The modern commons

My previous post addressed the ancient agricultural commons of preindustrial England. Here I’m going to look at some issues about contemporary commons, before wrapping up this little odyssey on the commoning theme in my next post.

Although many agricultural commons still exist among small-scale farmers globally, the hot commons issues nowadays aren’t about common land resources so much as intellectual property rights, copyright, digital commons and so forth. I can’t say that I’m much of an expert on all that, but since my main occupations are as a small-scale farmer and a small-scale writer I do have a passing interest in the issues.

I recently came across a debate from a few years back on Josef Davies-Coates United Diversity blog which splendidly traverses the terrain I wish to explore. Davies-Coates unilaterally published an electronic version of permaculture writer Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden on his site, prompting Hemenway to request a takedown: “Why would you steal from your colleagues and teachers like this? It makes it very hard to write again if we aren’t supported,” Hemenway wrote, “Free is not sustainable”.

Cue an extensive, heated debate involving a cast of hundreds the like of which I’ve not witnessed since, er, Hemenway last posted his thoughts here on Small Farm Future. I can’t summarize all the arguments of Davies-Coates and his supporters, but I think the key ones are these:

  1. free online content will probably help boost hard copy sales – or, to put it another way, there’s money to be made from the internet if you know how
  2. “Commons-based peer production of free software and content” is more sustainable than copyright/private property rights based models, essentially because it’s a model of sharing and abundance, of ‘free culture’ for a ‘free society’, as opposed to the artificially-imposed scarcity involved in property rights based systems
  3. copyright infringement is not analogous to theft: the former is deprivation of potential earnings, whereas the latter is deprivation of property
  4. creators – including authors – ought to be fairly compensated for their efforts
  5. all creative work is derivative – or, in the words of one commenter, “Donkeys like Mr. Hemenway are just regurgitating stuff he has read or learned from others….Writing his book while standing on the combined experience of the entire human race, and calling it his property, is like me sitting in a boat and calling the ocean mine”

What to make of all this? Maybe a helpful starting point is a clear definition of what a commons or ‘commons-based peer production’ actually is, namely a resource (like a pasture, or, nowadays, perhaps a computer operating system) whose usage is not restricted to a single owner but is available to a specific wider community in accordance with a set of usage protocols enforceable by and upon that community.

Notice, then, what a commons is not: it is not a free for all, an open access regime where anybody can use the resource as they wish without reference to the community’s usage protocols, which invariably specify who can use the resource and how they can use it. Notice, too, how a traditional agricultural commons worked: it made the fruits of land available to (usually poor) people who did not own the land, but were then entitled to private gain from it (eg. by grazing a cow on common pasture and then selling its milk). And notice, finally, that some things are ‘common pool resources’ and not actual commons because the usage community and usage protocols are not clearly defined, and probably can’t be: these include the stock of human knowledge, biodiversity, the global atmosphere and indeed most things that people nowadays like to call the ‘global commons’, which is basically an oxymoron.

A lot of people today, myself included, feel that private property rights have gone too far in many spheres of life. We’re drawn to commons as an alternative model, and since we’re reacting against private individual rights we tend to emphasize the communal aspect of the commons, and not to notice the private property rights they involve. But these rights are critical: a common pasture is of no benefit to the commoner who cannot sell the milk from the cow she grazes on it.

OK, let me put this back into the context of the Hemenway – Davies-Coates debate. Certainly, creative work is derivative of our forebears, as is simply being alive. Does that mean that nobody is entitled to claim ownership of what they’ve produced? I don’t see the logic there (except in one specific sense I’ll come to). The stock of human knowledge is available to other people to make what they will of it, as Hemenway has done. If you think that what he’s made of it is worthless regurgitation then you’re at liberty not to buy it, but I don’t see how this entitles you to replicate his regurgitations as you wish. In that sense, copyright infringement is entirely analogous to theft. What, after all, makes a thing like my tractor my property and not yours? Not really any specific relation between me and the particular bits and pieces constituting my tractor, but – like copyright – a social relationship of convention between me and other people in my community acknowledging that those bits and pieces are for me, and not you, to use as I wish, principally in fact for making potential earnings (since, hobbying aside, why else would I want a tractor?) On that note, as a farmer I’m in exactly the same position as Hemenway the author. On land husbanded by my forebears, I sow seeds bred by my forebears, tend them with tools and techniques developed by my forebears, and then I sell the product of my labour to make money for myself.

