OII SDP 2007 (XVIII): Making the Tragedy of the Commons into a Comedy

Lead: Lewis Hyde, Wendy Seltzer, Rob Faris

Recent years have seen the idea of “the commons” as a form of ownership being discussed in a number of areas. Many environmental issues are usefully approached in terms of common assets, from aquifers to wetlands, from the oceans to the atmosphere. People who think about technology find themselves more and more speaking in terms of a commons, especially in regard to broadcast spectrum, the architecture of the internet, and software. Arguments that arise out of biotechnology–about seedlines, patented drugs, the ownership of genetic materials and so forth–also benefit from a clear model of what it means to place limits on the market and hold some things in common. Finally, many of the recent turf battles around intellectual property have hinged on whether creations of the human mind and imagination should be treated as proprietary goods or not.

Peter Barnes, in his new book Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons offers a simple definition of the commons as “the sum of all we inherit together and must pass on undiminished to our heirs.” Somewhat more prosaically we might say that a commons is a social regime for managing a collectively owned resource.

This session will provide some definitions, history, and theory about the commons as a form of ownership. Participants will read a chapter from Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks that deals with commons-based production in the information economy. With Benkler’s work providing one concrete example of a modern commons, the discussion will open up to consider when the commons might be a useful way to manage our shared wealth, and when it might not.

  Excludable Non-excludable
Rival Wine Fishery
Non-rival Cable TV
Copyrighted work
Public defense

Possible solutions to underprovision

  • Put prices on consumption
  • Put direct rewards on provision, such as peer-to-peer networks that reward people that share more files by making downloading faster;
  • Put indirect rewards on provision based on a reputation system, as it happens in the free software sector, where you’re more likely to get contracts the more you contribute to the project

But there’s more than underprovision: preserving the integrity of the Commons is also a must, e.g. preservation of the air quality

How to convert private property into Commons?

If information is really non-rival and non-exclusive, how to try and expand the scope of the Commons?

  • One way could be to extend Fair Use in a Copyright environment.
  • Another example is the Open Access movement, specially when they ask research funders to include the diffusion of results (to the public domain) in their funding strategies.
  • Anti-DRM initiatives.

What’s next?

What do we want to live to the public sector? What should be managed by the government? What should be managed by private trusts? It seems that in the Internet the Tragedy of the Commons is subverted and the more people benefits from the Commons, the more the Commons benefit from it.

On the other hand, do we need more IGF meetings or shoud the herd manage themselves (cite by Jonathan Zittrain) and try and deal with spam and so?

My reflections


Barnes, P. (2006). Capitalism 3.0. A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons. (pages 3-8 and Chapters 5 and 6). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. Retrieved July 10, 2007 from http://capitalism3.com/files/Capitalism_3.0_Peter_Barnes.pdf
Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. (Chapter 9). New Haven: Yale University Press.

More info


SDP 2007 related posts (2007)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2007) “OII SDP 2007 (XVIII): Making the Tragedy of the Commons into a Comedy” In ICTlogy, #46, July 2007. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from https://ictlogy.net/review/?p=584

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