Why “Commons” language gives me hives

A bit of blogging for the record here. Doc Searls wrote:

“The Commons” and “the public domain” might be legitimate concepts
with deep and relevant histories, but they’re too arcane to most of
us. Eric Raymond has told me more than once that the Commons Thing
kinda rubs him the wrong way. […] (Maybe he’ll come in here and
correct me or enlarge on his point.)

This is what I emailed him in response:

My problem with the language of “the commons” is that to me it it
sounds, at best, like idealistic blather. At worst, and far more
usually, it sounds like an attempt to conceal all kinds of individual
decisions about cooperation under a vague collectivist metaphor so the
individuals who made those decisions can be propagandized and jerked

The moment you start talking about “the commons”, you almost
automatically start attributing needs and wants and rights to “the
commons” that aren’t simply the needs and wants and rights of the
people who made the decisions that define that commons. And that’s
dangerous — before you know it, you have power-seekers telling you
that your needs and wants and rights are overidden by those of
“the commons”, even if (or especially if) that commons was partly
your creation in the first place.

This is the same reason I never talk about “society” — because
“society” does not, properly speaking, exist as a moral or ethical
agent. Talking about “society” as though it has needs or wants or
rights of its own is simply a form of ventriloquism used by some
individual to seek power over others — oh, no, I’m not pursuing my
personal agenda, I’m acting for the good of “society”, and please
avert your eyes from anything I gain by so doing.

Our public life is already corrupted enough by this kind of
ventriloquism. I’ve tried to shape the language of open-source
advocates so as to at least not make the problem worse.

Doc agreed with these points in an email reply, but pointed out
that the open-source community has allies (Larry Lessig, in particular)
who are emotionally attached to “commons” language. This is true;
it’s a bug, not a feature.

But this is almost a detail. I fully agree with the central point
of Doc’s essay. (I chastised him gently for burying it amidst too
much clutter.) There is a war of metaphors going on right now: the
Internet as place versus the Internet as pipes. Is it an agora
(that handy Greek word that hovers somewhere between “marketplace” and
“public square”) or a “content-delivery system”?

How people think about this matters. As Doc points out, if the
net-as-pipes metaphor prevails, then issues like free-speech rights
and open access become subordinated to property rights over the
pipes. If the net-as-agora metaphor prevails, free speech trumps
property rights — even when the “agora” space is privately owned,
our mental framework about it is that it’s a place where public
expression is subject to minimum control.

Doc and Larry point out that the big corporations pushing for
semi-infinite copyright extensions have been winning battles because they
have presented a compelling narrative in which copyright is property,
and Americans (by and large) think property is good.

Here’s our problem: we need to come up with a compelling narrative
of the Internet-as-agora without challenging the
property-is-good assumption. The FSF has been trying to disassociate
copyrights/patents/trademarks from property for years (RMS regularly
lectures people on why the term “intellectual property” is bad) but it
has failed. We need better tactics than that. We need a propertarian
case for the Internet as agora.


  1. Only one problem: Internet-as-agora falls straight into the trap the EFF has, by legitimizing spam on free speech grounds. The reason that rejecting spam out of hand currently is not problematical is precisely due to the Internet-as-pipes property rights system. Once you throw that out and replace it with the EFF’s “free speech uber alles” approach, you destroy any justification at all for eradicating spam, and condemn the Internet to unusability and, eventually, irrelevance.

  2. Jay, I think you’re mistaken. There is no trap here; if the EFF has fallen into one, it’s their own ineptness and not anything inherent in the agora narrative.

    Most non-geeks are quite willing to entertain the model of the net as an agora while understanding perfectly clearly that your mailbox is your space. Spamming is not analogous to a derelict with a sandwich board on a public steetcorner (which we accept as protected speech in the agora even though it’s unpleasant), it’s like having someone shove manure through the mail slot in your door.

  3. “This is the same reason I never talk about “society” — because “society” does not, properly speaking, exist as a moral or ethical agent.”

    What about “the tribe”?

    As for spam, what’s the big deal? We have bayesian filters now which I have found to be extremely effective. As esr said “your mailbox is your place” – which means you must take responsibility for protecting it. Effective legislation against spam would almost certainly have an impact on legitimate free speech as collateral damage.

