Paul Stacey


The Commons

After years of working with, and for, Creative Commons this spring I had an epiphany. Creative Commons is not just about making things “open” its about building a “commons”.

What, you say? Thats so obvious. I mean really, commons is part of the name.

Maybe so, but my experience is that everyone focuses on how Creative Commons makes things open.  We all talk about Open Educational Resources, Open Access, and Open Data. No one talks about the commons. The very idea that there is a commons has, for the most part, been lost.

All that changed for me this spring. The commons now looms large in my thinking.

So just what is a commons?

One type of commons I’ve been exploring and reading about is the natural resource based commons. The air and water are good examples accessible and shared by all. Other examples of natural resource based commons are Swiss alpine pastures, huerta gardens in Spain and Portugal, and salmon fishing in British Columbia, Canada where I live.

Heather Menzies book, Reclaiming the Commons For The Common Good explores how “commoning”, cultivating community and livelihood together on the common land of the earth, was a way of life for centuries. In her words:

“It was a way of understanding and pursuing economics as embedded in life and the labor, human and non-human, that is necessary to sustain it. It was a way of ordering this life through local self-governance and direct, participatory democracy. And it was a way of knowing, through doing and the sharing of experience through common knowledge and common sense.”

Reclaiming the Commons Book Cover

Reclaiming the Commons is both a memoir and a manifesto recounting Menzies’ exploration of how her ancestors in the Highlands of Scotland managed their commons, the real tragedy of the loss of the commons, and the reemergence of the commons as a vital means of re-enfranchising people as responsible participants in common good governance locally and globally.

Natural resource based commons are not limitless. They are rivalrous and depleteable. The physical form of natural resources mean that if I have a fish and give it to you I no longer have the fish. Natural resources exist in limited supply with removal and use depleting that supply. The physical form and depletability result in competing rivalrous use interests. Natural resource commons require community management to ensure sustainability and equity of use. Water may be a natural resource based commons but many regions live in drought conditions making water for things like irrigation a commons based resource that requires community management.

So just what is a commons?

A commons is a pool of resources, a community that manages them, and the set of rules or agreements by which they are managed.

I used to think of community management of natural resource based commons as being implemented by either 1. government which takes on management of commons on behalf of it’s people, or 2. market based systems where natural resource commons are managed based on supply and demand economics.

But, I’ve been reading the work of Elinor Ostrom who won the 2009 Nobel prize in Economics for her work studying different commons all around the world. Ostrom’s work shows that natural resource commons can be successfully managed by local communities without any regulation by central authorities or privatization. Government and privatization are not the only two choices. There is a third way – management of the commons by the people directly involved and impacted. The physicality of natural resource commons give them a regional locality. The community in that region has the most familiarity, history, and direct relationship with that natural resource commons and is best situated to manage it.

As the book Governing Knowledge Commons points out, “Ostrom’s approach to governance of natural resources broke with convention by recognizing the importance of institutions intermediate between private property and the state in solving problems of collective action. These intermediate institutions, are collective, locally organized, means for governing and making productive and sustainable use of shareable, but depletable resources such as fish, water, and trees.”

Governing Knowledge Commons Book Cover

Ostrom’s work on the commmons is substantial and required reading for anyone trying to understand the commons and how it works. She constructed empirically informed frameworks, theories, and models based on study of real world commons. Here are a few samples of her work that I find useful when thinking about the commons.

Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development framework reveals the design principles of a commons and provides a structure for analysing the social and ecological interactions of a commons. This framework can be used to model an existing commons and to diagnose problems or explore alternatives.

Institutional Analysis and Development Framework

Ostrom primarily studied natural resource commons. The resources in these commons have specific biophysical characteristics that affect their use. In each case there is a community of users who have an interest in or are impacted by the use of commons resources. Inevitably a set of rules evolve that regulate use within the community usually blending together formal legal rules with social norms. Rules define who is eligible to take a position regarding use of the commons, what they must or must not do in their position, whether a decision is made by a single actor or multiple actors, channels of communication among actors as well as the kinds of information that can be transmitted, and rewards or sanctions for particular actions or outcomes.