I suspect that people find a farmer selling regurgitated human knowledge in the form of vegetables less objectionable than a writer selling regurgitated human knowledge in the form of books, though it’s not really clear to me why. But in fact as a farmer I encounter some of the same attitude: the land and its products should not be bought and sold for private gain. I’m sympathetic to that notion, provided that it’s applied equitably across society. On his website, Davies-Coates asked Hemenway if he honestly had no mp3s on his hard drive that he hadn’t paid for, but you could turn that line of questioning back on itself. Did Davies-Coates steal his computer, pay nothing to his internet service provider, electricity company and so forth? Generally I find that people who think I shouldn’t profit from my writing or my farming seem much less worried about the profits that accrue in other sectors of the economy.

More than in most of those other sectors, farmers and writers – productive, creative occupations both – find themselves too easily at the mercy of middlemen who profit excessively on the back of their creativity and narrow the range of what it’s possible for them to create. The internet has brought creative benefits in making it easier for people to upload and share what they want, but we delude ourselves if we think that it’s some kind of new creative commons. On the contrary, what’s happening is that those middlemen controlling the circulation of content (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple etc) are making a mint, while those producing it are increasingly squeezed and expected to produce it for nothing – a point made nicely in Emilie Bickerton’s article ‘Culture after Google’ which you can read here absolutely free! For now at least. Anyway, I think Hemenway had it right: free is not sustainable.

Well, maybe free could be sustainable, but only in what some of the commenters on Davies-Coates’ post were calling a ‘gift economy’. So let’s be clear about what a gift economy means. This week you take my book and publish it on the internet, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Next week I take your car, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that – though maybe I’ll give it back in a month, or a year. Do such economies exist? Yes, but they’re not usually ones in which people have books or cars to give away. They’re usually so-called ‘primitive’ societies in which almost everyone is engaged in the same basic subsistence activities – foraging or farming, making their own tools and their own shelter – and in which they have long-term, face-to-face relationships with their gift partners. One of the commenters on Davies-Coates blog – the one who called Hemenway a donkey, who turns out to be a fellow farmer – showed an awareness of this issue, writing “I’m not sure I want everyone growing their own food. Who would I sell to?”

Exactly so. A gift economy is one which enforces strong egalitarianism through weak development of material culture, and in which everyone pretty much takes care of themselves. I don’t think it’s such a bad economy for all that. I think there’s a lot to be learned from it. But it’s streets, absolutely streets, away from how people actually live nowadays in the UK or the USA.

In an impressively forgiving follow-up, Hemenway wrote,

“I just have a big piece of my life invested in the old system, and, like a conservative farmer, pulling it loose is a slow process that both legally and financially I can’t do overnight. We’re in an interesting time, where the old and the new are both working, neither one perfectly, often with conflict, and we’re not at resolution yet.”

Indeed we’re not at resolution yet. We do not inhabit anything remotely resembling a gift economy. Some of the commenters endorsing Davies-Coates’ line of argument even confessed to moonlighting for cash in the mainstream economy in order that they could produce their proper work for free. That’s not a gift economy, and it gives no high ground from which to criticise Hemenway. Actually, there are two contradictory strands in the anti-Hemenway line of argument, as per points (1) and (2) in my summary above. One is that if you upload a lot of stuff for free, then you’ll probably make more money in the long run. The other is that you should upload stuff for free, and you shouldn’t be trying to make money from it. If I were Hemenway, I’d have been much less conciliatory either way. On the first count, it’s his decision and not Davies-Coates’ as to how he chooses to market his work. And on the second, if you want to have a gift economy then fine – you upload my book, then I’ll come and have your computer. In any case, permaculture is supposed to be about whole system design, not piecemeal slagging of individual people for the way they make a living.