  4. While I very much agree that the way we think about it matters (specifically any models people commonly use as analogy), I think we have further issues.

    Anecdotal evidence (e.g. articles on Slashdot, NYTimes, etc) seems to indicate that people are being pursued for what they’re saying rather than where they’re saying it. “Internet as pipes” and the ownership model simply provides the means for suppression by the suppressors to pursue individual corporations. It’s certainly useful to eliminate that vector of attack but I don’t think that will solve the underlying disagreements.

    It seems to me that the Internet is the current catalyst to revisit the whole issue of freedom of speech. This time, however, America is approaching the problem from a relatively more speech accepting recent history. My fear is that people do not have a sufficient emotional response to limitations to preserve this freedom — they’ll be more willing to compromise.

    Also, on having “society” or “the commons” (or “the people” if you’re of a certain political perspective): I think that many people on both sides of the freedom of speech debate use a model of “society” as a morally independent entity. I don’t agree, which makes it more difficult for me to intuitively grasp that model, but I think that freedom of speech is *more* important when the collective is treated as a separate entity. In any case, I think arguments for freedom of speech do not need to debunk that model before proceeding. There are arguments which are independent of the societal model and arguments which work with it well.

  5. Toward a propertarian case for the Internet as agora, here is my submission (175-word limit) to SinceSlicedBread.com (From the site: “Since Sliced Bread is a national call for fresh, common sense ideas. A call for ideas that will strengthen our economy and improve the day-to-day lives of working men and women and their families.”):

    America can become the Silicon Valley of customized education and career services (CECS), the market that business guru Peter Drucker believes will be the world’s biggest within thirty years. The CECS industry, then, can be a leading source of good jobs for Americans.

    Mature CECS companies will operate online CECS markets.

    A precondition for these markets to thrive is good information about suppliers and the returns from different courses of study.

    This information will derive largely from prices generated at liquid, transparent markets for the ad inventory of single-author blogs.

    Establishing such a blog-ad market starts with establishing a liquid, transparent market for the ad inventory within online videos, not least because advertisers will want to support bloggers who “distribute” videos.

    Sustainable video-ad market-makers will give publishers and complementors (e.g., blogger-distributors) 80-100% of net ad revenue, and will profit from marketing, each starting with a TV sitcom set at the company.

    Once these companies establish CECS markets, they will offer loans for Individual Career Plans ASAP.

    Land of OpportuniTV, anyone? :-)


    Additional details are beyond the scope of this comment, but the short story is that, IMHO, the agora framing effect can be realized through *cough* my *cough* actionable blueprint for developing the aforesaid interlinked markets and the entertainment programming that will popularize the markets.

    Let me know if further details are of interest.


  6. Hello Eric. I sent an email, but I realize email can sometimes be swamped and get tagged as spam, which I hope this isn’t. There was a launch of a blogger collective yesterday that calls itself “Open Source Media” and went so far as to trademark OSR as its name. In their press release they claimed they “went Open Source” (http://www.osm.org/site/articles/presscontact/presslaunchevent/) , when their licensing is anything but.

    I’m afraid, their use of terminology will further muddy the waters as to just what that phrase means.

    I’ve written a piece on my site at http://www.phillyfuture.org/node/2112 talking about it, OSI, you and more. I would love to hear what you think. You and others helped lay the ground work of the net and to see two words that come close to the heart of it used for marketing blather in such a blatent and redefining way – by folks that are very influential and could sway Google in a short amount of time – is disenheartening.

  7. All language concerning all collectives I can think of
    at the moment gives me the hives.

    I’ve even thought of making a new religion out of it
    then I broke out in hives again.

    Maybe I’ll call it “The Great I”.

    [scratch, scratch]

  8. It seems to me that Doc should have the answer to this — markets are conversations.

    Am I overlooking something? If I own a park, and make money by selling balloons or running the carousel in the park, isn’t it in my best interest to attract as many people as I can? So, isn’t it up to those people to demand that I don’t try to regulate their ability to speak their mind?

