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.