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Special Projects
The Information Commons

Nancy Kranich
Senior Research Fellow
Free Expression Policy Project

THE EMERGING INFORMATION COMMONS

Americans already jointly own, share, and administer a wide range of common assets including natural resources, public lands, parks, schools, libraries, culture, and scientific knowledge. These are resources, institutions, and traditions that bring us together and define us as Americans. While these essential resources advance civil society and invigorate democracy, taxpayers often struggle to justify investments in their future, especially when the marketplace dominates political priorities. But neglecting these commonly held assets impoverishes the environment, creativity, scientific inquiry, innovation, and democracy.

Scholars who study new forms of citizen participation recognize that sharing information bolsters civic engagement. Beginning in the 1980s, political scientists such as Harry Boyte1 and Benjamin Barber2 elaborated on the importance of schooling citizens for democracy by informing them about issues and by utilizing a commons to listen, negotiate, exchange, act, and, in so doing, hold officials accountable. These civil society theorists were joined by other scholars starting in the last decade of the 20th century, who have documented and debated the state of civil society, both in the United States and abroad. Most notable is Robert Putnam, whose best-selling book, Bowling Alone,3 popularized the importance of reviving community by rebuilding social capital and increasing civic engagement.

With the rise of the Internet, commentators on civil society have identified the electronic information commons as an essential underpinning to equitable participation in a cyberdemocracy.4 One leading intellect focusing on the commons in cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig, begins with a definition of the commons that taps into a well-known historic construct: a resource held "in common … in joint use or possession; to be held or enjoyed equally by a number of persons."5 In his book, The Future of Ideas,6 Lessig adds that in most cases, "the commons is a resource to which anyone within the relevant community has a right without permission from others. In some cases, permission is needed but is granted in a neutral way."7 Commons include "non-rivalrous" resources that cannot be exhausted. Communities work out how to regulate them. Some examples are public streets, parks, and beaches. An extensive literature about commons and common pool resources provides guidance on how commons are best governed and managed.8

Lessig and others use a newly expanded notion of the commons to describe shared information resources - for example, Einstein's theory of relativity, the Internet, writings in the public domain, government information, open source software, and the broadcasting spectrum. What determines whether an information resource is also a commons is its character and how it relates to a community. To avoid overconsumption and to provide adequate incentives to produce a free and open resource, communities work out a technical architecture, rules, and governance structures that regulate use. Holding these resources in common produces innovation, creativity, education, and the advancement of scholarship.

Since 2000, civic-minded organizations have convened conferences and launched projects to design information commons for the digital age. One, in particular, Harry Boyte's Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota, hosted a New Information Commons Conference where participants sketched out a plan for building new spaces by citizens in partnership with community organizations.9 Shortly afterwards, the New America Foundation launched its Public Assets Program (http://www.newamerica.net/programs/pub_ass/pub_ass.htm), which includes an Information Commons Project directed by David Bollier,10 a prolific writer who focuses on intellectual property issues. Bollier has also co-founded Public Knowledge (http://publicknowledge.org), a nonprofit that represents the public interest in intellectual property law and debates over Internet policies. In the fall of 2001, the American Library Association sponsored a conference on the Information Commons (http://info-commons.org), with commissioned papers on information equity, copyright and fair use, and public access. This was followed by a similar meeting at Duke University Law School's Center for the Public Domain (http://www.law.duke.edu/pd/schedule.html), with papers on copyright and the information commons.

Thus, in just two years, the information commons has assumed a new dimension in the 21st century. This new wave of interest has resulted in exciting efforts to revive the concept of the commons in order to reframe the debate around issues central to the future of information access and democracy.

NEXT: FROM CONCEPT TO REALITY

NOTES

1. Harry Boyte and Sarah Evans. Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1986; Harry Boyte, Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics. New York: The Free Press, 1989; and Harry Boyte and Nancy Kari. Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

2. Benjamin Barber. Strong Democracy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984; and Benjamin Barber. A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Strong. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

3. Robert Putnam. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy 6 #1 (January 1995): 65-78; and Robert Putnam. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

4. Lawrence Grossman. The Electronic Republic: The Transformation of American Democracy. New York: Viking, 1995; Roza Tsagarousianou, Damian Tambini, and Cathy Bryan, eds. Cyberdemocracy: Technology, Cities and Civic Networks. New York: Routledge, 1998; and Anthony Wilhelm, Democracy in the Digital Age: Challenges to Political Life in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 2000.

5. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., vol. 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 87.

6. Lawrence Lessig. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001.

7. Lessig (2001), p. 19-20.

8. Inge Kaul, Isabelle Grunberg, and Marc A. Stern. Global Public Goods: International Cooperation in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press for the United Nations Development Program, 1999; National Research Council. The Drama of the Commons, Edited by Elinor Ostrom, et.al. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002, http://books.nap.edu/books/0309082501/html/1.html; Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990; Elinor Ostrom, "Private and Common Property Rights." In the Encyclopedia of Law and Economics. Edited by Boudewijn Bouckaert and Gerrit De Geest. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2000, http://allserv.rug.ac.be/~gdegeest/2000book.pdf; Ronald J. Oakerson, "Analyzing the Commons: A Framework." Presented at "Designing Sustainability on the Commons," the first annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, Durham, NC, September 27-30, 1990. (Workshop Working Paper, no. W90-9),
http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/documents/dir0/00/00/09/73/index.html; Joan A. Baden and Doglas S. Noonan, eds., Managing the Commons, 2nd ed. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998; Susan J. Buck, Managing the Global Commons: An Introduction. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1998; and Daniel W. Bromley, Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice and Policy. San Franciso: ICS Press, 1992.

9. Lewis Friedland and Harry Boyte. "The New Information Commons: Community Information Partnerships and Civic Change," by University of Minnesota Hubert Humphrey Institute, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, January 2000), http://www.publicwork.org/pdf/workingpapers/New%20information%20commons.pdf

10. David Bollier, Public Assets, Private Profits: Reclaiming the American Commons in an Age of Market Enclosure. Washington, DC: New America Foundation, 2001, http://www.newamerica.net/Download_Docs/pdfs/Pub_File_650_1.pdf; with Tim Watts. Saving the Information Commons: A New Public Interest Agenda in Digital Media. Washington, DC: New American Foundation and Public Knowledge, 2002, http://www.newamerica.net/Download_Docs/pdfs/Pub_File_866_1.pdf; and Why the Public Domain Matters: The Endangered Wellspring of Creativity, Commerce, and Democracy. Washington, DC: New American Foundation and Public Knowledge, 2002. See also David Bollier, "The Enclosure of the Academic Commons: Academic Research and Innovation Depend on Cooperation, Collaboration, and Sharing. What Happens to Academic Knowledge When Ideas Become Intellectual Property?" Academe 88, no. 5 (September-October 2002), http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/02so/02sobol.htm; "Ruled by the Market: Reclaiming the Commons." Boston Review 27, Nos. 3-4 (Summer 2002), http://bostonreview.mit.edu/ndf.html#Market; and Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge, 2002.


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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