The Other Side
of IP: Informational Commons
Felix Stalder <firstname.lastname@example.org>
[Abstract of a lecture at the ICT Policy Training Programme,
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
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
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.
Benkler, Yochai. The Political Economy of Commons. Upgrade, June 2003,
vol.IV, no.3 http://www.upgrade-cepis.org/issues/2003/3/up4-3Benkler.pdf
Bollier, David. The Rediscovery of the Commons. Upgrade, June 2003,
Boyle, James. Fencing of Ideas: Enclosure & The Disappearance of
the Public Domain. Daedalus, Spring 2002
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