Commons - Typology

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Commons vs. Common Pool Resources

Silke Helfrich:

"Let us agree, that we cannot see an "unmanged/ unstructured" common pool resource as a commons ( ... commoning is simple constitutive for a commons but not constitutive for a common pool resource)

There is no such thing as an unmanaged commons. By definition. And open access is a rule and not a given.

A commons is ALWAYS structured by rules and norms - with an important distinction which draws back on the rivalry issue (and relates to the scarcity - abundance controversy).

In the case of being "limited common pool resources" being the core of a given commons: these rules imply boundaries.

In the case of being "unlimited common pool resources" like code, knowledge, light or information being the core of a given commons: the rule is open access.

In other words. When we talk about Open Access in relation to Commons we always talk about a social convention. That is what the Open Access movement is fighting for. It is fighting for Open Access as a management rule.

Since they are convinced, that Open Access with regard to non rivalrous resources is a necessary condition (though not the sufficient condition as Martin and Massimo rightly point out) for a fair share and it is important to guarantee the enhancement of the commons... that is part of the success story of Wikipedia.

So, the term "open-access" IMHO is not misleading when referred to: open access common pool resource and it is not misleading when talking about open access as management rule (a social convention to determine access).

But, yes, the term "open access commons" is misleading.

A commons is a commons - being it based unnatural or cultural resources.

Open access addresses ONLY the question how access to that commons has been regulated by the community or by society." (Commoning mailing list, January 2011, edited)

Stefan Meretz


Stefan Meretz has produced, with his daughter, a very useful and clear taxonomy of common goods, according to five criteria. Pauline Schwarze provided translation support, from the original German to English.

Graphic at

Stefan Meretz:

“The word 'common' is the best starting point for the analysis. The common thing within a commons are the resources, which are used and cared for, are the goods resulting from joint activities, and are the social relationships emerging from acting together. These three aspects are so different for all commons, that no one could describe them in a reasonably complete manner.

I decide to put the concept of 'good' into the center, while describing from the triple definition explained above: as a common good, as a resource and as a social form.

In the adjoining illustration a good is designated by five dimensions. Beside the already mentioned dimensions resource and social form, there are constitution, usage and legal form.

1. Constitution

The constitution describes the type materiality of a good. We can found two types: material and non-material goods.

Material goods have a physical shape, they can be used up or crushed out. Purpose and physical constitution are linked with each other, material goods perform their purpose only by their physical constitution. If the physical constitution gets dismantled the purpose also gets lost.

On the other hand non-material goods are completely decoupled from a specific physical shape. This contains services defined by a coincidence of production and consumption as well as preservable non-material goods. In fact, a service often leads to a material result (haircut, draft text etc.), but the service itself finishes by establishing the product, i.e. it has been consumed. Now the result is falling into a material good category.

Preservable non-material goods need a physical carrier. Having non-digital („analog“) goods the bonding of the good to a specific material constitution of the carrier can yet be tight (e.g. the analog piece of music on the audiotape or disk record), while digital goods are largely independent from the carrier medium (e.g. the digital piece of music on an arbitrary digital medium).

2. Usage

The usage has got two sub-dimensions: excludability and rivalry. They grasp aspects of access and concurrent utilization.

A good can only be used exclusively, if the access to the good is generally prevented and selectively allowed (e.g. if a „bagel“ is bought). It can be used inclusively, thus non-exclusively, if the access is possible for all people (e.g. Wikipedia). The usage of a good is rival or rivalrous, if using the good by one person restricts or prevents use options for other people (e.g. listening to music by earphones). A usage is non-rival, if this does not result in limitations for others (e.g. a physical formula).

The usage scheme is used by classical economists as the authoritative characteristic for goods. But it is far too narrow-minded. It combines two aspects which in fact occur together with usage while the causes are completely different. The exclusion is a result of an explicit activity of excluding people, thus closely linked with the social form. On the other hand, the rivalry is closely linked with the constitution of the good—indeed, an apple can only be eaten once, for the next consumption a new apple is needed.

