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The Information Commons
By Nancy Kranich
III. The Future of the Information Commons
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
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:
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
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:
Apply common property resource models to the information sphere:
Support legislation that encourages information sharing and oppose legislative, regulatory, and judicial actions that undermine opportunities to participate in the information society:
Develop, make available, and adopt open source software, content, standards, and best practices:
Apply open access, digital repository, and other practices
developed by scholars more widely.
Value the public domain:
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, http://www.futureofmusic.org; the Center for Arts and Culture Cultural Commons, http://www.culturalcommons.org; the National Writers Union, http://www.nwu.org; the Center for Creative Voices in Media, http://www.creativevoices.us; and the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, http://www.princeton.edu/~artspol.
158. Frederick Emrich, "Welcome to Info-Commons.org," Washington, DC: American Library Association, June 2002, http://info-commons.org/arch/1/editor.html.