Nevertheless, I think there’s some truth in the notions of ‘abundance’ and ‘free culture’ on the Davies-Coates’ side of the argument, because the existing mainstream economy does create artificial scarcity, and it’s not so difficult for people to create abundant lives collectively. But it is quite difficult, especially if there are others who freeride on your efforts. ‘Abundance’ or ‘free culture’ too easily morph in our present market society mindset into getting something for nothing. The ancient commoners knew that culture is never really free, and that if their way of life was to persist in the face of those looking to exploit them and the landscapes they inhabited then they needed to define their community and its protocols of reciprocity with great care. It’s a lesson that the would be commoners of today need to learn too.

Can we learn it? I’m not sure. I’ll try to pull together some of the issues from this post and the last to address that question in my next post. Which I’ll be uploading on the internet for free. However, I’ve decided to add a ‘Donate’ button to this blog so that those who get something out of my writing can have the opportunity of giving something back, courtesy of the free WordPress plugin you’ll see installed on the sidebar of my site. Now there’s a gift economy for you.

Maybe I’ll check the balance before answering my question…

12 thoughts on “The modern commons

  1. Hi there,

    Thanks for this piece, I’ve so far only skim read it – but you seem to have largely missed the point many comment on my post made about sharing information not being at all like the theft of a vehicle.

    The point made by others (which I agree with) is that if I steal your tractor you no longer have the use of your tractor. But if I copy and share some information the original still exists and no one is deprived of its use.

    The point being that at present we live in an an upside down world where our economies treat genuinely scarce natural resources like land and fishstocks as if there were abundant, whilst simultaneously using copyright and patents etc to create artificial scarcity of information and knowledge which is actually abundant.

    As Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation wrote in 2007:

    1. Our current world system is marked by a profoundly counterproductive logic of social organization:
    a) it is based on a false concept of abundance in the limited material world; it has created a system based on infinite growth, within the confines of finite resources
    b) it is based on a false concept of scarcity in the infinite immaterial world; instead of allowing continuous experimental social innovation, it purposely erects legal and technical barriers to disallow free cooperation through copyright, patents, etc …
    2. Therefore, the number one priority for a sustainable civilization is overturning these principles into their opposite:
    a) we need to base our physical economy on a recognition of the finitude of natural resources, and achieve a sustainable steady-state economy
    b) we need to facilitate free and creative cooperation and lower the barriers to such exchange by reforming the copyright and other restrictive regimes

    • Thanks Josef – I do basically agree with Bauwens, and with the need to reform copyright law. The sticking point is that I don’t think a book is just ‘information’ (or, as Clem puts it below, common sense is pretty rare) – and you ARE depriving someone of its use, namely the author’s use in getting paid for it. That’s why it’s called intellectual property. If Hemenway’s book is just information, which is abundantly available, then you should have no need to reproduce it. And if it isn’t, then his efforts need to be recognised. If we lived in a true gift economy, then you wouldn’t deprive me the use of a tractor by taking my tractor, because if I then needed a tractor I’d take somebody else’s, or else you’d return the original one. My problem here is that talk of a gift economy is empty unless everything circulates within it. You can’t take somebody’s book while holding on to your own chattels. If you did that in a gift economy you’d soon find yourself ostracised.

  2. Just waiting for a post entitled ‘Common Sense’… or even perhaps “Common Cents” [though as a Brit you’ll likely tend toward the former… a penny is not a cent on your side is it?].

    So here’s a thought on what I think is the answer to those who might expect your gift of produce because you are using land that existed before you and planting seeds you didn’t breed yourself – neither is free and even if you have inherited the land you still have a market opportunity to rent the land to someone else. Forgoing the rental income to use the land for your own production still incurs this ‘opportunity cost’. And you also incur the risk associated with weather, disease, and so forth. Your labor to husband the crops is also associated with an opportunity cost – if you aren’t hoeing the cabbages you could be writing the next great novel or repairing your neighbor’s tractor (in exchange for some of his carrots).

    And those seeds you didn’t breed – lets not get a plant breeder started on that one… lets just suggest that like the land and your husbanding efforts those seeds are inputs in the overall production of a final product and they contribute in a couple ways quite outside your particular effort as the farmer/vege producer. If the tractor isn’t working because it needs a clean carburetor, then cleaning the fuel tank is not the primary need… but if the fuel tank is indeed dirty, cleaning the carburetor will not finish the job of repairing the tractor (the moral I’m trying to suggest is that growing that succulent, tasty, fresh and desirable cabbage requires more than land, seed, and gardening talent… but to an untrained eye it can appear that simple).

