Property and commons

Over at Sphere of Networks, I published a text that tries to give a simple overview of the workings of information production in the age of the internet, covering everything from free software to free culture. This article is a slightly modified version of another chapter of this text. This time I will show you how the internet enabled a new form of information production: commons-based peer productions, like Wikipedia or most free software today. What is free content and why is it so important to people collaborating over the internet?

Figure 1: Production of physical goods is mostly handled by the market while information also gets often produced on a voluntary basis. [Wikimedia Commons], [Flickr: Clare and Dave]

Non-market production

Non-market production plays a bigger role in our economy than often realized. Whether it’s a parent looking after the children the whole day or people just voluntarily helping each other, a lot can get done without money ever changing hands. It has also always been true that non-market mechanisms were much more important in the production of information than physical goods. There are no voluntary steel manufacturers and we don’t just pick up a new car for free because someone feels like producing one. Nonetheless, we rely on a large volume of information everyday that is produced on a voluntary basis. Non-governmental organizations and private foundations are dedicated to solving pressing issues the market doesn’t care about and the government hasn’t resources at hand to solve. In everyday life we obtain advice and information from colleagues about what film to watch or what road to drive and virtually all of our basic research is funded by the government or non-profit institutions. With computers and the internet readily available to millions of people, the means to producing and distributing information are now widely held throughout the population. Thus non-market behaviour is becoming central to how our information and culture is produced.

Non-market production plays a bigger role in our economy than often realized

As working hours are going down in the more economically developed countries, more spare time is available for voluntary activity. Through information and communication technology, these resources can be used more effectively as people have better access to existing information and have a medium through which they can express themselves, communicate and collaborate with others.

The highest motivation for work is usually thought to be money. However, we are motivated by a wide range of things. We look for social rewards like acknowledgments or higher social standing in our communities. We have intrinsic motivations like pleasure or personal satisfaction when we feel we have achieved something. Even small payments may undermine intrinsic motivations as we might prefer to work for free for a good cause rather than do the same work for a monetary reward. [1].

Peer production

Resources can be handled either as property or as a commons. Most physical objects and also land are usually considered property while for example the roads network, water or public services are shared within a community and are thus commons. Information is a non-rival good. That means that it can be used by more than one person at a time. For example: if I sit on a chair, nobody else can (comfortably!) sit on the same chair at the same time. But if I listen to a song, I don’t prevent someone else listening to it at the same time. When information is treated as property as opposed to a commons it is made scarce against its non-rival nature. Fewer people can profit from the existing information and as proprietary information can’t be legally reused to create new information, this ultimately hinders overall information production.

When information is treated as property as opposed to a commons it is made scarce against its non-rival nature

Through the internet, a new model of production has evolved which relies heavily on the sharing of information as a commons. It also works radically because it is decentralized. Everyone can drop by, participate and contribute in the domains that interest them personally the most—as opposed to centralized production, where some boss somewhere decides what gets done by whom. This decentralized collaborative production method in which the resources are organized as a commons is called commons-based peer production [2].

Until now, the most advanced example of large-scale peer production is the development of free and open source software. Hundreds of volunteers are collaborating over the internet, using such diverse tools as email, mailing lists and chat. But, first of all, specialized revision control software helps to organize all the code and keeps track of the many changes it is undergoing. To date, the result of these collaborative acts is thousands of software packages that compete with and often outperform the established software industry’s products. As software is a finished product that consists solely of information, it is only natural that commons-based peer productions work very well.

This production strategy was also adopted outside the domain of software. Wikipedia, a multilingual encyclopedia which everybody can edit with only a simple web browser, started in 2001 and continues to grow at a huge pace, hosting over 7 million articles today. Although often criticized to be untrustworthy, vandalism is usually reverted very quickly [3] and the fact that Wikipedia is one of the top ten most-visited websites worldwide proves that it is a very valuable resource [4].

Other peer productions include the news site Slashdot, NASA clickworkers (where volunteers can map martian craters on satellite imagery) or Project Gutenberg (where old texts long in the public domain are scanned and then proofread for errors by many participants, the result being an ever growing library of digitized books freely available over the internet as plain text).

Figure 2: NASA Clickworkers: Each dot is where a participant clicked on the rim of a crater, resulting in a digital map

In all these different peer productions, the whole project needs to be broken down into smaller parts that individuals can work on in the limited time they have. So, naturally, some projects work better as peer productions than others. The work on Wikipedia with its many independent encyclopedic articles is easier to distribute among many participants than, let’s say, the writing of a book which needs to have a consistent style and structure. However, if parameters are clearly stated from the start and everybody is willing to write one small chapter, a task like writing a book can also be accomplished. As the concept of peer productions is still very young, new organizational methods are being discovered and technical tools built every day to help coordinate work and realize projects never previously thought possible.

While some projects need to be centrally controlled and will never work very efficient as peer productions, commons-based peer productions do have some significant advantages. When the workers themselves choose what to do, they identify much more with their tasks and can spontaneously help out without needing to ask anybody for permission or signing a new employment contract first. This can, however, also easily lead to individuals misjudging their own abilities: an important part of every peer production is peer quality control.

What is the case with the ever increasing amount of information to be found on the internet is also the case for single peer productions. The accreditation and the mapping for relevance and quality are as important as the actual production of the information. But this work can also be peer produced. Many sites have implemented features for voting the comments or contributions up or down. Filters which hide low-rated comments can help initially. While the Google search engine ranks sites which are often linked to other sites higher in their search results [5], Wikipedia relies primarily on social mechanisms and favours discussion as a means to reach consensus.

