesharing and P2P processes generally, Clay Shirky:

The argument against freeloading as a problem is double: taking a file is non-problematic because it is infinitely replicable; using bandwidth is non-problematic because it is replenishable.

1. Downloading

"Two key aspects of P2P file-sharing [are responsible for this]: the economics of digital resources, which are either replicable or replenishable; and the ways the selfish nature of user participation drives the system.

Start with the nature of consumption. If your sheep takes a mouthful of grass from the common pasture, the grass exits the common pasture and enters the sheep, a net decrease in commonly accessible resources. If you take a copy of the Pink Floyd song "Sheep" from another Napster user, that song is not deleted from that user's hard drive. Furthermore, since your copy also exists within the Napster universe, this sort of consumption creates commonly accessible resources, rather than destroying them. The song is replicated; it is not consumed. Even if, in the worst scenario, you download the song and never make it available to any other Napster user, there is no net loss of available songs, so in any file-sharing system where even some small percentage of new users makes the files they download subsequently available, the system will grow in resources, which will in turn attract new users, which will in turn create new resources, whether the system has freeloaders or not." (

2. Bandwidth

“But what of bandwidth, the other resource consumed by file sharing? Here again, the idea of freeloading misconstrues digital economics. If you saturate a 1 Mb DSL line for 60 seconds while downloading a song, how much bandwidth do you have available in the 61st second? One meg, of course, just like every other second. Again, the Tragedy of the Commons is the wrong comparison, because the notion that freeloading users will somehow eat the available resources to death doesn't apply. Unlike grass, bandwidth can't be "used up," any more than CPU cycles or RAM can. Like a digital horn of plenty, most of the resources that go into networking computers together are constantly replenished; "Bandwidth over time is infinite," as the Internet saying goes. By using all the available bandwidth in any given minute, you have not reduced future bandwidth, nor have you saved anything on the cost of that bandwidth when it's priced at a flat rate.

Bandwidth can't be conserved over time either. By not using all the available bandwidth in any given minute, you have not saved any bandwidth for the future, because bandwidth is an event, not a conservable resource. Given this quality of persistently replenished resources, we would expect users to dislike sharing resources they want to use at that moment, but indifferent to sharing resources they make no claim on, such as available CPU cycles or bandwidth when they are away from their desks." (

Positive externalities, explained by Clay Shirky

“The canonical example of a positive externality is a shade tree. If you buy a tree large enough to shade your lawn, there is a good chance that for at least part of the day it will shade your neighbor's lawn as well. This free shade for your neighbor is a positive externality, a benefit to them that costs you nothing more than what you were willing to spend to shade your own lawn anyway.Napster's single economic genius is to coordinate such effects. Other than the central database of songs and user addresses, every resource within the Napster network is a positive externality. Furthermore, Napster coordinates these externalities in a way that encourages altruism. The system is resistant to negative effects of freeloading, because as long as Napster users are able to find the songs they want, they will continue to participate in the system, even if the people who download songs from them are not the same people they download songs from. As long as even a small portion of the users accept this bargain, the system will grow, bringing in more users, who bring in more songs. In such a system, trying to figure out who is freeloading and who is not isn't worth the effort of the self-interested user." (

The Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is a phrase used to refer to a class of phenomena that involve a conflict for resources between individual interests and the common good.

The often-quoted classic essay by Garrett Hardin, which argued that a commons inevitably leads to abuse, is at

There is an extensive discussion in the Wikipedia: Tragedy of the commons

Underproduction of the Commons

Felix Stadtler:

"For physical commons (say, common pasture, fisheries etc) the main danger is overuse. This is what Hardin wrote about. On the other hand, for non-rivalrous digital information, there is no danger of overuse. You cannot download a piece of software too often (ignoring bandwidth issues for the moment).

Rather, the problem is underproduction. Who will invest in producing the first copy? Hardin has nothing to say about this. The Open Source movement, on the other hand, has alot of say about encouraging heterogeneous motiviations, some of them money-driven, others not. Overuse and underproduction are very different issues with very different social dynamics. There are only a few cases where both problems apply (for example, community gardens).

