Commons, informational (Dictionary Entry)

This is an entry which I contributed to the 2nd edition of the “Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology” Georg Ritzer (ed). 2017.

We take it as a sign of the times that, for the first time, a major English language social science reference work contains the term ‘commons’.

Commons, informational

Commons are resources managed by a community for joint use. Commons have existed in different periods of time and in different cultural contexts as a wide variety of concrete institutions (Ostrom 1990). In the West, they have been marginalized by the rise of private property regimes at the outset of industrialization, particularly through the process of land enclosure (Linebaugh 2013). However, even in the West commons have never completely disappeared and, particularly in Alpine regions, traditional institutions of the commons have survived until today.

Since the late 1990s, interest in the commons has been revived particularly through the emergence of new commons online (Boyle 1997). Such informational commons are digital resources (mostly software code, data, scientific and cultural works) created and maintained by virtual communities of varying sizes. They have many similarities with traditional commons, but also some fundamental differences. The similarities include the orientation on creating and maintaining use-value for the community members, rather than on producing commodities for sale through the market. This, in effect, blurs the distinction between producers and users and enables many forms of participation within the commons. To coordinate these efforts, commons rely on self-management, that is, the members of a community develop their own rules and institutions to solve complex problems such as allocation of resources, coordination of tasks and conflict resolution. The self-management is oriented towards voluntary participation and consensus decision-making, thus increasing the motivation and involvement of members. The main difference to traditional commons is that informational goods are non-rival, they are not diminished by use as data can be copied effortlessly. Thus the “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968), the alleged destruction of the commons through overuse, cannot occur. The main problem that informational commons have to solve is rather under-provision, the lack of valuable contributions of the resource pool. This is usually achieved by organizing the community as a meritocratic system where the most active members tend to be influential when deciding about the development of the commons and are thus motivated to keep contributing benefiting all members.

The core of the informational commons is created in four overlapping settings at the core of the information economy: Free Software, Free Culture, Access to Knowledge and Open Data.

Free Software

The new paradigm of producing informational goods as a commons emerged first in the field of software development. In 1984 the programmer Richard M. Stallman founded the Free Software movement to counter the rise of proprietary software and promote “four freedoms” related to code: the freedom to run the software for any purpose; the freedom to study and change the program without restrictions; the freedom to distribute copies of the program; and the freedom to distribute changes of the program. To make these freedoms dependable, he drafted a license (the GNU General Public License, GPL), under which most Free Software is released today. The license includes the clause that whoever redistributes the software – as exact copies or with improvements – must to do so under the same license. This effectively protects and expands the common pool. When Linus Thorvalds contributed the kernel (Linux) in the early 1990s, it was the last major missing piece for an entire free operating system. At the end of the decade, Free Software (or Open Source, a term coined in 1998 to appeal to business) began to reach the mainstream: first on on servers, later personal computers and most recently mobile and embedded devices. As the Free Software projects grew and proliferated, it established the practical example that also complex, knowledge-intensive informational resources can be managed as commons and that these are stable and reliable over long periods of time, often more so than competing commercial firms (Weber 2004).

Free Culture

By the end of the 1990s, the tension between conventional notions of property (as enshrined in copyright law) and the growing popularity of collaborative cultural practices online rose to the surface and spilled into the mainstream. In part as a response to the aggressiveness of the cultural industries, in part drawing inspiration from the Free Software movement, the Free Culture (or Open Content) movement began to take shape (Lessig 2001). One focus was to create tools allowing copyright law, as it exists, to support rather than restrict the sharing and transformation of cultural works. Following the lead of Free Software, a series of licenses was developed to enable creators to make their works available freely. In 2001, Creative Commons (CC) established itself as one of the central organizations of Free Culture by offering easy-to-use, customizable licenses granting (some) rights to the public. Works published under a Creative Commons license are always freely usable for non-commercial purposes. Some versions of the license also allow free transformation of the works and/or commercial use. A combination of good timing, solid and user-friendly implementation and significant support from leading American universities made CC licenses the de facto standard legal foundation of free culture and the emerging cultural commons, despite criticism that its licenses fall short of the freedoms established by the Free Software movement. The most widely successful Free Culture project is Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that is cooperatively written (with more than 100’000 active users maintaining close to 5 million articles in the English language version alone, in mid 2015) and financed by donations from the community. Since the project was started in 2001 it has become the most popular and comprehensive reference source on-line, used by about 380 million people every month (in mid 2015). While Wikipedia is the best-known example, in all fields of cultural production there are successful experiments to develop an ecology of Free Culture.


