The Other Side of IP: Informational Commons

Felix Stalder <>

[Abstract of a lecture at the ICT Policy Training Programme, Budapest, 21.08.2003
See slides of the lecture.]

Information is an unusual economic good. The same unit, for example a song or a piece of software code, can be, simultaneously, end product and raw material. It is impossible to make an inherent distinction between the two, since it all depends on the context of its use. As long as information was encapsulated in material goods -- vinyl records, paper books -- this characterstic remained somewhat hidden, since the materiality of the information carrier made the transfer and the transformation of encapsulated information cumbersome. Traditional legal and economic regimes reflect this material condition of information processing.

The digitization of information and easy access to means of global communication (Internet) created a new condition. Now, information can be effortlessly manipulated and distributed. Freed from much, though importantly not all, material constraints, free flows of information collide with the established economic and legal order unaccustomed to deal with this situation. Conflict ensues.

A way of understanding this conflict is to see it as one which pits those who treat information primarily as an end product -- a good sold in the market like other (material) goods -- against those who treat it primarily as raw material -- which needs to be accessed and processed freely. The conflict we are facing between those who want to expand the control over informational products (primarily through the expansion of copyrights) and those who want information to be freely accessible is not, as it is often portrayed, one between creative producers who need to be paid and consumers unwilling pay. Rather, it's one between large distributors, on the on side, and the overwhelming majority of creators on the other.

Neither side is thinking primarily about consumers or 'end users', it just happens to be the case that creators and consumers have similar interests, free access to information -- the former think of it as raw material, the latter as end products.

From a distributor's point-of-view, the issue is control. How to control that the informational good is only used in ways that have been authorized? From the producer's point-of-view, the issue is access. How to make sure that all the necessary raw material can be accessed effortlessly, to enable maximum creative freedom?

The distributors have developed the concept of "intellectual property" to advance their agenda, the producers are slowly countering to with the idea of a 'commons'.

What is a commons?

A commons is a resource that is managed by a more or less specified community, rather than owned by one or more individuals. A commons can be accessed and used by all members of the group. There are many traditional examples of commons, such as common land for pasture or hunting, community gardens in cities, the air is held as commons, as are the oceans. It would be absurd to argue that air should be owned by someone who can exclude others from using it, though this is happening increasingly with drinking water. More interesting for our purposes, however, are informational commons, that is informational resources that are managed by groups of people.

The oldest, and most successful, information commons is science where information is made available to all members of the community for inspection and to built upon upon it. Science would break down if scientific discoveries could be owned and hence others could be barred from using it -- without restrictions -- in their own work. Scientific reputation is built on how widely research findings -- the products of the scientific labor -- are appropriated by others. Citation frequency is scrutinized when making academic appointments.

More recently, another commons has developed, that of free and open source software. The ideas are similar to that of science: progress will be made fastest if the highest number of people can judge and built upon the work of their peers. To make this possible, the source code -- the programming instruction readable to qualified human beings -- has to be made freely available. This has three immediate consequences: first, the code can no longer be sold expensively, since it is available for free; second, if someone finds a mistake, a bug, in the code, he, or still rarely she, can fix it or at least report it so that others can fix it; finally, it's possible to use parts of existing code and built it into a new program with an entirely different functionality that what the code was originally written for. The effect is that high-quality software, developing rapidly, is becoming widely available.

To ensure fair play, that is, to make sure that nobody can appropriate the efforts of the community and take resources out of the commons, licenses that regulate what people can and cannot do with the common resources are essential. There are many different licenses, but the most important one is the "General Public License", that mandates that all code that is based on GPL code must itself be put under the GPL, hence others can use it as freely as before. As long as the commons is used, it cannot but grow.

The success of free and open source software has been phenomenal. The Internet as we know it would not exist without it. The success of this production model in the area of software has inspired a large number of projects that try to create informational commons in other areas as well. Some of them are themselves very successful, so that he have now Open Content, Open Access, Open Source Intelligence, Open Law movements, to name but a few.

Why does it matter?

In the information society, access to information is central to full and self-determinted participation of citizens, communities and countries on local, national and global levels of politics, economy and civil society. The Internet provides to technological basis to making information widely accessible at low costs. There is no reason why some should be able to deny others access to available information necessary to make informed decisions.

Form a policy point of view, what is to be done to promote and strengthen the commons?

a) Access to open means of communication needs to be built and / or maintained.
b) the protocols (or rules) of communication need to be open.
b) content needs to be made available through the use of open licenses and the restriction of the claims by IP holders.

A last point needs to be made. As indicated, the conflict over how to manage informational resources is primarily between large distributors and independent producers, not between producers and customers. The most astute businesses have realized this. IBM, and many others technology companies, are heavily promoting free and open source software. Their main strategic emphasis is on selling hardware and providing services, both of which cannot be copied easily. The less astute companies, or those whose business model depends most heavily on controlling the chain of distribution, are increasingly in conflict with their own customers. The music industry is the classic example. It has recently announced to begin prosecuting individuals participating in file sharing systems. These people are not criminals, but music afficiandos, in other words, the industry's best customers.

What is at stake, then, is the question what Information Society the emerging knowledge order should support. One in which the few dominate by controlling what information we receive and what we can do with it. Or one which empowers the many by allowing them to become creators of goods and services many of which we cannot yet imagine. In the same way, only a decade ago, few of us had an idea of the role email would play in our lifes.

Reading list:

Benkler, Yochai. The Political Economy of Commons. Upgrade, June 2003, vol.IV, no.3

Bollier, David. The Rediscovery of the Commons. Upgrade, June 2003, vol.IV, no.3

Boyle, James. Fencing of Ideas: Enclosure & The Disappearance of the Public Domain. Daedalus, Spring 2002

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