Reclaiming the Commons

notes on Bollier, David. “Reclaiming the Commons,” an essay based on material included in Bollier, David. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of our Common Wealth (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Who shall control the commons?

There is a kind of enclosure process happening to the American commons as it’s being converted into market resources — private appropriation of collectively owned resources, with a disproportionate benefit to the corporate class.

The commons can be tangible or more abstract. “United by legal and moral ownership by American people.”

  • Tangible assets: oil, minerals, timber, grasslands and other natural resources on public lands, broadcast airwaves, parks, stadiums, civic institutions.
  • Intangible assets:  creative works and public knowledge not privatized under copyright law (i.e. the public domain), cultural spaces, scientific and academic research
    • the character of these spaces is markedly different when governed as markets rather than commons
  • Frontier commons: historically too big, or small, or elusive to be marketized. Water, seed lines, human genome. “Often regarded as parts of a larger human heritage.”
  • Gift economies: open source software, scientific research communities, blood donation systems, community gardens, Alcoholics Anonymous

In most cases, the market prices for these resources can not approximate their actual value to the community.

Markets are not inherently bad — but “we must achieve a more humane and productive balance between commons and the markets.”

Seeing the commons

Legacy of the Cold War — we’re hostile to talking about cooperation and collective ownership because of our historically based distrust of socialist societies. [ed– see what Alperovitz was saying about teaching possibilities]

We’re also dominated by the idea of the “tragedy of the commons,” with a lingering pessimistic outlook that’s a result of Hardin’s essay.

What’s missing from those negative viewpoints is

an acknowledgement that trust, reciprocity, a history of shared commitment, and a robust community can overcome many of the alleged failures of the commons.

We also pay less attention to characteristics of the commons that the markets can’t or won’t acknowledge — things like externalities, collectivity, moral and social norms, historical context.


Can be seen in the Main Street to shopping mall shift, local to national. The privatization of research.

Federal drug research: the government (via taxpayer dollars) subsidizes research, which goes to the production of new drugs, which we end up paying exorbitant prices for. Big Pharma has the political power in this situation.

Airwaves: there’s been push and pull over corporate vs public control of/access to the broadcast airwaves since the mid-1920s. Corporate ownership vs. public trusteeship. The government keeps giving more and more of the spectrum away for free, which is a donation not matched by the public services promised in return by the broadcast networks.

Public knowledge: “Aggressive efforts of businesses to enclose the cyber-commons by erecting new proprietary barriers of control over infrastructure, information, users.” Proprietary standards (ebooks), sale of domain names.

Copyright law: unprecedented expansions of copyright keep important works out of the public domain for longer and longer. We continue paying for things that would have belonged to the public already. Fair use vs digital rights management: copyright now favors the sellers rather protects the creators.

Children: being exploited as economic resource? “Branding for life” — market share vs mind share, that is, owning the attitudes and loyalties and desires of consumers.

Protecting the commons

Reassert right to public control over public resources.

The idea of the commons helps us identify and describe the common values that lie beyond the marketplace. A language of the commons helps restore humanistic, democratic concerns to their proper place in public policymaking.

While we need markets, we also need room for the visionary ideas, accidental discoveries, and embryonic notions that germinate into real breakthroughs if only they have the space to grow.

Stakeholder trusts

Give all citizens a personal stake in public assets — linkage of property and citizenship.

Alaska Permanent Fund: a state-run investment savings account that pays equal annual dividends to every Alaskan citizen. Public trust for oil revenues from drilling on the state’s Northern Slope.

This inspired proposals for a “sky trust” (idea courtesy of our friend Peter Barnes), to “give all Americans a stake in the scarcity rents that polluters would pay for being allowed to release carbon emissions into the atmosphere.”

Private law

GNU General Public License: preserves programming code as part of an electronic commons — anyone can use it, but you can’t then go and copyright or patent it. (solves the free rider problem quite nicely). Creative Commons is a spinoff of this.

Preservation of Information Commons

Must roll back the:

  • Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which threatens the public’s fair use rights in digital content.
  • Copyright Term Extension Act, which extends copyright terms by twenty years
  • Trademark Anti-Dilution Act, which gives brand names legal protections at the expense of free expression.

We need to properly value public resources, stop giving them away for free.


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