Commons: A rough definition

Last week, I spent a few days at a small but intense workshop where we were looking at a the political dimensions of various forms of commons. The discussions were open and far ranging. I tried to distill some of these into a definition of commons that tries to take its various dimensions into considerations and separates structural from political issues. Far from perfect....


A commons is a resource held as joint property by a community. Thus, it is distinct from private property (held by natural or legal persons) or public property (held by the state). Typical for commons is that the management of the resource is oriented towards use-value for its members, rather than towards exchange-value within society at large. The separation between producers and consumers is minimized. Thus, commons are also distinct from other forms of collective ownership (such as co-operatives) that produce for the market.

All commons are social institutions, they depend on a community to create and maintain it. A resource that is freely available to all but not managed in a meaningful way by a self-aware community (e.g., the fish in the open sea) are not a commons. Like in all communities, questions of membership (boundaries) and internal decision-making are subject to ongoing, more or less conflictual, negotiations.

It is these questions that define the political quality of the commons, which can serve as defensive mechanism against market encroachment (e.g., in the case of indigenous commons), as a project of exclusion (e.g., in far-right conceptions of the body national) or as the basis of open cooperation (e.g., in the case of Free and Open Source Software).

les incoherents

La Mona Lisa fumant une pipeI'm doing research on the early practices of remixing and came across this gem from the late 19th century, by Eugène Bataille a member of an art group called "les incoherènts" which I had never heard of, quite frankly. Yet they did many of the things that later the dadaist and surealists would do, a full generation earlier.

Clay Shirky responds to my review

A few weeks ago, I published a review of Clay Shirky's new book "Here comes Everybody" on Metamute.

In the mean time, Simon Collister was able to ask Shirky about my review, where I criticized him for talking only about non-controversial issues and omitting major questions such as copyright and business models / profiling / privacy.

In his response, Shirky focused only on the question of copyright, claiming, strangely, that while he had written a lot about in the past it is was not a real issue in the big picture. Here is what he had to say:

local copy (12MB)

Who will profit from EU plans to extend musical copyright?

As Ars Technica reports, the Open Rights Group has published an estimate how revenue -- created if musical copyright in the EU would be extended by another 45 years -- is going to be distributed:

Only the labels and the top performers would benefit, while the great majority of musicians would little -- less then € 30 -- or nothing at all. This makes it abundantly clear that the main argument for the extension of the terms, helping aging musicians, is utterly insincere. Yet another indication that the expansion of copyright does not benefit creators, but amounts to a subsidy of the exploiters. (see also Berndt Hugenholtz on the subject, or more generally, Martin Kretschmer's work on IP based incomes of creative producers.)

Shift from p2p to Video Streaming?

Ars Technica reports on changing traffic patterns, with streaming video rising while p2p traffic, overall, stagnating, now accounting for only one quarter of the overall traffic. They conclude:

The shift, as it take hold around the world, benefits everyone. For content owners, the gain is obvious: the vast majority of high-traffic streaming content is legal and licensed (Dr. Who, Battlestar Galactica, Colbert Report, etc.). This stands in contrast with P2P, of course, and even though user-generated content sites like YouTube still have copyright issues, those issues are "above water" and easy to deal with.

For users, legitimate on-demand access to huge troves of high-quality video removes the risk of lawsuits, but it also has other beneficial effects. For one thing, the P2P blocking/delaying/filtering schemes being trotted out around the world don't affect most of these services. ISPs have gotten away with such blocks using the argument that most P2P is illegal anyway; without that support, it will politically be much harder to block or limit access to legal streaming in the same way.

In a way, this seems to follow suit with a more general trend related to web2.0 of centralizing infrastructure, thus the ability of big organisations, media companies, to reassert control. Very troubling.

ca 1900, Remix Postcards

At the turn of the last century, photographic post-cards became hugely popular, among them so called "photographic phantasies" which created surreal motives, based on all kinds of visual trickery (montage, close-ups, distortions) that the public had not yet been accustomed to. Some of them were purely for entertainment, others for advertisements, or even for political purposes.

Spiegel Online has a selection of them, based on an exhibition called "stamped fantasies" at the Folkwang Museum in Essen on the subject.




Note: Kaiser Wilhelm II. as an armed insect. French Postcard, ca. 1900.

Opentape invites RIAA to play whack-a-mole post-Muxtape

Seems like there is no learning in the music industry. What happens when you kill a centralized service that might not have all the right licenses, but at least an address and presumably someone willing to do business (think Napster)? Well, a decentralized service appears with no address and no business model (think Bittorrent, the protocol, not the company).

So, here we are again. Ars Technica writes:

The RIAA's unending game of cat-and-mouse with unlicensed music distribution sites has taken an abrupt turn with the introduction of Opentape, a purportedly unrelated open-source clone of Muxtape that the RIAA got shut down last week. Opentape's appearance demonstrates that the RIAA has opened a much larger can of worms than it may have expected when it convinced Muxtape's owners to take the site offline.


Whether Opentape truly has anything to do with Muxtape, the RIAA now has a whole new set of headaches. By striking down a centralized, streaming-only music discovery service like Muxtape, the RIAA has apparently inspired the release of a simple, decentralized software package for easily streaming and sharing music from any host and URL across the globe, with nary an affiliate link for a legitimate music shop in sight.

product placements (2008)

music piece / performance ("music theater")

70,200 samples in 33 seconds: nightmare for GERMAN RIAA

If you want to register a song at GEMA (RIAA, ASCAP of Germany) you have to fill in a form for each sample you use, even the tiniest bit. On 12 Sept 08, German Avantgarde musician Johannes Kreidler will —as a live performance event—register a short musical work that contains 70,200 quotations with GEMA using 70,200 forms.

The Piece:

Essay by the artist Johannes Kreidler, Telepolis Article about the performance (both in German)

How to Participate in the Linux Community

The Linux Foundation has released a document called "How to Participate in the Linux Community". This gives a detailed picture of the practicalities of radically distributed development, its scale and the methods which evolved to handle that. See also this article on ZDNet.


The Linux kernel, at over 6 million lines of code and well over 1000 active contributors, is one of the largest and most active free software projects in existence. Since its humble beginning in 1991, this kernel has evolved into a best-of-breed operating system component which runs on pocket-sized digital music players, desktop PCs, the largest supercomputers in existence, and all types of systems in between. It is a robust, efficient, and scalable solution for almost any situation.

With the growth of Linux has come an increase in the number of developers (and companies) wishing to participate in its development. Hardware vendors want to ensure that Linux supports their products well, making those products attractive to Linux users. Embedded systems vendors, who use Linux as a component in an integrated product, want Linux to be as capable and well-suited to the task at hand as possible. Distributors and other software vendors who base their products on Linux have a clear interest in the capabilities, performance, and reliability of the Linux kernel. And end users, too, will often wish to change Linux to make it better suit their needs.

Famous quote about the amount of information in the NYT

This quotation (in many variants) is so ubiquitous as it is meaningless, but it is still interesting to find its source: Saul Bellow, The Distracted Public, 1990

A professor in California has estimated that on an average weekday the New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime. I am ready to believe that this is more or less true, although I suspect that an educated Elizabethan was less confused by what he knew. He would certainly have been less agitated than we are. His knowledge cannot have lain so close to the threshold of chaos as ours.

Though, I have no idea who that "professor in California" is. Quote found here

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