Generally speaking, commons that have to deal with overuse tend to be 'conservative' in the sense that they require a well-defined community membership and the community has to have a long-term view of their existence. This allows them to overcome the stituation described by Hardin. The issue of underproduction, on the other hand, does not require a strictly defined community (everyone who honors the GPL is part of the free software community). On the contrary, it requires a maximum of freedom for the various community members, so that each of them can bring in their own motivation to solve the issue of producing the first copy.

The difference, in terms of political theory of the commons strikes me to be very substantial." (

Overproduction of the Commons

In the same article, "Eugene" counter-argues that an informational commons may also cause "overproduction", see

Discussion 2: the Commons and the Market

David Bollier

"‘The commons’ is a useful term for contemporary political discourse because it provides a new lexicon for re-situating market activity in a social and political context. It helps us identify resources that should not be alienated for market use, but should remain non-propertised and ‘owned’ (in a civic or democratic sense) by everyone. Our culture has no serious vocabulary for contextualising ‘the free market’ in a social framework; it assumes that it is a universal, a historical force of nature. The commons helps rectify this conceptual problem by offering a rich, countervailing template to the market paradigm, one that can speak about the economic and legal aspects of a commons as intelligibly as its social and personal aspects." (2002)

Alain Lipietz

"We have just seen that the rules of access, and the share of benefits and burdens that come with managing a common resource, may represent a “stack” of various community interests. The conflicts that may arise in allocating the respective benefits and burdens, will likely become more and more important in the 21st century. One way to describe this division of responsibilities is as revenue sharing, a way of articulating the management of the commons as a set of monetary relationships, and thus, implicitly, with trade relationships. But things are more complex.

First, monetary relationships are not necessarily the same as merchant exchange. A fine imposed for improper parking in a common urban space is not a business relationship! Nor is the “dot” on a son or daughter’s forehead, as a matrimonial promise, a sale of a child or the buying of a husband or wife. (Yes, Jacob had to work a long time for Laban before he could marry his daughter Rachel, but this work reflects patriarchal relationships in that society, not merchant relationships.)

Reciprocity has a word for a monetary grant which rewards a duty ( munus ), which is expressed in the word re- mun -eration. Such payment is not a wage or a price, even if it looks like it.

Take, for example, the most directly political and bureaucratic management of the commons — the allocation of emissions quotas for greenhouse gas emissions, as part of our attempt to manage the atmosphere and its ability to recycle the greenhouse gases. In the EU, governments allocate these quotas to various industries. It can be done for free or quotas can be bought at auction, or at a flat rate that amounts to “eco-taxes.” Then quotas can be traded, and those who made a particular effort to reduce their pollution, may sell any excess emissions quotas to those who have not made that effort. Would we say that giving quotas based on actual, historic pollution levels — often known as the “grandfathering” of quotas — is more “community oriented” than the auctioning of quotas, which seems to commodify the atmosphere? On the contrary, the Green Members of the European Parliament consider the “grandfathering” of the pollution quotas as a true enclosure of commons. They fight against the right-wing ideologues and production-obsessed governments for an increasing proportion of quotas to be auctioned. In this case, the purchase of quotas should be regarded as a fine for pollution, and the resale of quotas by those who have reduced their emissions, must be regarded as remuneration. [Editor’s note: This distinction, for example, has led Ecuador and Costa Rica to consider the carbon-absorbing functions of their forests as something deserving remuneration from western nations."

