There is no such thing as an „open access commons“

update: January 10

The International Commons Conference hold in Berlin in the fall of 2010 triggered a complex debate on the commoning-list (the archive is publicly accessible).

One of the issues discussed is if, say, Free Software or the Wikipedia could be called „open access commons„; if they could be conceptualized as „unstructured commons“ with no need of clear management rules concerning access. Some considered this being the case and that the lack of access rules is not a problem, basically because software code or information (like the information stored in Wikipedia) cannot be over-used. And that’s right. Code and information – if copied – will not be taken away.

Hence, the term „open access commons“ leads to confusion and misunderstandings, since it can easily be construed as an open-access common pool resource as described by Garrett Hardin who coined the famous metaphor of the Tragedy of the Commons („Imagine a pasture open to all…“). This metaphor is deeeeeply rooted in (neo-)classical political economics and in people’s minds. Despite it’s numerous analytical errors.

The point here is, IMHO: … A commons is not a natural thing, but a social construct. Free-for-all ressources without socially defined rules and without commoning are not a commons! They are simply a common pool resource accessible to all. „Therefor it is best to avoid ‚open access commons‚ altogether“, expressed David Bollier on the list. And he’s right: There is no such thing as an ‚open access commons‚. Actually the term is near to paradoxical (Or it is madness, or there is method in it). The idea of an „open access commons“ defies the consistence of the notion of the commons.

This may seem a fairly meticulous issue, but if we want to build a theoretical and political framework for the commons, we need to know what our common denominator is and we need a coherent notion of the commons. Hence, again, an „unmanaged/ unstructured common pool resource – open to all“ is not a commons!

What is open access with regard to the commons then? It is a rule, not a given. It is nothing inherent to the resource itself, but a social convention.

If we talk about the air we breathe, we simply talk about an open access common pool resource. We don’t talk (yet) about a commons. By the way: I would have loved to put a link on the wikipedia entry on „common pool resource„, but the text is constantly mixing up the denomination of ‚the resource‚ itself (say water) with the denomination of ‚a commons‘ (i.e. : the resources + a community + commoning based on rules, say an irrigation system). But there is a big difference between a common pool resource and what we might call a commons, as Elinor Ostrom points out. If we refer to a ‚common pool resource‚ – code or water or air – we refer to a resource supposed to be collectively used. If we refer to a commons instead, we refer to a complex social system which enables us to actually use the resource in a sustainable and equitable way. We need management rules to keep the air clean. In this perspective, the current efforts to address climate change are efforts to turn an ‚open access common pool resource‚ into ‚a commons‘. Most of those efforts are damned to fail, because the are conceived in an top-down way of thinking.

However, it is important to state, that there are some proposals based on the very idea of the commons: as for instance the „Skytrust“ developed by Peter Barnes or the budget approach as proposed by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). The basic principle of both ideas is: One person = one share.

So, a commons is ALWAYS structured by rules and norms – taking into account an important distinction which draws back on the rivalry issue, which is the one and only relevant distinction with regard to the nature of things/goods.

  • If the „common pool resource“ at the core of a certain commons is limited (like water in irrigation systems): the rules imply boundaries.
  • If the „common pool resource“ at the core of a certain commons is unlimited (like code, knowledge or information in Free Software and the Wikipedia): the rule is – or should be – open access. That means, open access is a social convention and Free Software is accessible for everybody without no need for boundaries because the community of Free Software programmers wanted the code to be accessible for everybody.

That is, IMHO, what the Open Access movement is fighting for. It is fighting for open access as a management rule for non rivalrous common pool resources. Since they are convinced, that open access is a necessary condition (though not a sufficient one) for a fair share and that open access is
important to guarantee the enhancement of the commons of the mind. Actually, the success of Wikipedia tells us that they are not mistaken.

In short: the term „open-access“ is not misleading when denoting:

  • an open access common pool resource (like air or the unmanaged spots of the Earth)
  • open access as a management rule to determine access to non-rivalrous common pool resources

But the term „open access commons“ is misleading. A commons is a commons – being it based on natural or cultural resources. Open access adresses ONLY the regulation of to a certain commons – it is always the result of a decision taken by a community or by society.

James Quilligan adds another two important political arguments:

First, the use of the word ‚open‘ creates an unintended ambiguity, leaving the commons vulnerable to further appropriation and control by the public sector (government), which has a longstanding … claim on the principle of ‚openness‘. Indeed, democratic liberalism has always hyped itself as a system of ‚open public access‘.“

Instead, Quilligan says:

„the state’s use of the term ‚open‘ does not really mean open, and the state’s use of the term ‚public‘ does not really mean public. So it’s very easy to confuse what commoners and the state each mean by ‚open access“, which is decidedly different.

His second argument is, that the liberal interpretation of ‚openness‚ comes down to a system

„in which the borders of a closed system allow energy, but not matter, to flow through.“

In short: Commodities and money pass the border. People don’t. This paved to way to an

economic globalization — in which the closed system of sovereign political borders and private property was maintained, while open
flows of trade and finance across all borders were encouraged. […] Yet we still blame corporations, bankers and politicians for engineering these systemic contradictions, when the problem also rests with us for not clearly recognizing how the state’s use of the principle of ‚open access‘ is used to undermine our interests, especially with regard to the protection of our commons.“

Quilligan calls it: The mythology of the state’s open access regime. He suggests, that we should abandon the use of the word „open“ (with regard to the commons) at all, because it is

„constantly clashing against the linguistic and conventions of the state as well as the masses.“

So, let’s find a better one! The floor is, well, open.

Einen Beitrag zum Thema auf Deutsch gibt’s drüben bei Keimform und auch die bemerkenswerte Argumentation von Quilligan hat Stefan Meretz schon ins Deutsche übersetzt!

Foto by Lizenz: cc: by sa

8 Gedanken zu „There is no such thing as an „open access commons“

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