3. Resources

The production of goods requires resources. Though sometimes nothing is produced, already existing resources are used and maintained. In this case the resource itself is the good, which is considered to be preserved—for instance a lake. We can usually find some mixed case , because no produced good can go without the resource of knowledge which has been created and disposed by others. By resources, we generally understand non humans sources .

In the illustration, natural and produced resources are distinguished. Natural resources are already existing and raw resources which, however, are seldom found in uninfluenced environments. Produced resources are material or non-material created preconditions for further use in the production of goods or resources in the broadest sense.

4. Social form

The social form describes the way of (re-)production and the relations that humans commit to each other when doing so. Three social forms of (re-)production have to be distinguished: commodity, subsistence, and commons.

A good becomes a commodity, if it is produced in a general way for the exchange (selling) on markets. Exchanging has to occur because, in capitalism, production is a private activity and each producer produce separated from the others and all are ruled by competition and profit searching. The measure of exchange is the value, which is the average socially necessary abstract labor being required to produce the commodity in certain historical moment. The medium of exchange is money. The measure of usage is the use value being the „other side“ of the (exchange) value. Thus, a commodity is a social form, it is the indirect exchange-mediated way of how goods obtain general societal validity. Preconditions are scarcity and exclusion from the access of the commodity, because otherwise exchange will not happen.

A good maintains the form of subsistence, if it is not produced in a general way for others, but only for personal use or benefit of personally known others (family, friends etc.). Here, exchange does not occur or only for exceptional cases, but the good is relayed, taken, and given—following any immediately agreed social rule. A transition form to commodity is barter, the direct non-money mediated exchange of goods.

A good becomes a commons, if it is generally produced or maintained for others. The good is not exchanged and the usage is generally bound to fixed socially agreed rules. It is produced or maintained for general others insofar as it neither has be personal-determined others (like with subsistence) nor exclusively abstract others with no further relationship to them (like with commodity), but concrete communities agreeing on rules of usage and maintenance of the commons.

5. Legal form

The legal form shows the possible juridical codes which a good can be subjected to: private property, collective property, and free good. Legal arrangements are necessary under the conditions of societal mediation of partial interests, they form a regulating framework of social interaction. As soon as general interests are part of the way of (re-)production itself, legal forms can step back in favor of concrete socially agreed rules as it is the case within the commons.

Private property is a legal form, which defines the act of disposal of an owner over a thing with exclusive control over the property. The property abstracts from the constitution of the thing as well as from the concrete possession. Private property can be merchandise, can be sold or commercialized.

Collective property is collectively owned private property or private property for collective purposes. Among them, there are common property and public (state) property. All designations of private property are basically valid here. There are various forms of collective property, for instance stock corporation, house owner community, nationally-owned enterprise.

Free goods (also: Res nullius, Terra nullius or no man’s land) are legally or socially unregulated goods under free access. The often cited 'Tragedy of Commons' is a tragedy of no man’s land, which is overly used or destroyed due to missing rules of usage. Such no man’s lands do exist yet today, e.g. in high-sea or deep-sea.”

Yochai Benkler

  • "Commons can be divided into four types based on two parameters.
  • The first parameter is whether they are open to anyone or only to a defined group. The oceans, the air, and highway systems are clear examples of open commons. Various traditional pasture arrangements or irrigation regions are now classic examples, described by Elinor Ostrom, of limited access commons – where access is limited only to members of the village or association that collectively “owns” some defined pasture lands or irrigation system. These are better thought of as common property regimes, rather than commons, because they behave as property vis-à-vis the entire world except members of the group who together holds them in common.
  • The second parameter is whether a commons system is regulated or unregulated. Practically all well studied limited common property regimes are regulated by more or less elaborate rules – some formal, some social-conventional – governing the use of the resources. Open commons, on the other hand, vary widely. Some commons are governed by no rule. These are called open access commons. Anyone can use resources within these types of commons at will and without payment. Air is such a resource with respect to air intake (breathing, feeding a turbine). Air is, however, a regulated commons with regard to out take. For individual human beings, breathing out is mildly regulated by social convention – you do not breath too heavily on another human being’s face unless forced to. Air is a more extensively regulated commons for industrial exhalation – in the shape of pollution controls. The most successful and obvious regulated commons in contemporary landscapes are the sidewalks, streets, roads, and highways that cover our land and form the foundation of our ability to move from one place to the other. The most important resource we govern as an open commons, without which humanity could not be conceived, is all of pre-twentieth century knowledge and culture, most scientific knowledge of the first half of the twentieth century, and much of contemporary science and academic learning."