Brett Frischmann

1. When to choose the Commons option, as compared to markets?

Brett Frischmann, a professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law has published an essay, "An Economic Theory of Infrastructure and Commons Management," (89 Minnesota Law Review 4, April 2005). “a rigorous, clear-headed explanation of the economic and social benefits of commons-based infrastructures:

“The basic problem with relying on markets to allocate access to common assets, Frischmann explains, is that the market mechanism exhibits a bias for outputs that generate observable and appropriable returns at the expense of outputs that generate positive externalities [public benefits that cannot be captured by market players]. This is not surprising because the whole point of relying on property rights and the market is to enable private appropriation and discourage externalities. The problem with relying on the market is that potential positive externalities may remain unrealized if they cannot be easily valued and appropriated by those that produce them, even though society as a whole may be better off if those potential externalities were actually produced. “Positive externalities" are precisely those “goods" that benefit all of us, as commoners – clean air, access to information, an open Internet, functioning ecosystems. Yet neoclassical economics and the laws based on it generally discount or ignore these types of value; they assume that monetized forms of individual property are the only important types of value worth maximizing. By looking at “infrastructure" through the lens of the commons, however, we can begin to appreciate the positive, non-market externalities that a resource actually generates – and begin to design public policies to protect these benefits on their own merits." (Commentary from On the Commons blog, at; original essay by Frischmann at; a bio on the author at

Yochai Benkler

Optimal usage of sharing principles vs. market economies, by Yochai Benkler

"The paper offers a framework to explain large scale effective practices of sharing private, excludable goods. It starts with case studies of distributed computing and carpooling as motivating problems. It then suggests a definition for “shareable goods" as goods that are lumpy and mid-grained in size, and explains why goods with these characteristics will have systematic overcapacity relative to the requirements of their owners. The paper then uses comparative transaction costs analysis, focused on information characteristics in particular, combined with an analysis of diversity of motivations, to suggest when social sharing will be better than secondary markets to reallocate this overcapacity to non-owners who require the functionality. The paper concludes with broader observations about the role of sharing as a modality of economic production as compared to markets and hierarchies (whether states or firms), with a particular emphasis on sharing practices among individuals who are strangers or weakly related, its relationship to technological change, and some implications for contemporary policy choices regarding wireless regulation, intellectual property, and communications network design." ( )


  1. A commentary on the Benkler essay by The Economist, at )
  2. Dialogue between David Bollier and Michel Bauwens, on the relationship between the commons, the market, and peer production, at
  3. See also this essay by Yochai Benkler, "Freedom in the Commons: towards a political economy of information', at

Is a digital commons sustainable without corporate support?

Marc Fawzi:

"In any "sharing" system, if the amount of demand exceeds supply, i.e. if there are more leechers than seeders or if certain leechers hog resources, the system will eventually run aground.

That is why BitTorrent sharing sites enforce what is called a "sharing ratio" so that people seed content as much as they leech content off others. A ratio of 1 is good but a ratio of 1.5 (more giving than taking) is even better. However, these systems come with punishment threats, so if a user doesn't uphold the share ratio they get "kicked out" of the community. Not a good way to run an economy. The share ratio here is besides the share ratio forced by BitTorrent itself. It relates to sustaining the content rather than the bandwidth, which is dealt with directly by forced sharing in BitTorrent itself. When it comes to sharing content, however, BitTorrent cannot force it so the community admins end up having to force it algorithmically (if they run their own tracker, which most do) by monitoring the size in Gb of content being seeded and leeched by each user and setting a "kick out" threshold of 1.00, below which the user's account automatically gets disabled or the user gets a warning etc. This is governance by threat of punishment, which is not a good way to run anything.

