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[berkman] David Bollier on the commons

David Bollier is giving a Berkman talk on governing the commons. David is the author of Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. His talk: “How shall we govern the commons?”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

His book looks at the arc of the development of open access and commonses. [What the heck is the plural of “commons”?] The commons is a new sector, and how we govern it is an urgent issue. Benkler, Zittrain, Lessig, and Bauers have addressed this, David says.

The commons is an ancient, new, and misunderstood paradigm, David says. It dates back to the medieval grazing of cattle. It’s a social system for managing shared resources. It was also a source of collective purposes, and custom and tradition. He recommends “The Magna Carta Manifesto” that looks at the struggle for the commons, with the Magna Carta being an armistice. The public domain was the closest we had to a commons until around 2000. The public domain was viewed by copyright traditionalists as a junkyward because the only people in it were things that had no commercial value. The first law review article on the commons didn’t occur until 1981. He cites Jack Valenti, a rich quote about a public domain work as “soiled and haggard, barren of its previous virtues.” Richard Stallman showed the efficacy and virtues of free software. He showed that incompatible code leads to a tower of Babel. The problem with Stallman’s Emacs Commune was that everything had to feed back to a central source (Stallman) and there was no governance. The General Public License gave legal protections to the Commons. Then the Net took off. We got new infrastructures for building commons, technologic, legal, and social.

Garrett Hardin who wrote about the “tragedy of the commons” later acknowledged that it didn’t apply to commons that have governance. The commons is generative (to use Jonathan Zittrain‘s term). “The commons is a macro-economic and cultural force in its own right.” So, how shall we govern it? “This area is terribly under-theorized.” Elinor Ostrom set forth 8 design principles to allow a commons to be governed as a commons, e.g., clear boundaries, appropriateness to the local area, monitoring, transparency, graduated sanctions against free riders and vandals…

Ostrom once showed David a photo of a chair occupying a shoveled out space during a snow storm with a chair occupying it until the person who shoveled it comes back. Ostrom says that that’s a commons because, “It’s a shared understanding by the neighborhood about how to allocate a scarce resource.” David says a commons arises when a neighborhood decides to manage a resource in an equitable way. One thing this shows is a conflict between commons governance and government, since the mayor tried to ban this practice.

He says we need a new taxonomy of digital commons. How do you protect the integrity of the shared resource and the community itself. He points to some distinctions:

Open vs. Free raises questions of business appropriation vs. community control, digital sharecropping vs. commons governance, monetization or maintenance as an inalienable resource.

Individual choice vs. Community. Creative Commons may undermine commons building because it allows opt in or opt out. The GPL is a purer type of commons: There’s a binary choice: you’re in the commons or you’re not.

Building within the house of copyright or challenge property discourse? Niva Elkin-Koren, for example, thinks CC encourages self-interest and doesn’t build out a coherent commons vision. [Paraphrase of a paraphrase! Reader beware!] The Global South views CC as depending on Western law and as a type of derivative of private property. Fair Use activists, on the other hand, want us to grapple wit hte prevailing practices in copyright law.

Commons vs. Markets. Or at they friends? It depends. There’s a spectrum. Open platforms. Innocentive (drug queries where answerers get a bounty). Democratizing innovation, a la Eric Von Hippel. Magnatune (a “respectful interface between the commons and the market”) or the Grateful Dead allowing home-made recordings. Market-oriented non-profits.

The commons is, David says, a “new social metabolism for governance and law, with economic and cultural impact.”

Q: How about more examples? How about Huffington Post?
A: Open platform with some participation. But how about: WikiTravel is an interesting mix. DailyKos: A user-generated community of commentary. Internet Archive. Flickr. Jamendo library of CC music.

Q: (doc searls) You offer an organic metaphor, whereas we think of the Commons as a space. Will it take?
A: Who knows. But it presents it as a relationship.
Doc: I wonder if there’s a relato-sphere that isn’t metabolic. A metabolism burns energy. It creates gas.
A: A legal system is a conversation about shared power [he quotes someone I missed, and I’m paraphrasing] Q: But metabolism also implies homeostasis. A: Its organic property is why commons sometimes outperform markets. Charlie Nesson: Don’t confuse law in principle (we all live under the law, a set of shared values) and as a social environment (a mediated discourse in which people are assisted in relating by its structure).

Q: What about the international aspect of commons.
A: Cf. “Global Legal Pluralism.” There’s a case to dealing with this locally rather than doing it top-down through nation states. There are certainly tensions as you expand this trans-nationally.

Q: (wendy seltzer) The question of governance is partially a horiztonal dividing of what’s been shared and a vertical set of relationships to maintain the platform. Does this get towards how we can push for open platforms on which we can build commons?
A: Lessig once said he saw the amassing of a constituency for a commons as an important political strategy for assuring an open Internet. The commons is a verb, a commoning.

Q: The vast majority of free software projects are very hierarchical. The freedoms it lists are individualistic. Our rules on collective governance are based on highly individualistic control. How do we move forward.
A: The preponderance of SourceForge communities are small. How do you scale up governance? It is a key issue and I don’t know the answer.
Charlie: David Hoffman writes about this. It’s about creating a border that keeps out the griefers. That’s essential.
A: They have to be organically grow…

Q: [ethan zuckerman] The old idea of the commons was that we were independent homesteaders who can make our own butter. But the openness of the code doesn’t help most people. And it gets worse. A lot of the interesting communities are on closed, commercial platforms. The attempts to have a constitutional moment on Facebook are pathetic. How can you bring your thinking about governance into commercial spaces? Can that be done?
A: That’s the right direction. We have to find respectful relationships among private businesses and commons. Maybe we need new revenue models.

Q: [darius] The tragedy of the commons has devastated my country, Poland. Not because there was no governance. The structures were didn’t align public interest and private incentives. Intellectuals assumed people would contribute for free. You haven’t mentioned motivations…
A: Self-interest is far broader than traditional economists have regarded it. We need to devise structures that can be hearty and sustainable that serve the public interest.

Q: To what degree is power concentrated in different commons? Usually a small group holds veto power. E.g., most open source projects have lead developers. To what degree do you need a de facto leader?
A: You need de facto structures. And you do sometimes get concentrated monopolies where forking isn’t really an option.
Ben: Some large open source projects are governed democratically. E.g., Debian.

Q: [me]
A: I think you have a fragmented view. Trying to amass a unitary view of the commons is doomed to failure beause all of them have rootedness in the local
< me: Do we need a meta rule that says here's how we maximize local control of commons?
A: That’s the direction we need to go in. But that’s a political frontier we haven’t gotten to.

[wendy seltzer] Is there a natural limit to the size of commons?
A: Maybe, but there are all sorts of technological prostheses…
wendy: When you tie this to communities…
A: There may be a type of speciation.

Q: Something like BitTorrent — a true commons where people are sharing resources — suggests that there’s an outside of the fence direction…
A: Commons has some way of integrity of its asset.

Q: Commons can fail. What are the most common failure modes?
A: Not having adequate enforcement of boundaries, etc. Part of what’s so fascinating is watching commons proliferate, and dealing with the theory later.

Q: [charlie nesson] I think of the commons as everything you can reach for free. There are forces that want to capture the potential of the commons. What we’re looking for is the engine that makes the commons itself robust enough to resist that. I think of the law as the instrument of enclosure. The root to building that robustness is not litigation. We have to build up a force. The question comes down not to how we govern the commons, but how do given enterprises build self-sustaining business models on a gift economy?
A: Yes. We’re trying to build our space, our own republic.

[I missed a bunch. Sorry. Check the Berkman webcast site to find the webcast.] [Tags: ]

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