Information Commons

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Definition

Discussing the Definition

Anthony McCann:


"There are perhaps three primary ways in which the notion of the “information commons” has been taking shape since Felsenstein’s seminal 1993 article promoting the notion of a “Commons of Information”. The first two have been developing in direct response to the demands and discourses of public library practice, first in the United States, and now internationally. Allmang et al. (2005) note in the context of library practice, for example, that a generally accepted meaning of “information commons” has been “a specific location designated to deliver electronic resources for research and production that is maintained by technically proficient staff” (Cowgill et al., 2001).

They also note that a second meaning of the term is emerging, speaking more to the notion of open access space with shared information rather than technological enhancement. They quote Nancy Kranich of the American Library Association (ALA), who sees the information commons as a “new dynamic approach to serving the public interest in the digital age” (Kranich 2004). Within the specific contexts of library practice, Allman et al. suggest that a comprehensive information commons is constituted by the combination of “a place that offers shared technology/work/study spaces and a place that supports the distribution of as much full text of published scholarly information as possible” (2005). This is clearly a powerful notion, as a quick google search of the term will confirm that libraries in universities across the world are being renamed “information commons”.

There is a third, not entirely distinct, way in which the notion of “information commons” is being deployed. It’s this one that concerns me most in this paper. The term has become a banner of action for a concerted lobby group of public policy activists and legal scholars from all over the United States, centred primarily in and around the civic communities of Washington D.C. Even more specifically, some of the most intense lobbying for the concept of the “information commons” can be located around a series of interconnected websites, in particular http://www.info-commons.org, and http://onthecommons.org. The first is the website of the Information Commons Project of the ALA, run by Frederick Emrich, a librarian and policy activist.

This website also serves as something of a nexus for all three notions of “the (information) commons”. The second is a private website run by David Bollier, who was a founding member of the non-profit organisation Public Knowledge, and author of the influential book Silent Theft (2002), a veritable bible for the new “commons” movements in the United States. David Bollier might easily be taken as the flag-bearer of the cause, and it is his work that will provide much of the focus of this article. The websites run by Emrich and Bollier have provided a focus for thinkers such as Howard Besser, Yochai Benkler, Jonathan Tasini, and Jorge Reina Schement. Other people that might be included as working in the spirit of the “information commons” lobby, sometimes referred to optimistically as a “movement”, are legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, author of The Future of Ideas (2001), communications scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library (2004), and legal scholar James Boyle, author of Shamans, Software and Spleens (1997), among a number of others. I would argue that these people have become key drivers of meaning in discourses of “information commons”." (http://www.beyondthecommons.com/enclosurewithin.pdf)


Typology

"Two commons exist, which differ from the traditional definition insofar as they are not a finite resource: the contents (i.e. the global commons of information and know-how available on the web) and the access (i.e. the information and communication technologies (ICTs) ensuring the availability of information regardless of time and location)." (http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=101)


Citation

The information commons is an idea whose time has come. In part this is a result of pressures that face the commons. Issues related to intellectual property law in particular are leading to what many are now calling the enclosure of the information commons - a process that separates people from ideas. This process is analogous to the fencing off of the English commons, an act that separated people from the material resources they needed for their survival

- Info-commons.org, 2002

Specific Commons

The construction of the Information Commons takes many forms, the most important being the automatic process of knowledge exchange and cooperative production on the internet/web itself. But there are many specialized inititiaves to construct specialized areas, such as initiatives around access to scientific journals, the creation of specialized Intellectual Property licenses to promote it, such as the General Public License and the Creative Commons License, and a massive effort to put the world's literary and scientific book production online.


The Book Commons, overview

The following excerpt is from an article putting the Google project in context. Google aims to digitize the massive collections of the main American academic and public libraries.

“Placing full text book material is not a new idea on the web. Many services, both free and fee-based, allow you to access books online. The longest running such service is Project Gutenberg, founded by Michael Hart in 1971, with over 13,000 books available. I wrote about The Online Books Page forSearchDay last year. This wonderful collection has been online for more than 10 years, and currently provides searchable access to over 20,000 free full text books. The OBP is edited by John Mark Ockerbloom, a digital library planner at the University of Pennsylvania. The Internet Archive is also digitizing books. The goal of the Million Book Project is to "create a free-to-read, searchable digital library the approximate size of the combined libraries at Carnegie Mellon University, and one much bigger than the holdings of any high school library." One publisher that offers a large portion of their new and old material available online, free, searchable, and full image is The National Academy Press. The currently offer access to more than 3000 publications. Two fee-based services include NetLibrary offers access to about 76,000 books with about 1300 new titles added each month. You can access NetLibray books through your local public or university library, often at no charge. ebrary provides access to more than 50,000 titles (books, maps, sheet music, etc). Like NetLibrary, ebrary licenses their service to libraries and educational organizations and users can login and access via any computer with web access, in most cases for free."

More information at: The Online Books page, http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/ ; Netlibrary, http://legacy.netlibrary.com/about_us/company_info/index.asp; Million Book Project, http://www.archive.org/texts/collection.php?collection=millionbooks&PHPSESSID=45464c8f5c3a66d010a78ff7efe0c5c8; Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/; Open Source Books, http://www.archive.org/texts/collection.php?collection=opensource


Political Commons projects

The Participatory Politics Foundation, building software tools for a ‘continuing engagement with government’, at http://participatorypolitics.org/ ; Open source government projects centered around access to public information, are discussed at http://www.wired.com/news/privacy/0,1848,65800,00.html?