Positional rules, determining who is eligible to take a position regarding use of the commons, include:

  • Access: Right to enter defined area and enjoy its benefits without removing any resources.
  • Withdrawal: Right to obtain specified products from a resource system and remove that product from the area for prescribed uses
  • Management: Right to participate in decisions regulating resources or making improvements to infrastructure.
  • Exclusion: Right to participate in the determination of who has, and who does not have, access to and use of resources.
  • Alienation: Right to sell, lease, bequeath, or otherwise transfer any or all of the preceding component rights.

The Action Arena is where the social interactions and decisions about the commons occur. It’s where exchanges take place, rules are made, entitlements are allocated, and disputes resolved. Actors choose from among the available action alternatives based on their own interests and desired outcomes. Individual costs and benefits are weighed against the social costs and benefits of the whole community. In many cases regularized patterns of interaction emerge creating social norms of behaviour and establishing a kind of balance or equilibrium. In a natural resource based commons these social interactions result in outcomes that frequently affect not just the actors and community but the resource system and resource units themselves. Evaluative criteria can be such things as economic efficiency, distributional equity, and sustainability.

The key take-away for me from all this is the principle that the commons can be self governed. The typical binary options of government regulation or market economics are not the only options. If sustainability is the goal then community-based self-governance using common-property regimes might yield better results.

Part of my epiphany this year has been seeing the commons in this new light. Talk of the commons and public good has largely been subjugated by dominant discourse around politics and the economy. But I increasingly see that the commons offers us an alternative way forward, a kind of middle ground balancing the role of government and markets. With the world increasingly divided into haves and have nots, rich and poor, a commons approach that addresses the needs and interests of the public seems like a long overdue and necessary antidote.

Around the world governments are increasingly converting natural resource based commons, historically managed on behalf of the public by the government, into property which is leased or sold to businesses who manage the resources. These governments believe that markets are a better way of managing commons than government regulation.

There is a long ongoing history of taking public commons, separating it off, enclosing it, and privatizing it. This process is called enclosure of the commons. David Bollier’s book Think Like a Commoner talks about enclosure of the commons this way. Enclosure is:

“dispossession of commoners as market forces seize control of common resources, often with the active collusion of government. The familiar debate of “privatization versus government ownership” does not really do justice to this process because government ownership, the supposed antidote to privatization, is not really a solution. In many instances, the state is only too eager to conspire with industries to seize control of common resources for “private” (i.e., corporate) exploitation. Regulation is too often a charade that does more to legalize than eradicate market abuses.”

Think Like A Commoner Book Cover

I’d never really thought about it before but Robin Hood, the popular children’s story, is really a story about the commons. Essentially the king takes pastures, forests, wild game, and water used by commoners and declares them his own private property. Commoners are evicted from the land, fences and hedges erected and the sheriff and his men given authority to ensure no commoner poaches game from the kings land.

Contemporary examples of commons enclosure are numerous. Government agreements allow mining companies to extract minerals from public lands, timber companies to clear cut public forests, oil companies to drill in pristine wilderness areas, and commercial trawlers to decimate coastal fisheries. Management of commons based on market systems tends to result in over exploitation as pursuit of profits and power override public interests.

Natural resource based commons have no human producer. Humans are users only. But there are lots of other forms of commons that humans produce. Highways, roads, sidewalks, and public squares for example. Jonathan Rowe’s book Our Common Wealth – The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work does a good job of exploring how such public spaces are a form of commons that we share. Rowe expands the commons to include languages, cultures, and technologies. The Internet is a kind of commons. He shows how there is a symbiotic relationship between the commons, the economy, and even our personal and planetary well-being.

Our Common Wealth Book Cover

And then there is the knowledge and culture commons, the creative commons in which I work. There are several aspects of the knowledge and culture commons that make it different from natural resource based commons. One difference is the inherent nature of knowledge and culture. Knowledge and culture are non-rivalrous and non-depletable. If I share an idea or some knowledge with you we both end up with the idea and knowledge. If I sing a song you too can sing it with me. Giving it to you does not mean I no longer have it.