    In my experience Common Sense is pretty rare. And rare tends to be valuable.

    • Thanks for your tuppenceworth Clem. All good points as ever. The opportunity cost argument is certainly one good way of explaining why I need payment for my vegetables – particularly to people who could have afforded to buy into a similar operation. Then again, perhaps it pushes us towards income maximization arguments (or economies of scale, as you pointed out under my last post) or to homo oeconomicus assumptions. So I’m interested in alternative economies, but as per my comment to Josef above I don’t think we can pick and choose the homo oeconmicus assumptions we wish to jettison.

      • I’m interested in alternative economies as well. And the P2P discussion is new to me, so pointing to Michel Bauwens’ work is appreciated. But having done a little skimming of the P2P foundations online presence I find that Michel has left his completely volunteer status and gone back to paid employment. [see: ]

        I don’t mean to suggest P2P is a failed notion because of Mr Bauwens’ return to a capitalist mode of self preservation, but I will wonder aloud – in unison with your point about careful selection of assumptions to jettison – whether the time is ripe for such profound realignments. Perhaps the changes might be best approached with care and consideration.

        Open access has been a significant new wrinkle in the publishing game for several years now and considerable ink (or electrons) has been spilled debating the strengths and weaknesses of OA. I tend to favor OA – especially for the dissemination of publically supported research results. Pier review is typically provided at public expense (university faculty reviewing manuscripts as part of the ‘service’ the university provides to society) so that the final publishing mark up, proofing, aggregating (meta-data, etc) are the ‘costs’ a journal must recoup to remain viable (that their tractor is still there for their own use).

        WordPress provides some blogging access for little to no cost to content creators with the model that they can drop paid advertising into the content, and also offering premium levels for a price to creators (or blog sponsors). And similarly one can add a donate button if the ‘costs’ of creating and sharing content become too great (by stealing precious time from other wealth creating opportunities).

        The blog posts are significant – but the comments are free 🙂

        • Ha – Pier review. That’s like going along the waterfront checking for poor piling?

          This is why the comments are free!

          • Good one…still, everyone’s entitled to make an occasional spelling mishtake, no? If the donations are enough, I’ll take on an editor to run the rule over all the contributions. Dig deep folks.

            On Clem’s wider point, yes academic publishing is a good example of a commons which IMO has been a little bit subverted by the private property rights exercised by the publishers. Open access has been a good development and I hope it spreads, so long as the publishers can still cover their costs. They should be able to. Self-employed book authors are another matter though…

  3. not actually read all the comments but just saw Chris’ comment that ends “Self-employed book authors are another matter though…”

    Self-published self-employed authors of ebooks (OK mostly not open access ebooks, but still) are actually who are selling and making the most money (far more than authors with big publishers are), see this wonderful site:

    And there are also example of people both giving away their open access books and still selling lots of books too. Best selling authors Cory Doctorow and Charles Eisenstein both do it with all their books and both are very successful.

    As people who have read all the comments on my post linked to above will also have seen, DVD sales of Monty Python’s Flying Circus increased by 23000% after posting the whole series on youtube for free.

    And when Radiohead made a pay what you like album on average people paid more than they otherwise would’ve done so.

    • Fair enough, but as per my post the ‘you can make more money through use of open access’ line of argument is very different from the ‘information ought to be open access’ one. Can’t see that it’s anybody’s business but the author’s to decide how to disseminate their work.

      • True, but the author has decided to disseminate their work by publishing it with a publisher. And that publisher has created a digital version and put it online. At that point the genie was out the bottle. It wasn’t me who created and put a digital copy of the book online. The publisher did that. I just found a digital copy online and added it to my library.

  4. Chris,
    What an interesting series. The comments have been fascinating. I am surprised at the utopian trend of the libertarian digital crowd. Some seem to think they are advancing a new social relationship. I can’t quite make up my mind whether their arguments have more in common with Somali pirates or with those who still believe in unicorns and something called “free markets.”

    Seems a bit of a useless argument to have with that crowd. No society of any complexity would tolerate that type of “free” exchange. And no society without that complexity would be able to sustain the complexity of the internet.

    Keep ‘em coming.


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