When it comes to so-called free software, projects that have mass appeal also have mass funding not only from the individual users but from corporations who often employ the project leaders and let them dedicate a large portion of their time to the project AND/OR provide direct financial support to the project. This includes Firefox (backed heavily by Google in several ways), GNU (backed by many big pocket donors... many highly paid people at FSF) , Linux kernel and all massively adopted software. This is necessary because the demand on projects like Firefox, GNU and Linux kernel exceeds the abilities of any user base to support with because when you have millions or hundreds of millions of users and only a tiny fraction of them contribute financially and you need a good deal of organization and a good deal of funding to stay afloat as a project there is no way but to accept donations and support from large corporations. So when Google funds Firefox and major corporations fund GNU and Linux kernel with millions of dollars as well as other incentives (like hiring the project leaders and letting them work on those free projects) then how is that a generalized exchange? Google got direct benefit from supporting Firefox by being the default search engine and by having an alternative browser to compete against IE and by giving them time to get their browser strategy together and learn in the process. IBM reaps huge amount of benefit from basing so much of their solutions on Linux (very few companies would opt to use IBM AIX *nix OS on a commodity Intel platform) so the corporations are basically supporting these projects for direct reciprocal benefit to themselves. If those donors were to stop funding those free large-scale projects the projects would collapse under the demands of a huge user base in the hundreds of millions. Same thing with Wikipedia, huge amount of Wikipedia funding comes from IBM and other big corporations, and the $6M they raise from the users is a drop in the bucket compared to the infrastructure they get for free from big corporate donors like IBM.

So the key question I have is can the commons model be sustainable when you have major corporations funding the projects, without which the projects would collapse? As far as what's been reported, only a tiny percentage of Wikipedia users, or users of free software in general, donate and the bulk of assistance comes from the major corporations. What if IBM goes bankrupt? What if Google disappears? Who will replace their donations? The users certainly won't suddenly start contributing 10X more than they do now. So how can the commons in this case be sustainable?

The answer I'm leaning toward is that the commons have proven sustainable in the context of the long tail model where there are a huge number of very small/niche projects that have relatively small user bases. In this case, the number of users per each such small project is sustainable by part-time developers.

But once a project goes from 100 users to 10 million users there is no way based on evidence from all such projects that mushroomed into popularity that the user base will fund them sufficiently. There is always a need to charge users, raise VC funds, or get major corporate donors.

So as far as placing the commons in the context of sustainability I see the need to consider the size of the user base. For small user base, the commons works. For very large user base, the commons becomes dependent on a few major donors (corporations) and that is not exactly sustainable ..."

J. Martin Pedersen on the Commons and Capitalism

"There are indeed commons inside capitalism and capitalism itself is based on a common value, which is defined by private property rights (which then, of course, immediately separates people again). However, there were commons before capitalism - that is what enclosures destroyed. In other words, commons are a precondition of capitalism and also an eternally necessary condition, because of the permanent character of the necessity of enclosure for capitalism. But this does not mean that there cannot be commons outside of capitalism, indeed, that is Massimo's main concern: searching for commons outside of capitalism. That is why he is in South America and that is why he expressed his concerns with the cooperatives of Salinas, since they are too close for comfort to capitalism and slowly, but safely slipping into capitalism." (Commoning email list, April 2010)

Discussion 3: the Commons and the State

1. Alain Lipietz:

"A second difficulty with this book is that it implicitly opposes or seeks to isolate the commons from the state and the market. That, unfortunately, is impossible in the complex whole that is any society. As we have just seen it, the common lands of the Middle Ages, managed as commons, were subordinated to an external political power, that of the lord. The same dynamic applies to a Saharan oasis managed as a commons; it, too, is embedded in the political power of a State, which itself may be dominated by a caste of warriors or merchant-caravans, etc.

More importantly, the regulation of a commons is often delegated to a “local state” such as a shaman, a cacique, a council of elders, a municipality, etc. The political powers governing the commons can be themselves extremely hierarchical. For example, the most basic and oldest community, the family, has probably always been organized by patriarchal social relations: the pater familias holds power over women and children, the older women hold power over young stepdaughters, etc..

The inclusion of a commons in a larger society, under the authority of a political power of a larger scope, raises the obvious question, What belongs to the common good? In this book, the Amazon is implicitly considered a commons that belongs, in part, to indigenous peoples, who use its resources and biodiversity, and secondly, to all mankind, which uses the Amazon as a planetary commons that stabilizes the climate and provides a global pool of freshwater. And what of Brazil’s claims to the Amazon?