  9. Public libraries exemplify how a “common” resource can be destroyed – or at least made less usable – by too-enthusiastic deployment of “rights” language. Hobos (short for “homeless bozos”) have taken over most of them. So even though all the people “own” the library, no one can kick out the hobos from “their” libraries so they can read without stench and noise. Most people go to a library to get books. Hobos use it for entirely different reasons, as a social center and warm (or cool) place. And of course the hobos don’t pay anything for this “common” resource. A true commons would have to be supported by anyone who wanted to use it, like a video rental store.

  10. I wrote about framing narratives for audience before:
    here’s the argument against copyright term extension reframed for different political views:

    Liberal collectivist
    The shared culture of society should belong to the people together, not to faceless corporations.

    Our ability to express ourselves freely should not be constrained by a state-granted monopoly.

    Liberal Economist
    As non-rivalrous goods with a vanishingly small marginal cost of reproduction, cultural goods reach maximum utility by being freely replicable.

    Creating property rights in goods that can be duplicated at will is inflationary, and undermines the value of real physical property that is the bedrock of a stable society.

    Each of these is a facet of the issue, and a defensible position, but if you have a mismatch between the argument and the political frame of your audience, you will be met with incomprehension or hostility, and won’t win for your cause.

  11. There’s a better way to dismiss the “spam-as-protected-speech” metaphor: speech may be protected, but the courts have (rightly) never held that you’re allowed to make a public nuisance or disturb the piece doing it. You can’t have a parade down my street at 2am without a permit. You can’t bang on my windows and scream, “VOTE FOR HARRY BROWN!” over and over again until I agree to do what you want. Nor can you spray-paint graffiti without being penalized, no matter how “political” your graffiti message is.

    This is a red herring. You can address the issue of spam all sorts of ways while still working within a free speech zone. You have to be careful, but you can certainly do it.

  12. “…never held that you’re allowed to make a public nuisance or disturb the piece doing it.”

    Disturbing the piece is bad, but also, they’ve never held that you can disturb the peace in the name of free speech.

    Leave my piece and my peace alone, you speechers! ;-)

  13. The problem is that “the internet” is every bit as much a collective term as “society”, and with all the same problems. It’s not a place. To the extent geographic metaphors can be applied reasonably at all, it’s a collection of places, and virtually all of those places are privately owned.

    I’d expect some fuzzy-headed thinking along the lines of “email boxes are fully private property but infrastructure isn’t” from someone who didn’t understand the technology, or from someone whose belief in property rights was…well, let’s say “less than firm”. But that is most emphatically not a description of you, so I’m very surprised to see you handwaving away the spam situation.

    What is the fundamental distinction (as it relates to the pipes/agora debate) between an email box that I obtain with an account from an ISP, a server I rent from a hosting provider, and a network feed I buy from a backbone company? I frankly don’t see one. In each case I’m paying a monthly fee for limited and defined rights to use someone else’s property for my own benefit in such a way as the contract between us defines, and the only limitations on the possible content of that contract are the demands of the marketplace.

    Unless you can present a relevant distinction I’m not seeing, I can’t really accept the idea that the former type of relationship is strictly a matter of private property, and yet the latter two are somehow a matter of legitimate interest to the general public.

    To be blunt, Searls’ commentary sounds to me like the bleatings of com-priv alarmists circa 1993 or so, and I’m somewhere between surprised and alarmed to see you of all people agreeing with it, regardless of any issues you may have with his choice of terminology.

  14. Dean, the reason that “freedom of speech” arguments give *me* hives is that the EFF is using that argument to claim that spam-fighting tools violate the free speech rights of people, including spammers, and therefore should not be used. This certainly leaves the EFF’s competence open to question, and is in fact the reason I refuse to support them – even though, in general, I agree with their positions. Cory Doctorow was distressed to hear that I considered the issue that important, even though he espoused the standard EFF line.

  15. Matt, you’re reading more into my comment than I put there. Of course the Internet is composed of infrastructure that is private property (server boxes, pipes, and so forth). And you are correct that at some level all these relationships are defined by contract. The argument about metaphors, recast into economic terms, is an argument about what the default contract is — that is, the negotiating start position.

  16. Copyright is not property. Copyright is a time-limited legal privilege that we accept as an infringement on our legal rights in order to “advance the arts and sciences”. Copyright has always been about the trade in legal privileges. Ever since Queen Anne, the Anglosphere has recognized that perpetual copyrights and patents are self-defeating. If you want to attack the corporate interests pushing the restoration of perpetual copyrights, call them m’lord and copyright barons because that is what they want, the restoration of an unjust system that was eliminated centuries ago because it didn’t work.