The non-rivalrous and non-depleteable nature of the knowledge and culture commons mean that the rules and norms for community management of knowledge and culture commons can, and ought to, be different from how natural resource based commons are managed. However interestingly the global default is to apply property law and copyright to knowledge and culture commons resources creating an artificial scarcity that makes them more like natural resource based commons. This artificial scarcity is time-limited though as all knowledge and culture resources eventually pass into the public domain the name we’ve given to the knowledge and culture commons.

It’s intriguing to revisit Elinor Ostrom’s models and frameworks and explore how they might be modified to fit with this alternative form of commons. Its a challenge to transition from a model based on scarcity to a model based on abundance. The biophysical form of knowledge and culture is increasingly digital. Digital based resources can be copied, shared, distributed and used at costs which approach zero dollars and at a scale that makes them increasingly accessible to the entire world. The knowledge and culture commons is as much a global commons as a local one.

I’m increasingly seeing the knowledge and culture commons as having two forms; 1. a large global commons comprised of all open and shared creative works, and 2. a local commons made up of curated collection of resources drawn from the global commons that have local relevance and have been customized to fit local needs.

I was delighted to have my early exploration of the commons in 2014, bolstered by the arrival of Ryan Merkley as Creative Commons new CEO. Ryan places a strong emphasis on the importance of building the commons movement and establishing a vast pool of free and open content online: data, academic research, educational curriculum, videos, music, pictures, and more. Under Ryan’s leadership Creative Commons published The State of The Commons. This report succinctly documents the growth of the commons.

Growth of Creative Commons licensed works

It also shows what parts of the world are contributing to the commons.

Global Creative Commons contributions

Ryan also encouraged us to re-examine the goals and work Creative Commons is engaged in and encouraged a re-imagining. The resulting sharing of ideas among my peers was inspiring.

Here are some of the ideas I put forward that reflect my thinking about the Commons.

Creative Commons is currently doing a great job at enabling sharing of creative works.
But we don’t know why people are sharing.
We don’t know what their intent is.

In the context of Elinor Ostrom’s framework Creative Commons has established some great rules-in-use, but we have not put in place a complementary technical component to support the community based social interactions involved in producing and managing the commons.

I imagine a technical component, added to the Creative Commons license, that allows creators to express intent and solicit the support of the open community in achieving it.

Once the why of sharing is known so much more can happen. Each expression of intent is a Creative Commons value proposition statement.

In addition to stating why they are sharing I think it is equally important for Creative Commons to enable the sharer to have a means for saying how others can help them achieve their aim.

Adding technical functionality that allows sharers to seek the help of others in achieving the aim associated with sharing adds a social component to Creative Commons license. We connect creators to each other – for all kinds of reasons.

I imagine it enabling creators to form communities of common interest around openly licensed content collections – for curation, remix, enhancement, additional development, …

I imagine it as enabling the development of creative works that require multiple talents – someone for the video, another person for the audio, musicians, writers, .. Collective content creation through collaboration.

And many other use cases.

I see this as having the potential to migrate Creative Commons from simply being a license that is put on content to an enabler of connections between people. Creative Commons will have not just a content value proposition but a social one.

Given this focus I suggested the following as a area of focus for maximizing impact.

Creative Commons can have the most impact by focusing in on purposeful sharing. A great deal of Creative Commons use is secondary – sharing as an add-on to some other primary function or purpose, sharing as an act of generosity, sharing as an expression of values based on moral principles, sharing in response to mandate.

Much of this sharing lacks an expressed explicit goal, intent, or purpose – sharing with unexpressed, but hoped for consequences. Creative Commons can amplify impact by enabling expression of purposeful sharing and rallying the help of others in achieving sharing goals.

A great deal of sharing and CC use is by autonomous individual users or organizations acting on their own. CC can generate greater impact by creating a mechanism for the formation of social networks and collaborations around CC licensed works. The opportunities Creative Commons is missing are not some sector we’ve ignored but the social dimension of sharing. The formation of social networks of Creative Commons users collectively working together on achieving some shared goal is a missing piece Creative Commons is positioned to enable. Moving Creative Commons use from a form of individual expression of rules and permissions to Creative Commons use as a form of collective action will magnify impact.