Access to Knowledge (a2k)

The aim of the a2k movement is to make scientific information, particularly in the life sciences, freely available, thus enabling access and stimulating research. The initial stimulus for the a2k movement was the fight over access to anti-retroviral drugs in 1998. When the South-African government moved to facilitate the import of generic, and thus much cheaper, versions of the new live-saving drugs for AIDS/HIV patients, it was taken to court by some of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers. This prompted an international campaign, lead by NGOs such as Medicines Sans Frontiers, to support the South African government’s right to make these essential drugs accessible to its people. In 2001, this campaign succeeded when the law suit was withdrawn. This led other developing countries to issue similar legislation, enabling parallel import and compulsory licenses. In the course of such disputes, developing countries became increasingly vocal in asserting their interests in intellectual property policy and demanded that their specific needs be recognized at the highest level of policy making, namely by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a sub-organization of the United Nations. It culminated in the formulation of the “Development Agenda for WIPO”, which stated the need for intellectual property policy to meet development goals, recognized the ‘benefits of a rich public domain’, and called for the ‘protection of traditional knowledge’ as explicit goals of further policy development.


The second major focus of the a2k movement has been the transformation of scientific publishing through “Open Access”. There is a well-established tradition that scientists publish their papers to their communities freely and receive no direct compensation for it. Since the early 1990s, however, the prices for commercial scientific journals, particularly in the natural and life sciences, had risen far above inflation, putting considerable strain on library budgets and reducing the range of scientists who have access to them. In 2002, the Budapest Open Access Initiative launched the open access movement which promotes the creation of open access journals. In these journals, the scientific review process (peer review) is just as rigorous as in traditional ones, the main difference being that the final results, accepted papers, are made available free of charge to everyone, often under a Creative Commons license.

Open Data

As more and more social processes are producing data and are driven by data analysis, access to raw data has become a political issue. The open data movement, again drawing inspiration from other “open movements”, formed in the mid 2000s to organize access to an ever growing number of data sets, from governmental, scientific and other sources that are free to use, reuse, and redistribute. The aim of the movement is to both increase transparency and accountability (mainly of governments) but also to create new opportunities of citizen and companies to analyze and work with data independently. Following the lead of the UK and US governments, which launched open data portals in 2009, mainly governments introduced open data policies, though they are still limited in terms of the range of the data sources made available.


The development of informational commons runs parallel to the development of the Internet into a infrastructure of continuous and ubiquitous communication and data exchange. Over the last three decades, a complex ecology consisting of innovative formal and informal institutions, adapted technological platforms and new social and entrepreneurial norms have created a new mode of production. It sharply differs from market-based or command-based modes, not the least through the relative absence of exclusive property rights, and the emphasis placed on cooperation rather than competition as the main driver of development. This new socio-economic system has been been called “commons-based peer production” (Benkler 2006). As the Internet becomes woven into virtually all aspects of life, the informational and physical commons are starting to merge, as, for example, free software solution make more complex voluntary coordination and resource sharing possible (Bollier and Helfrich 2012).

However, as the traditional commons, also the informational commons operate in economic and regulatory climate that stunts rather then promotes their growth. For example, the conventional (intellectual) property regimes continue to expand (not the least through multilateral trade agreements) and new forms of enclosure take place. Thus, informational commons are one of the highly dynamic and contested areas in the information society.


Benkler, Y., 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yale University Press.

Bollier, D. & Helfrich, S. eds., 2012. The wealth of the commons: a world beyond market and state, Amherst, Mass: Levellers Press.

Boyle, J., 1997. A Politics of Intellectual Property: Environmentalism for the Net? Duke Law Journal, 47(1), pp.87–116.

Hardin, G., 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Sciene, 162, pp.1243–1248.

Linebaugh, P., 2013. Stop, Thief! The commons, Enclosures, and Resistance, Oakland, California: PM Press.

Lessig, L., 2001. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, New York: Random House.

Ostrom, E., 1990. Governing the Commons, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, S., 2004. The Success of Open Source, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Author: Felix Stalder, Zurich University of the Arts