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The Information Commons
A Public Policy Report

By Nancy Kranich
Senior Research Fellow, 2003-04
Free Expression Policy Project

© 2004. Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
It may be reproduced in its entirety as long as the Free Expression Policy Project is credited, a link to the Project's Web site is provided, and no charge is imposed. The report may not be reproduced in part or in altered form, or if a fee is charged, without our permission. Please let us know if you reprint.

Contents and Executive Summary
I. Opportunities and Challenges of the Information Age
II. The Emerging Information Commons

III. The Future of the Information Commons

Policy Recommendations and Strategies

III. The Future of the Information Commons

Organizations large and small are developing new paradigms for creating and disseminating their information assets. These efforts incorporate many of the characteristics of commons. Yet they may not satisfy everyone's expectations for a more democratic information society. Instead, many of these commons are likely to raise the same tensions that have surfaced in other democratic organizations.

For example, commons that offer characteristics like free and open access for small, trusting homogeneous communities committed to reciprocity may end up discouraging diversity. Likewise, more diverse, creative, and freedom-loving commons, like the open-access spaces on the Internet, may engender low levels of trust and the proliferation of free-riders who pollute the common pool with spam and viruses. Furthermore, some commons may generate policies or sanctions that undermine rather than enhance individual liberties. Hence, it is unlikely, as Peter Levine has suggested, that any information commons will meet all of the desirable criteria at once.155

Developing, sustaining, and governing information commons will require significant investment in infrastructure and content to pay for start-up and ongoing costs. While the public may gain more free or low-cost access, someone must pay to sustain new information commons. Many of the commons cited in this report are supported by foundations and other grantmaking agencies. At some point, these projects will need to generate revenues to replace the grants that now cover costs. For circumstances like open access publishing, the burden of production expenses is shifting from purchasers to creators. Such transitions require capital for starters, and then new streams of revenue for sustainability.

For libraries, low-cost journals and digital archives are welcome. But libraries already face serious budget constraints in paying for their long-term commitments, let alone investment in new ventures. At the same time, authors need incentives and rewards if they are to favor new publishing ventures that may demand high publication fees. Institutions like universities will need to redirect resources if they are to become publishers as well as consumers of their faculty's scholarship.

At stake in today's debates about the future of information access is not only the availability and affordability of information, but also the very basis on which citizens' information needs are met. The new information infrastructure must ensure free spaces that are filled by educational and research institutions, libraries, nonprofits, governmental organizations, and information communities committed to promoting and fulfilling the needs of citizens. People need safe gathering places where they can share interests and concerns, find information essential to civic involvement, and connect with fellow citizens. Neutrality will not work; the stakes are very high - namely, a democratic way of life that depends on an informed electorate.

To meet the challenge of information access in the digital age, public interest advocates must join together to amplify their voices and extend their reach. Only collective unified action with shared decision-making can address their common concerns. In short, what is needed is a new movement comparable to the movement for environmental protection in the last two decades of the 20th century. As James Boyle observes in the related context of the public domain:

In one very real sense, the environmental movement invented the environment so that farmers, consumers, hunters, and birdwatchers could all discover themselves as environmentalists. Perhaps we need to invent the public domain in order to call into being the coalition that might protect it.156

Boyle advocates "Information as an Ecosystem," and recommends creating coalitions of people who are currently engaged in individual struggles but have little sense of the larger context. He is joined by a growing list of practitioners, including librarians and self-publishers, who recognize the need to identify and mobilize a broad array of individuals, information communities, and organizations concerned with the production and distribution of knowledge and ideas - people often inexperienced at working in concert to promote common concerns. The voices needing amplification range from authors, journalists, artists, musicians, scientists, and scholars to independent publishers, lawyers, librarians, public interest groups, readers, listeners, and viewers of information.

While a consensus about the need to create and sustain information commons is emerging, the challenge is to identify and bring together the voices of these disparate groups and individuals who may or may not have experience organizing advocacy campaigns. Building coalitions to counter the influence of well-financed industry groups will require extensive organizing, fundraising, and grassroots action. Those committed to building information commons must look far beyond the normal sources for allies. Organizers need to find common threads to tie various constituents together, and to recognize that allies on some issues may become opponents on others - for example, publishers and librarians, who coalesce in support of First Amendment causes but approach copyright and fair use from very different perspectives. Furthermore, potential partners may feel threatened by shifts in a market that could reduce or undermine their income and traditional support mechanisms.

Many different public interest communities now recognize that information access is critical to their future. For example, the arts community has a particular interest in the information debate, particularly as it relates to file-sharing and circumvention of DRM techniques.157 Lawsuits initiated by industry groups under the DMCA and traditional copyright law have galvanized support for finding alternative solutions that offer creators more public exposure without threatening litigation against those who sample and build on previous works (including fans). Another group is scholars, who have made significant strides in carving out new territory for producing and sharing their intellectual assets, although many within the academy are still unaware of the crisis and their role in solving it.