    Yes, that includes m’lord RMS who sups from the same royal table with the GPL.

    The commons and the public domain are simply those things that no longer come under the legal privilege regime. We’ve gritted our teeth and waited our turn and now we copy and adapt with abandon.

  17. The problem is that copyright law is a third-party law. A doesn’t like what B and C are doing, so they use their political power to craft a law making it illegal. It could be abortion, sex, drugs, or sharing music. Any third-party law is going to be difficult to enforce on large numbers of B and C. In order to get cost-effective compliance with this law, you need most B’s and C’s to voluntarily agree to obey it. How do you do this? In the field of copyright, the old bargain used to be: the copyright holder agrees that the work will, in time, enter the public domain. Obviously the copyright holders don’t want to do this, so instead they’re trying to convince people that copyright is property. There’s no reason to ever give up your property, so copyright should be forever.

    More on copyright here.

  18. “Commons” is not necessarily a good term, because most people know that common land is likely over time to get grazed out, or destroyed in other ways – because no one owns it, no one has an interest in preserving it, and all try to extract the most from it.

    I suspect that at the back of the term “commons” there is sometimes a hostility to the notion of ownership. I think the whole confusion around that point is played on most amusingly with the blurb that accompanies the satirical T-shirt that targets the Sony rootkit:

    “Remember – only pirates and communists believe in having control over their personal property.”


    As for whether a whole can be more than the sum of its parts, that’s a philosophical question and not easily settled. See, for example, Modern Philosophy pp. 26 ff for a discussion of this;


  19. Oh goody. I was just waiting for someone to give this false argument about the historical commons.

    In point of fact, rights over a common were *individual* rights. Every member of the vill (or other group which had control over the common) had the *individual* right to prevent enclosure or waste (ecological destruction) which would make the common less useful. If I grazed uncommonable beasts on the common, you or any other user of the common could take me to court and win. People did.

    The historical destruction of commons throughout Europe (in Russia last of all, ironically) was perhaps the greatest act of expropriation ever committed.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commons for details.

  20. I suspect that at the back of the term “commons” there is sometimes a hostility to the notion of ownership.

    Well, some people probably can’t hear “commons” without thinking “communist”, but that might be their problem. It’s more a hostility to corporations trying to hold on forever to things which should by rights now be available for cultural recycling, eg Steamboat Willie. Sonny Bono’s curious idea that his distant descendants should continue receiving royalties for “I got you, babe” in perpetuity was regrettable. I remember his wife saying “To Sonny, copyright was forever” and everyone nodding their heads sagiciously, failing to point out to her that he was a useless knonuff and passing the act as the last wish of a dying man. Idiots.

  21. If we stopped talking about society, “the commons” or communities in any sense then we would deny a very basic human instinct: to alleviate our ego-based fears and anxieties by wishing to become part of something bigger. It is quite normal I think: as Buddhism is about dissolving the ego into space itself, as Christianity is about dissolving the ego in God, it is a quite normal non-spiritual way of overcoming the ego to dissolve ourselves into a nation, tribe, community or society.

    This is about freedom. Freedom is not a philosphical or legal term, but a feeling: if you ever ridden a motorbike or a horse at gallop, or ever take a parachute jump or bungee jump, or ever been in love, then you surely know it. Dissolving our ego into some kind of community gives a very profound, very yummy feeling of freedom, of feeling “you cannot be hurt anymore, because you ceased to exist as a separate, vulnerable ‘you’ “.

    This is a good thing, I think.

  22. No, Shenpen, that feeling is a dangerous lie. The second I am (say) hit by a bus, I will discover that I damn well do exist as a separate, vulnerable me, no matter how ego-dissolved into a warm’n’fuzzy community I feel.

  23. Actually, if we look at how happiness or unhappiness works, unhappiness is always a kind of tension arising from the separation of “I” and the “world”, which appears as a kind of anxious feeling of missing something that would make us happy. The most typical human reaction for this feeling is wanting to “internalize” things: to “consume” the world in the form of wealth, fame or sexual conquest. The second most typical reaction is wanting to “externalize” the ego – this is what I am talking about.