Summary by Natalie Pang:

"Benkler argued that commons can be divided into four types based on two parameters.

The first parameter identified by Benkler (2003, p 6) ‘is whether they are open to anyone or only to a defined group’.


Commons type 1: If a commons is open to anyone, Benkler calls it an open commons. Examples are the ocean, air, water, and highway systems.

Commons type 2: If a commons is open only to a defined group he calls it a limited access commons. An example is a private golf course. Benkler’s second parameter Benkler (2003, p 7) is ‘whether a commons system is regulated or unregulated’. Thus:

Commons type 3: A commons without rules is an unregulated commons. Example: unexplored outer space.

Commons type 4: A commons ordered by rules is a regulated commons. Examples: Wikipedia or a library."


The Three Commons

1. Vasilis Kostakis on Peter Barnes:

"Peter Barnes, in his book Capitalism 3.0 offers a taxonomy of the field of the Commons, dividing it into 3 categories: the natural Commons (i.e. the air, the water, the lakes, the natural resources etc.), the public Commons (the roads, the universities, the museums, etc.) and the cultural Commons (languages, sciences, the internet, open source and free software, etc.). In contrast with most things in contemporary capitalism, the Commons are neither private nor public: they are characterized by a relational approach, as they include social relations, based on a ethos of collaboration and interdependence, which is distinct from any type of commercialization." (

2. Michel Bauwens:

"Michel gave three clear categories for what the commons has come to encompass:

  1. Inherited Commons – e.g. earth, water, forests – are heavily under attack and becoming scarce commons. It doesn't have to be this way i.e. in Switzerland, Austria, Japan they are well managed under an agricultural commons, and have been protected for hundreds of years by good collective arrangements between the farmers.
  2. Immaterial Commons – e.g. Cultural, intellectual, enabled by the internet, makes it (?commoning) stronger and easier to do than before. Commoning in this sense can be abstract but when we do it around something we care about, whether its free software, open design or wikipedia this really creates a community of shared interest because its something that we all care about.
  3. Material Commons – that we which we co create e.g. common stock, common machinery. Think of zip-car, owned by a company but why not have the community own it. Then there is the Commons Car, claimed to be the first open source car, now one of many such projects."


Validation criteria for judging Commons

Criteria conceived by Howard Rheingold for

The key criteria are as follows:

(The criteria on the left are more commons-like; those on the right are less indicative of commons.)


Resource is recognized as a commons <-------> Resource is not recognized as a commons

Identifiable stakeholders:

Users with a stake in the resource are identifiable <-------> No stakeholders are identified or identifiable


Users are interdependent <-------> Users are independent


The resource is vulnerable to failure (such as depletion, degradation, privatization, etc.) in the future <-------> The resource is unthreatened

Participatory maintenance:

The resource requires participatory management <-------> The resource is self-sustaining


Appropriate rules are necessary to govern the resource <-------> Rules are not needed


The rules are created from within <-------> The rules are created by outsiders or from the top down

Other types of characteristics that may not be definitional but are important to note:

Diversified benefit:

Users extract diverse benefits from the resource <-------> Concentrated benefit defines the resource

(This characteristic is dependent on the resource -- think of surfers' waves as commons, the family refrigerator, irrigation systems.)





Related Concepts


"Commons is the generic term. It embraces all the creations of nature and society that we inherit jointly and freely, and hold in trust for future generations.

Common assets are those parts of the commons that have a value in the market. Radio airwaves are a common asset, as are timber and minerals on public lands. So, increasingly, are air and water.

Common property refers to a class of human-made rights that lies somewhere between private property and state property. Examples include conservation easements held by land trusts, Alaskans’ right to dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, and everyone’s right to waterfront access.

Common wealth refers to the monetary and non-monetary value of the commons in supporting life and well-being. Like stockholders’ equity in a corporation, it may increase or decrease from year to year depending on how well the commons is managed." (

We created a separate entry on the Physical Commons, which embrace the creations of nature and the physical creations of society.