Open Access

See our entry on Open Access


Open Biology

See our entry on Open Biology


The Patent Commons

A number of large companies are started to put their patents in a 'patent commons', as recently advocated by IBM:

“The IBM (IBM) move is meant to encourage other patent holders to donate their own intellectual property in order to form what the company refers to as a "patent commons," a modern twist on shared public lands set aside under traditional laws." (http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,66237,00.html?)


The Educational Commons

The MIT OpenCourseWare Inititiative, http://web.mit.edu/ocw/ , http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Global/all-courses.htm

The Curriculum Archive, http://www.buildingrainbows.com/CA/ca.home.php


Discussion

INSTITUTIONAL FORMAT OF INFORMATION COMMONS: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN

Definition and problematic of the public domain: “The public domain is a space where intellectual property protection does not apply. When copyrights and patents expire, innovations and creative works fall into the public domain. They may then be used by anyone without permission and without the payment of a licensing fee. Publicly owned national parks are also considered by many to be public domain lands. Because of the extensions of the terms of both copyrights and patents, and the privatization of lands and other resources owned by the Federal Government, little is now entering the public domain. Since the public domain is a treasure trove of information and resources to be used by future generations, many advocates are concerned that its stagnation will make it more difficult for future generations to find creative inspiration." (http://www.centerpd.org/public_domain.htm )


Public Domain advocacy organizations

The Center for the Public Domain (U.S.), is at http://www.centerpd.org/

Public Knowledge (U.S.), is at http://www.publicknowledge.org/

The Union for the Public Domain (international), is at http://www.public-domain.org/


THE POLITICS OF THE INFORMATION COMMONS

- Bifo, an Italian radical writer, on the private appropriation of collective knowledge:

“The attempt at coercive privatization of collective knowledge has encountered resistance everywhere. Since intellectual labour is at the center of the productive scene, the merchant no longer possesses the juridical or material means to impose the principle of private property. When immaterial goods can be reproduced at will, the private appropriation of goods make no sense. In the sphere of semiotic capital and cognitive labour, when a product is consumed instead of disappearing, it remains available, while its value increases the more its use is shared" (Bifo, in Neuro, e-newsletter)


THE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PHYSICAL 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." (http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200507/commongood.asp)

Advocacy Groups

The Information Commons Movement

Anthony McCann:


"The term has become a banner of action for a concerted lobby group of public policy activists and legal scholars from all over the United States, centred primarily in and around the civic communities of Washington D.C. Even more specifically, some of the most intense lobbying for the concept of the “information commons” can be located around a series of interconnected websites, in particular http://www.info-commons.org, and http://onthecommons.org. The first is the website of the Information Commons Project of the ALA, run by Frederick Emrich, a librarian and policy activist.

This website also serves as something of a nexus for all three notions of “the (information) commons”. The second is a private website run by David Bollier, who was a founding member of the non-profit organisation Public Knowledge, and author of the influential book Silent Theft (2002), a veritable bible for the new “commons” movements in the United States. David Bollier might easily be taken as the flag-bearer of the cause, and it is his work that will provide much of the focus of this article. The websites run by Emrich and Bollier have provided a focus for thinkers such as Howard Besser, Yochai Benkler, Jonathan Tasini, and Jorge Reina Schement. Other people that might be included as working in the spirit of the “information commons” lobby, sometimes referred to optimistically as a “movement”, are legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, author of The Future of Ideas (2001), communications scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library (2004), and legal scholar James Boyle, author of Shamans, Software and Spleens (1997), among a number of others. I would argue that these people have become key drivers of meaning in discourses of “information commons”." (http://www.beyondthecommons.com/enclosurewithin.pdf)


Associated Movements

The Free Culture movement at http://www.freeculture.org

The Participatory Culture Foundation, formerly Downhill Battle, at http://participatoryculture.org/

The anti-DMCA group fights the free speech restrictions inherent in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, at http://www.anti-dmca.org/

The Center for Digital Democracy, at http://www.democraticmedia.org/ is a nonprofit organization working to ensure that the digital media systems serve the public interest.

The French group Vecam, at http://www.vecam.org/

MORE INFORMATION

See also:

  1. You can keep track of IP-related struggles and opinions through these columns in the Financial Times, at http://news.ft.com/comment/columnists/neweconomy
  2. Information Commons-related developments are also monitored through this blog, at http://www.info-commons.org/blog/
  3. The Information Commons, a Public Policy Report, at http://www.fepproject.org/policyreports/InformationCommons.pdf
  4. The name is also used for a network infrastructure from Rhiza Labs, see http://www.rhizalabs.com/about/infocommons/magic/
  5. Questions on the information commons, http://ecommons.tuxic.nl/?p=29

Key Books to Read

  1. Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture.
  2. Bollier, David. 2005. Brand Name Bullies : The Quest to Own and Control Culture. Wiley. ISBN
  3. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons. Ed. by Charlotte Hess and E. Ostrom.
  1. Burrell, Robert and Alison Coleman. 2005. Copyright Exceptions : the Digital Impact. Cambridge University Press. 426 p. ISBN
  2. Boldrin, Michele and Levine, David. Against Intellectual Monopoly. 2005

Available online at http://levine.sscnet.ucla.edu/general/intellectual/against.htm

"It is common to argue that intellectual property in the form of copyright and patent is necessary for the innovation and creation of ideas and inventions such as machines, drugs, computer software, books, music, literature and movies. In fact intellectual property is not like ordinary property at all, but constitutes a government grant of a costly and dangerous private monopoly over ideas. We show through theory and example that intellectual monopoly is not neccesary for innovation and as a practical matter is damaging to growth, prosperity and liberty."