Ryan asked us to identify the metric we would track and I said:

My one metric is – User expressed value (or user expressed ROI).
Ask users how their use of CC generates value.

This can be achieved by adding to CC tools a mechanism for expression of purpose, a means of inviting others to join in achieving that purpose, and a method for showing progress and outcome.

CC use generates diverse forms of value.
It can be financial – money saved or revenue earned.
It can reputational.
It can be a gift or altruistic.
It can generate personal value, or generate value for others, or both.
CC value takes a myriad of forms.

CC value is generated through personal and group action.
An individual, a corporation, a government can all generate value through CC use.

The people, stories, and values associated with CC use are inspirational.
User expression of CC value is a mini-human interest story revealing new ways of doing things, new outcomes.

Users know why they use CC and the value it generates.
We should invite them to express the value they are generating.

My one metric is – user expressed value.
From this one metric a diverse range of value will emerge for which additional metrics can be defined.

And finally Ryan asked us, What does winning look like?
Here is how I see it:

I see winning as looking like:

A move away from GDP as a measure of health of a country to “”quality of life”” indicators that evaluate the well-being of a society based more on environmental stewardship, democratic participation in society, equitable distribution of wealth, good health, and contributions to and use of the commons. Winning means Creative Commons and metrics associated with Creative Commons are used as one of the quality of life indicators measuring the economic and social well-being of a nation and the world. Winning means quality of life measures and global well-being inform and affect the decisions and actions of individuals, communities, organizations, businesses, and government. Winning means CC use is a key means of enabling quality of life.

Winning means a change of state from accumulation of personal wealth, personal property, independence and autonomy to shared wealth, shared property, and creative collaboration with others. Intermediate mile posts include a recognition that profit-making pursuits have limited scale and sustainability. Mile posts include replacing or supplementing the use of profit-making practices with commons-making practices for innovation, scale, and sustainability. Winning is not necessarily completely replacing profit-making with common-making but rather a balancing of the two and a symbiotic relationship.

Winning is based on abundance not scarcity. Winning is a move away form the market consumerism economy based on scarcity to a sharing economy based on abundance with Creative Commons being a key enabler. Accompanying this is a surge of participation, creativity and innovation. Individual acts of sharing are as important as government and market forces.

Winning means Creative Commons use solves big global social and economic problems and in doing so leads to growing understanding of the importance of balancing private sector pursuit of profit with the common pursuits building common wealth. Winning means distributed, networked collaborative production builds out common wealth and at the same time reduces the reliance on personal ownership replacing it with shared access and permission to use (within limits). Winning is a form of global activism that benefits all humanity without regard to national boundaries.

There are a lot of ways this can be quantified. Currently sharing is “”off the books”” and not tracked as a means of social or economic well-being. Current societal measures focus on growth as measured by production and consumption. However, the emergence of a “”sharing economy”” brings with it the opportunity to measure sharing in economic and social terms. People are deriving income and other non-monetary rewards from sharing. This manifests itself as a diversification and expansion of suppliers, better usage of existing resources, and a desire to make the world a better place.

Metrics associated with sharing recognize the shortcomings of unlimited growth in an increasingly resource limited world, and the growing inequitable distribution of wealth. Sharing saves money, amplifies participation, creates easy access to goods and services, and leads to more abundance.

Metrics should measure not just the number of resources being produced but the number of people producing those resources and the benefits to both the creator, downstream users, and society as a whole.

I share these ideas not to suggest that Creative Commons will implement them but as a way of showing how a shift of emphasis from “open” to “commons” generates different concepts and strategies.

Focusing on the Commons has led me to see the work we are all engaged in differently. It has been exciting to discover a commons-based alternative to government and market based forces. Going in to 2015 I look forward to balancing talk of the global economy with talk of a global commons. One where everyday citizens can participate independent of government and market pooling their knowledge and creativity as an expression of kindred spirit and for the common good of all.

Joy to the Commons and a Happy New Year all.

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