Imagining New Commons-Friendly Economies

The debate over the commons used to focus on how to protect shared resources from private predators.  Now, increasingly, the focus is shifting to how the commons and market forces can constructively work together while preserving the integrity of the commons.  That is to say, the focus is on how to preserve the social relationships and free flows of information that constitute the commons while permitting some sort of monetization and/or developing external revenue sources. 

I consider this whole conversation is a significant “developmental stage” in the evolution of the commons:  how to develop a sustainable balance between commons and markets?  This sort of talk was much in evidence at the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona in late October; at the International Commons Conference in Berlin on November 1-2; and most notably at the “Economies of the Commons” conference hosted by the De Balie Center in Amsterdam on November 11-13.  The tagline for the latter conference put it well:  “Paying the cost of making things free.”

I didn’t attend the latter event, but it had an impressive array of speakers taking on this frontier issue.  (Accounts of the conference can be found here.)  There were speakers and panels on the meaning of scholarship as a commons; the future of the public domain in Europe; new types of open content tools and technologies; and new revenue models for shareable content; among other topics.

Filmmaker Jamie King ("Steal This Film") described VODO, a platform that invites web users to make donations to filmmakers in exchange for extra access to the film and related materials.  Dolf Veenvliet of the Blender Foundation described the suite of open-source software that his organization and a global community of programmers use to develop high-quality 3-D animated films.  One of its short films, Sintel, shows the technical virtuosity that is possible for “amateurs” working outside a corporate/Pixel environment.

There were other notable talks: 

Duke law professor James Boyle spoke about the various impediments to protecting an open ecosystem of knowledge and creativity.

Syracuse University library and commons scholar Charlotte Hess talked about the complex challenges of constructing “a sustainable, commons-based infrastructure to ensure immediate accessibility of civilization’s digital record to present and future generations.”

Ben Moskowitz, general coordinator of the Open Video Alliance, argued that we need alternatives to today’s video-on-demand technology, which “are often proprietary, such as Realplayer in the early days of the web or the Flash video nowadays.”  As the conference blog noted, Moskowitz also complained that online videos “are not connected to the rest of the web.  For example, you can link and embed YouTube videos but the content is disconnected, it’s a Flash element in a website as a static black box. Furthermore, these technologies don’t allow the audience to get really involved or engage with the content….”

Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation, spoke on the incompatibility and lack of access to supposedly public data.  The urgent challenge is to create an open data ecosystem and develop new software tools to knit together different bodies of data.

Denis Jaromil Rojo, the free software programmer, media artist, and activist, and Marco Sachy, discussed, an online lab providing “tools, practices and experiences for the conceptualization, development and deployment of currency.”  (See also the video interview of Jaromil about his network of programmers,, and the importance of considering the social justice implications of technology.) 

The Economies of the Commons conference also provided a nice set of resources about the commons that is certainly worth browsing.