When, on the eve of the “Earth Summit” in Rio (1992), I gave some lectures in Porto Alegre, I saw graffiti on the walls that read, “Amazona e nossa. Yankee for a !” (“The Amazon is ours, Yankee go home!”). The slogan was aimed at Hollywood stars who came to support indigenous peoples and saw the Amazon as a common good of humanity. I was indeed shocked that people of Rio Grande do Sul, mostly settled by Italian and German immigrants, claimed ownership over the Amazon, thousands of miles north! However, I do not agree with the settlers of the place called “Half Moon,” in the Amazonian foothills of Bolivia, claim to own the rich hydrocarbon resources of the subsoil, and do not want to share revenues from it with the rest of Bolivia — even though these same settlers had exploited the ores of the Sierras — another common asset — only fifty years earlier.

At most one could say that the basement of the Half Moon belongs to the Guarani under Convention 169, but neither it, nor Articles 15 and 8-d of the Convention on Biodiversity, authorize exclusive access and use to them. The state is the gatekeeper and custodian, and is obliged to obtain the prior informed consent of the local community, if granted access, while sharing the profits with this community. Today this is called a “regime of ABS” (Access & Benefit Sharing). From the moment the state apparatus is created as a mechanism for redistribution, it is expected that revenues from the operation of a locally shared resource will be redistributed nationally. Similarly, moreover, it is normal that the state and the international community should take responsibility for part of the burden for maintaining a local commons of global interest." (

2. The Commons and the Public

"Its hard to say what "commons" exactly is, its rather that we are aware of some elementary facts totally obscured by neoliberal propaganda. Just a few scattered thoughts on this.

1. "Structure" versus "Process": we have this parallel memes of "commons" versus "solidarity economics" and I tend to think that "Commons" is more a term that allows us to describe structures and "Solidarity Economics" describes processes and methodologies. Hard to decide, indeed, because "Commons" is linked to "Commoning", which is clearly a process.

2. What we can say clearly is that the "public" is rather a negative than a positive interest. The constitution of a general good in a society of competitors is abstract, empty, forceful, secondary, tends to be a separate matter driven by a buerocratic class and so on. And it is margely depending on the surplus imposed on a working monetary economic base, which made for the self - destruction of the public in an era where the inner contradiction of the wealth-by-comparison (value-) system has fully evolved and the capital economy is in a final, fatal crisis and just is maintained by its own costly simulation. The aim to revamp the Friendly Leviathan is simply part of that costly simulation.

3. We know that commons in contrary are based on direct communication, voluntary chosen responsibility and accountable interests around which a moral framework is built which ensures and encourages participation. Maybe an important element of the commons is the self-assignment of actors plus vigorous struggle for a supporters base, which explains why there is an inner relation between entrepreneurialism and commons. Legitimacy is built on active participation rather than on external choice mechanisms.

4. We are seing a shift towards refuge of the public to the commons, from the "year of voluntary engagement" to the "big society" in England. But all this is not going to work without a way to effectively transfer resources to the third sector and allow it to produce resources itself in cooperative cycles.

5. We need a global educational commons maintained by local communities. Only local communities have the means to effectively organize material resource bases, and there is a positive feedback cycle between a global educational commons and the ability of local communities to maintain and strengthen this material base.

6. So the answer to the problem, if we put all of this together, is to look for actors in global networking that are willing and able to create a covenant with local communities to help build that global educational commons.

7. We just opened up the discussion in a new mailinglist devoted to educational commons. One of the most interesting question that emerges is: are there even corporate actors whose business logic is clearly built around working with local communities? One possible answer that I did not throw into the debate yet is that the Google business model which revolves around exploiting spatial relations might be a more interesting backbone to enter in strategic relationships than other corporate models which are more shortsighted.

