African Digital Commons

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Report: The African Digital Commons. A Participant's Guide: 2005. Chris Armstrong & Heather Ford IDRC/CDRI Link Centre, 2006

The Commons-sense Project is at

Available as Open Content from:


Review by Frederick Noronha of

"'The African Digital Commons: A Participant's Guide 2005' is co-authored by Heather and Chris Armstrong. This 78-page book comes from the Link Centre at Johannesburg's Wits University, and is the "collaborative output" of Commons-sense Project that's online at

Heather explains it thus, in a brief but succinct foreword: "One of the goals of the Commons-sense Project is to conduct research that helps equip African activists and decision-makers with the information they need to develop cutting-edge, relevant intellectual property policies and practices."

So, they "decided to begin with a map -- a map that hopefully presents a broad picture of how far we've already come in Africa towards the goal of achieving a 'digital information commons', as well as providing some sense of how to grow it further."

And, like most road-maps, there's much much more on the ground than you first thought, when you look at it closely.

This slim book has four different sections, plus references and biographies. It's the third and fourth -- that cover a little under half of the book -- that are the most interesting. Section 3 deals with 'African players, processes, issues' while the fourth focuses on a 'Directory of African Projects'.

You almost run into an alphabet soup. OAPI, ARIPO, UNECA, NEPAD, TK, FTA, TRIPS Plus, ccSA, FOSS, IPR, DRM, and more. But behind these abbreviations are a whole lot of the "good guys" and the "bad guys". Some who want to share knowledge, and others who want to use it as a tool to gain every dollar, rand and shilling of profit out of it.

In the three-page introduction, one gets a good grip of the issue. Even if this is a rather complex subject, with a whole lot of potential to get TRIPped over.

It says, "As the writings of Lawrence Lessig and others cogently argue, the digital revolution is a decidedly double-edged phenomenon when it comes to openness and creativity."

Why so? The internet allows passive 'users' to become participants and publishers. But, there are also significant moves "by the handful of traditional 'publishers' to set up barriers that threaten the potential of the digital realm to level the playing field and create a truly universal medium for creative _expression and technological transfer".

One can pass over the first two sections speedily; these deal with global issues, obviously meant to be an introduction to the African reader. But one does get a set of useful links and introductions -- to groups like the WIPO, the Broadcasting Treaty, the Access to Knowledge (A2K) Treaty, UN agencies, UK's Commission on Intellectual Property Rights ("a pioneering attempt by a developed country to view intellectual property through a developmental lens", librarians, consumer groups, and lawyers.

There's even a one-third page introduction to blogs and wikis, seen from the context of the digital commons.

   Quote: "Many of the people connected to the activist
   groupings covered in this Guide -- librarians,
   consumer groups, FOSS proponents and lawyers -- are
   also 'bloggers' -- keepers of weblogs. These online
   blogs, which mix the values of journal-keeping,
   journalism, gossip, investigation and a love of
   interaction and communication, are a valuable and
   entertaining source of information on, among other
   things, the information commons. Many blogs are acts
   of both form and content; they celebrate the digital
   information commons, while at the same time building
   it and using it..."

Likewise, issues of open access, open content and the Creative Commons (cc) are also discussed.

This book's worth comes across through the many URLs and weblinks it offers. There are also contact names and email addresses, all of which could be of interest to those who believe, even if slightly, that knowledge is not just a 'product' to be profited on. But a powerful tool to be shared for the benefit of humankind.

Take the directory of African projects. It points to research and advocacy groups that range from university-based computer science networks, to policy monitors, access-to-learning-material networks (, Francophone institutions (, the African Virtual Library and Information Network of Addis Ababa, ICT policy research or campaign organisations (,, the Commonwealth of Learning, Highway Africa News Agency, other networks (OneWorld Africa of Lusaka, Pambazuka, SAIDE or the South African Institute for Distance Education) and more.

SANGONeT in Johannesburg is the Southern African Non-Governmental Organisation Network. Women'sNet is also based in Johannesburg. And there are others.

This is a useful book, with a lot of links."