Educators are also joining the campaign to increase public access to information, but they rely heavily on other allies to lead the charge. As frequent users of free and low-cost materials, including items in the public domain, members of this community can gain a great deal by engaging more directly in the discourse about the commons - a discourse that can reinforce the vital role of schools in building community and providing opportunity for all. Yet another constituency worth mobilizing is software creators, who have excelled at sharing tools and pioneering the concept of open source.

If everyone is to be ensured free and open access to information, advocates must change the terms of the debate by focusing on what is needed, not just on what is unacceptable. They must articulate why an information commons can advance civil society and democratic participation. They must inform themselves about a broad array of complex issues and the various perspectives held by players on all sides. Moreover, they must undertake research that demonstrates the contributions of open public access to the advancement of science and the arts, map public opinion, and compile narratives about the positive effects of access to information and the negative impact when access is denied.

Advocates must also articulate why the positive economic value of the commons outweighs potentially negative impacts on the market. Good examples and best practices abound, demonstrating that commons are a viable, effective alternative to market-driven or government-based approaches to information access. Documenting these models and sharing them widely will help tell a story that resonates with policymakers, the media, and the general public.

With a highly diffused information environment, public interest advocates must seek ways to unify their voices behind a common agenda. And they must galvanize foundations and other potential funders if they are to amass the resources needed to launch an effective "environmentalism for the Net" movement. The idea of the commons can only become reality with both substantial financial backing and political will.

Beyond advocacy and research, champions of the commons will need good governance models that ensure a viable structure and a set of rules that will transcend the tragedy of the commons described by Hardin. This is particularly true for those concerned with fortifying the public domain and ensuring its survival into the future. They will also need replicable technological solutions for managing electronic resources that rely on widely accepted standards in order to ease the burden for those who wish to offer alternatives but are ill-equipped to design their own technological solutions. Peer production ensures broader participation but it also requires a robust platform where contributors and users can exchange information in familiar, sustainable ways. Contributors must follow generally accepted standards for the mark-up, description, and archiving of content if their efforts are to succeed.

Finally, it is important to recognize that building the information commons does not mean a total rejection of the for-profit media industry. As Frederick Emrich, the editor of the ALA's info-commons Web site, points out: "Commercial uses of information serve a vital role in ensuring that new ideas are produced. So long as commercial uses of information are balanced with effective public access to information, there is good reason to see the information commons and information commerce as mutually beneficial aspects of one system of managing ideas."158 In the 21st century, no single model for creating and distributing information is likely to emerge. But the information commons will provide a useful alternative that ensures a meaningful role for users and creators alike.

Now is the time to create alliances that will reclaim the technological future. Decisions are being made every day that will affect how information is produced and disseminated for years to come. Without access to a technologically sophisticated information commons in every community, many people will be left behind in the information age. If we are to spark innovation, revive civic communities, and build democratic participation in America, we must advocate for new information commons. Otherwise, we will endanger our most precious assets in a democratic society - our rights of free speech, inquiry, and self-governance.


Create a movement similar to environmentalism promoting the information commons:

o Focus on what we are fighting for, not just against.
o Emphasize the public interest in information access.
o Highlight successes; document problems and chilling effects of enclosure; identify examples of harm caused by technological controls and digital rights management.
o Educate concerned individuals and groups, the press, and the public.
o Organize coalitions based on common interests among disparate groups that cut across traditional alliances.
o Encourage the development of robust information communities.
o Seek funding for demonstration projects and ongoing support.

Apply common property resource models to the information sphere:

o Spell out common property resource economic models that elevate the value of shared access.
o Involve information communities in the design, creation, governance, and management of information resources.

Support legislation that encourages information sharing and oppose legislative, regulatory, and judicial actions that undermine opportunities to participate in the information society:

o Promote legislation that ensures public access to public research.
o Oppose new copyright laws and regulations that limit the public's access rights.

Develop, make available, and adopt open source software, content, standards, and best practices:

o Publish in open access publications.
o Sign only those licenses and contracts that enable open access and guarantee user rights such as fair use and "first sale" sharing of copyrighted works.
o Encourage peer production of information.

Apply open access, digital repository, and other practices developed by scholars more widely.

Value the public domain:

o Protect it as a sanctuary against enclosure.
o Develop advocacy programs, governance structures, and new laws that ensure it is well preserved, governed, managed, and valued.
o Resist attempts to apply technological measures that control access to ideas.


NOTES [all URLs accessed in March 2004]

155. Peter Levine, e-mail to Nancy Kranich, Feb. 23, 2004.

156. Boyle, 1997, supra n. 66.

157. Arts groups promoting many of these ideas include the Future of Music Coalition,; the Center for Arts and Culture Cultural Commons,; the National Writers Union,; the Center for Creative Voices in Media,; and the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies,

158. Frederick Emrich, "Welcome to," Washington, DC: American Library Association, June 2002,

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, 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. 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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