    I think you are somehow a special case: you claim to be individualistic and even egotistic in a clever and ethical way, you still don’t seem to have this typical crave to internalize things. It seems you somehow managed to keep a balance. That is strange – this kind of balance should just not exist…

  24. The people who are most partial to the idea of common property–the Geolibs and Tuckerites like me–are pretty clear that common rights are a several right of equal access, not a collective right.

    For Geolibs, this common right is much more direct and active, and for Tuckerites it’s a more residual thing. For us individualist anarchists, the latent common rights of the excluded are satisfied by the non-enforcement of absentee titles to vacant land. For Geoists, it requires some form of direct compensation in the form of rent. But in both cases, it’s a right held by individuals severally, and operating through something like the “law of equal liberty.”

    Of course, that creates some ambiguity, since the term “common” was also used historically to describe certain discrete pieces of property that were owned collectively by (say) the inhabitants of a particular village.

  25. “The commons” is not a rhetorical buzzword or personal affectation; it’s a paradigm of value-creation that is distinct from that posited by market theorists. It is possible to create value — economic, social and personal — without the usual apparatus of the market, such as contracts, cash and private property. A community (which can be constituted in various ways, with institutional and legal support, if necessary) can and does generate value. THAT’S why it is useful to use the term, “the commons.” The Internet is rife with commons-based genres: open source, wikis, social networking, P2P, IM groups, etc., etc., whose growth and dynamics are based on consensual social protocols and software architecture.

    There is also a well-developed social science literature on common-pool resources that is quite germane here. And many constituencies are choosing to use a commons rhetoric because it is a way of asserting moral and personal ownership of a “shared” or non-owned resource (libraries, public land, code, the sky, the human genome, etc.). The term fills a void in our political vocabulary much as “the environment” did in the late 1950s, when pesticides, dead birds and birth defects were not seen as conceptually related. “The commons” helped draw linkages that had not been previously seen. So today with the commons.

    None of us commoners is trying to smuggle in a crypto-authoritarianism, as Doc seems to think. We simply want to recognize the multitude of socially based value-generating models that are out there. Non-commodified forms of exchange (of which there are many) are as indispensable to our well-being and GDP as market activity, and they deserve as much protection (and subsidy!) as the so-called free market. For more: http://www.OntheCommons.org.

  26. Why optimize our minds for the worst case?
    This quote makes me smile, I may have to steal it. Yoink!

  27. “No, Shenpen, that feeling is a dangerous lie. The second I am (say) hit by a bus, I will discover that I damn well do exist as a separate, vulnerable me, no matter how ego-dissolved into a warm’n’fuzzy community I feel.”

    Haha! Can we say the word “owned”?

  28. Barring the highs and lows of terminology politics, and in this case over the term “commons”, this sounds like a repeat of people feeling “uneasy” about a term and its ethical implications. To quote RMS on “open source”: “talking about freedom, about ethical issues, about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things they might rather ignore. This can trigger discomfort, and some people may reject the idea for that.”

    To me “commons” is not an attempt to produce “power-seekers” who control the commons (self-proclaimed libertarians should know that commerce and government are already in the business of doing that), but that everyone (even artists and other non-programmers) have unfettered abilities to engage intellectually in new arenas without old things like copyright, trademark and the rest of the law books get in the way.

  29. Kevin: In fact, the historic village commons was *not* owned collectively: that’s the point of my post. Rights of common were *individual* rights, individually enforceable. (I’m a geolib, FWIW.)

  30. All language concerning all collectives I can think of
    at the moment gives me the hives.

    I’ve even thought of making a new religion out of it
    then I broke out in hives again.

    Maybe I’ll call it “The Great I”.

  31. All language concerning all collectives I can think of
    at the moment gives me the hives.

    I’ve even thought of making a new religion out of it
    then I broke out in hives again.

    Maybe I’ll call it “The Great I”.

  32. “Freedom” is a very difficult term to define with a short, simple statement. It is loaded with so much meaning because every person has a different set of personal experiences and ideas that can apply to their own concept of what experiencing freedom is all about. In defining freedom, it is best to start with a wide array of different ideas and put them together to create one major explanation that encompasses all the ideas.

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