Aspects of the Commons

Explained by David Bollier at

Common Assets. Those parts of the commons that have a value in the market and which are appropriate to buy and sell (see “inalienability". Radio airwaves are a common asset, for example, as are timber and minerals on public lands and, increasingly, air and water. By recognizing certain resources as common assets, it is easier to ask: Are the common assets being responsibly managed on behalf of the general public or a distinct community of interest? Is the capital being depleted?

Copyleft. A license that allows free re-use and modification of creative work so long as the derivative work remains available on the same terms. Copyleft — formally known as the “General Public License," or GPL — was initiated by computer programmer Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. [link] By protecting the creativity and energy of the commons from private appropriation, the GPL has made free software and open source software possible. A related set of licenses for other types of creative works has been devised by the Creative Commons. [link]

Corporation. A self-perpetuating legal entity whose mission is to maximize short-term return to shareholders. In its aggressive pursuit of this mission, the corporation not only produces new innovations and efficiencies, it also displaces costs onto the environment, our communities and our personal lives (see “market externalities").

Gift Economy. A community of shared purpose, such as an academic discipline, whose members give time and creativity to a defined community and reap benefits in return. In gift communities, money is an unacceptable “currency" because relationships are rooted in personal, particular and historical experiences of each individual, and cannot be converted into cash or any other fungible unit.

Enclosure. The conversion of a commons into private property. Enclosure entails not just the privatization of a resource, but the introduction of money and market exchange as the prevailing principles for managing that resource. Enclosure shifts ownership and control from the community at large to private companies. This in turn changes the management and character of the resource because the market has very different standards of accountability and transparency than a commons. (Contrast a public library with a book store, or Main Street with a private shopping mall.) Because of its compulsion to extract maximum short-term rents and externalize costs, market enclosure often results in the “tragedy of the market."

Externality, or illth. A social or ecological cost that is not paid by its creators. As the scope of market activity expands beyond a certain point, engulfing more of nature and daily life, it yields less and less happiness and well-being even as it generates more and more unintended problems. By the premises of market logic, the expanding output must be regarded as “progress" and “wealth." In fact, the accelerating pace of the market machine is producing more “illth" — the opposite of wealth. Author Peter Barnes (Who Owns the Sky) has popularized this term, coined by John Ruskin in the 19th century, to describe the unintended but increasing destruction of nature, social disruptions, health problems and other (unacknowledged or disguised) costs of market activity.

Inalienability. The principle that a given resource shall not be freely bought and sold in the marketplace, but shall remain intact, in its natural context. Inalienability derives from a social consensus that certain things and behaviors are so precious and basic to human identity that they are degraded by allowing their purchase. “Goods" that have traditionally been regarded as inalienable include votes, babies, bodily organs, sex, genes, living species and most aspects of nature, but market forces are increasingly challenging long-standing norms of inalienability.

Public Goods. Resources that, because of their “public" nature, are difficult or costly to exclude anyone from using. Examples include lighthouses, city parks, broadcast programming and the global atmosphere. In the lingo of economists, these are “nonrival" and “nonexcludable" resources. Government often steps in to pay for public goods because it is difficult to get individual beneficiaries to pay for them. But in the networked environment of the Internet, it is increasingly feasible for self-organizing groups to create and pay for public goods. Open source software is a prime example.

Public Trust Doctrine. A legal doctrine that says that the state holds certain resources in trust for its citizens which cannot be given away or sold. Public trust doctrine has its origins in Roman law, which recognized that certain resources such as fisheries, air, running water and wild animals belong to all. Under the doctrine of res communes, the king could not grant exclusive rights of access to a common resource. The point is that there is a clear distinction between common property (which belongs to the people) and state property (which can be controlled and mismanaged by government).

Trust. A legal institution for protecting the commons and managing any assets that may arise from them. If the corporation is the preeminent institution of the market, the trust is the premier institution of the commons. The managers of a trust, the trustees, have clear legal responsibilities to manage its resources on behalf of the beneficiaries. This includes strict fiduciary responsibilities, transparency and accountability.

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