8. The obvious "easyness" of the yahoo move to shut down a tool on which the intellectual work of thousands depends is scandalous and shameful. The answer is not necessaily in "we need to build our own ....." - but in a more in-depth analyses of corporate strategies that lead to the maintainance or not maintainance of infrastructures that have already become true commons." (via email Franz Nahrada)

Discussion 4: Other Topics

The Parody of the Commons

Essay: The Parody of the Commons. By Vasilis Kostakis, Stelios Stavroulakis. Triple C, Vol 11, No 2 (2013)

URL = pdf


"This essay builds on the idea that Commons-based peer production is a social advancement within capitalism but with various post-capitalistic aspects, in need of protection, enforcement, stimulation and connection with progressive social movements. We use theory and examples to claim that peer-to-peer economic relations can be undermined in the long run, distorted by the extra-economic means of a political context designed to maintain profit-driven relations of production into power. This subversion can arguably become a state policy, and the subsequent outcome is the full absorption of the Commons as well as of the underpinning peer-to-peer relations into the dominant mode of production. To tackle this threat, we argue in favour of a certain working agenda for Commons-based communities. Such an agenda should aim the enforcement of the circulation of the Commons. Therefore, any useful social transformation will be meaningful if the people themselves decide and apply policies for their own benefit, optimally with the support of a sovereign partner state. If peer production is to become dominant, it has to control capital accumulation with the aim to marginalise and eventually transcend capitalism."

See Parody of the Commons

Technology and the Commons

Paul B. Hartzog, in On the Commons, stresses the role of technology in changing the potential definition of what is a commons or not:

"Two key concepts in commons theory are subtractability (or rivalrousness) and excludability:

  • Subtractability refers to the degree to which one person's use of a resource diminishes others' use. For example, my learning of algrebra does not diminish the amount of algebra remaining for others.
  • Excludability refers to whether or not a user can be efficiently excluded from using a resource. For example, it is typically understood that we cannot be efficiently excluded from breathing the atmosphere.

Source: Adapted from Ostrom, Vincent and Ostrom, Elinor. 1977. "Public goods and public choices"






Public goods
Useful knowledge

Common-pool resources
Irrigation systems


Toil or club goods
Journal subscriptions
Day-case centers

Private goods
Personal computers

Historically, when resources are non-excludable they are classified as commons (or public goods), and more specifically when commons are subtractable they are classified as "common pool resources," or CPRs.

So, here are some concrete examples of how technology changes the possibilities for resource classification:

Technology allows subtractable to become non-subtractable: Because, originally, users had to share the frequency spectrum as a CPR, it was partitioned and licensed to each broadcaster. New technology which enables a more flexible use of the frequency spectrum, makes possible a broader range of sharing of the resource (i.e. open spectrum).

Technology allows non-subtractable to become subtractable: Intellectual property is a frequent example here. A new invention, which might be shared via or Make magazine, can, with the emergence of broader patent rights, be made into a finite resource.

Technology allows non-excludable to become excludable: Cattle were once allowed to roam freely on the plains of the western United States, largely because fences were too expensive to build. When the invention of barbed-wire fencing reduced costs, the American frontier was transformed into a patchwork of enclosed private resources. As this process is mirrored in information technologies today (e.g. DRM), it is often referred to as the "second enclosure movement" (e.g. Boyle).

Technology allows excludable to become non-excludable: The Internet is, of course, a powerful force in the reversing of traditional economic excludability (the spread of open-source software is another)." (

Commoning is a relationship

Alain Lipietz:

"First, the commons are not things, but social relations. Or more accurately, the things to which the commons relate — whether material or immaterial, grazing areas or knowledge domains — are only very rarely res nullius, that is, goods that belong to nobody and therefore goods that are likely to be over-exploited and destroyed. Those commons that we know about, and which actually are not destroyed, have always been regulated – access and usage — by social relations: forms of property, forms of authority, customary rules. The article by the ecologist Garrett Hardin published in Science in 1968, which made the commons famous, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” is largely beside the point. What it describes — overgrazing of communal pastures — could happen, but certainly not because of a lack of usage rules. This does not preclude the possibility that some common resources could be exhausted because they are not regulated — like fisheries or the atmosphere’s ability to recycle greenhouse gas emissions. But in general, society’s awareness of this over-use bring about some form of regulation.

Second, these modes of regulation of commons are extremely diverse, primarily because they apply to very different resources (from most material goods to the most intangible) and because each resource can be managed in different ways. The commons are a realm of great diversity. Case studies and many chapters in “Genos, bytes y emisione” illustrate this diversity. Let us add that the authors, whose sympathy for the commons is obvious, do not hide that this mode of management of a resource is not under any circumstance, the best or most efficient, including compared to private property. Or at least they admit that commons-based regulation of a resource may require serious improvements." (

The Commons are not opposed to private property

J.M. Pedersen:

"Free Software is based on Copyleft, which is based on copyright - or is a set of sub-clauses added to copyright - which is a form of (private) property.

The FSF, of course, calls it "policy", which is, at best, an idiosyncratic position that refuted here in this essay excerpt:

The rights and privileges afforded in law by the concept of private property is a very good tool for building commons, as the GPL is a very good example of.

In other words, (private) property is a great tool for commoning and when property has been configured by practices of commoning it transcends the futile property-antiproperty debates of the last 150 years and reveals property as the meaningful and useful tool for organisation that it is - one to organise relations between people with regard to things. Commoning revolves around property, which is not a "thing", but a way to organise relations.

Commons need (at least something like) private property to be able to exclude those who do not play by the rules - hence the GPL defaults to copyright, i.e. ther GPL is rendered invalid and copyright comes into play as a means of exclusion, if you do not play by the rules of the GPL.

In a lot more detail here:

and here:

Stefan Meretz also argues: commons is _not_ opposed to private property:

More Information

The Wikipedia article is at

  1. Dialogue between David Bollier and Michel Bauwens, on the relationship between the commons, the market, and peer production, at
  2. Cooperation Commons resources
  3. Commons – Governance
  4. Environmental Commons

Journal articles

Read the articles in the International Journal of the Commons

  1. Frank van Laerhoven and Elinor Ostrom: Traditions and Trends in the Study of the Commons
  2. Parody of the Commons

Related Conference

17th General Meeting of the Common(s) Core of European Private Law 2011, [7]: In the wake of urgent global challenges to both the European Union and the global system, here we are particularly interested in opening the Common Core Project as a platform for exploring the extent to which the comparative law model offers space for understanding and advancing the ‘Commons’.

Key Books to Read


See also:

Further Bibliography

Bibliography on the Commons at

The following bibliography has been provided by David Bollier.

A magisterial history of the concept of property in American law, and therefore a useful investigation into the basic assumptions embedded in property law discourse.
Combine a businessman (founder of Working Assets) and an astute commons advocate, and you get this insightful critique of the core limitations of the market economy, especially as they affect the environment and other commons.
This is a landmark book of economic and legal theory that explains why "commons-based peer production" on the Internet can often out-perform the market in terms of of creativity, efficiency, social satisfaction and political freedom.
An introduction to the commons and a wide-ranging survey of realms of life (mostly in the U.S.) that are under siege by market enclosure.
A valuable introduction to the commons paradigm and global environmental commons such as the atmosphere, oceans, Antarctica and outer space.
One of the first commons-based critiques of contemporary environmental problems and the systemic role of the market in causing them.
An exploration of how creativity may flourish in a market-oriented society, with special attention the moral and social dynamics of the gift economy.
A thoughtful and timely survey of how intellectual property law, technology and other tools are interfering with creative expression and free speech.
Ostrom has pioneered the serious study of the commons as political and social phenomena; this was her first major book on the topic. Mandatory reading.
A short but sparkling history of the Commons - Peoples Space - in Britain. Followed by an essay on how the symbolic meanings of commons and their repression infuse our cultural sense of space and architecture.
This eminent historian excavates the moral economy, customs and culture in England that were supplanted by the market economy in the 18th Century.