Commons-based peer productions are here to stay. Humans have always shared and collaborated with one another

Commons-based peer productions are here to stay. Humans have always shared and collaborated with one another. Of course, not everything is always shared. When widespread technology facilitates sharing, sharing will happen more often. Information and communication technologies have enabled projects where people can work together although they are spread all around the globe. Peer productions don’t draw labour away from the market; instead, they use resources unused by the market and thus form a competition to market production in some domains. Firms can also profit from these mechanisms when working together with non-market forces. The boundary between producers on one side, and consumers and users on the other side, blurs. Increasingly, consumers come to produce what they want themselves, collaborating with like-minded people or companies. New business models and more interactive products are needed in this networked information economy.

Free content

Commons-owned information that can be accessed and (re)used by everyone is more valuable to the economy and society as a whole than proprietary information. Thus, commons-based peer productions with their non-proprietary outputs should be welcomed. However, there are also peer productions that output proprietary information which can’t be reused for further information production as its use is restricted by intellectual property law. YouTube is an example of this: the videos hosted on this user-powered site can’t be downloaded again, but are held on the central server where they are meant to reside, flushing ever more advertising revenue into the company’s cash-boxes. While there’s no doubt that some very interesting and often entertaining content is to be found on YouTube, the works are trapped there and can’t be creatively reused.

While there’s no doubt that some very interesting and often entertaining content is to be found on YouTube, the works are trapped there and can’t be creatively reused

On the other side, non-proprietary information production enables a free culture. Free content (as in freedom) is any work having no significant legal restriction relative to people’s freedom to use, redistribute, and produce modified versions of and works derived from the content [6]. To achieve this, default copyright has to be overridden and the owner of the work has to license it to the public and permit everyone to copy, change and redistribute it.

Figure 3: Creative Commons logo [Creative Commons]

This strategy was first used by the free software community, and later the emerging free culture movement took those ideals and extended them from the software field to the whole culture. The most commonly used software license is the GNU GPL. For text, especially functional works such as textbooks, the GNU FDL (GFDL) was developed and all of Wikipedia’s text is licensed under it. Both are copyleft licenses, meaning they allow redistribution of derivative works under the condition that this happens under the same license, preventing the content from becoming non-free. Also commercial redistribution is permitted.

To provide potential authors with a greater set of choices, the non-profit organization Creative Commons created six licenses of their own, meant for text as well as music, images and video. Now, creators can choose a license and allow copying of their works for non-commercial use only, or changes may be prohibited. The original author, however, always has to be attributed when a work is copied. For artistic works, the Free Art License can also be used.

License Attribution required? Commercial use allowed? Derivative works allowed? Copyleft (Share-Alike)
GNU GPL (software) yes yes yes yes
GNU FDL (text) yes yes yes yes
CCAttribution (by) yes yes yes no
CCAttribution-NonCommercial (by-nc) yes no yes no
CCAttribution-NoDerivs (by-nd) yes yes no no
CCAttribution-ShareAlike (by-sa) yes yes yes yes
CCAttribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (by-nc-nd) yes no no no
CCAttribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (by-nc-sa) yes no yes yes
FreeArt License yes yes yes yes

Some free content licenses

This flood of different licenses has, however, led to some confusion and even incompatibility. For example, a work licensed under the GNU FDL license can not be joined with a work under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license as both licenses require any modified version of a work to be under the exact same license again.

Figure 4: Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig promoting free culture

Everybody agrees that even the most restrictive of the Creative Commons licenses, the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license, is better than complete default copyright. However, only two of the various Creative Commons licenses qualify as free content licenses: the Attribution and the Attribution-ShareAlike license [7]. The others impose too severe restrictions on the reuse of the work. On the other hand, works of personal opinion probably shouldn’t be altered. In such cases, a bloated license isn’t even necessary and it might be sufficient to add a phrase like this: Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

Sharing hardware

Not only does information, knowledge and culture get peer produced, but also material resources are shared. That’s the way peer-to-peer file-sharing networks work (see my previous article in FSM about file-sharing); users sharing the storage space on their computers and their internet bandwidth with one another, thus distributing the hardware costs typically needed to spread such massive amounts of data. But also the computational power of many home computers inter-connected over the internet outperforms the most powerful server farms in existence. Every computer owner connected to the internet can download a free program that runs in the background all the time and calculates data when the computer is idle. These distributed computing projects range from analyzing radio telescope data in Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI@home) to calculating molecular dynamics simulations that can eventually be used in fighting diseases (Folding@home). Again, the power to perform such high-capacity calculations is achieved through voluntarily pooling resources. The participants don’t receive any payment but they are listed on the project’s websites in order of their contribution and do it for a goal greater than themselves.

The participants don’t receive any payment but they are listed on the project’s websites in order of their contribution and do it for a goal greater than themselves

This sharing of hardware only makes sense because technology developed to make it possible for cheap, high-performance hardware to be widely distributed among the population. If really fast network connections were significantly cheaper than fast computational hardware, computers might have been centralized in order to be used economically. We would then have thin clients (a monitor, keyboard and mouse) connected to a remotely located server. If this were the case then there wouldn’t be any excess computing power to be used by distributed computing projects.


The internet facilitates sharing and enables collaborations between a wide range of individuals that were never thought possible before. The significance of commons-based peer productions in the global economy will increase as more and more people realize its potential. Commons-based peer productions don’t threaten market production, they supplement it. Some companies will need to develop with new business models and consider releasing more of their information as free content in order to co-produce it with individuals and create more interactive products. This will benefit the economy as a whole as proprietary information and too many exclusive “intellectual property” rights stifle innovation. New creations always build on past inventions, and these need to be freely accessible.


1(, Wikipedia

[2] Term coined by Yochai Benkler. Benkler, Yochai; The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, 2006, p. 60; Commons-based peer production, Wikipedia


[4] Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation that is now operating Wikipedia and its sister projects emphasize the importance of free knowledge and free software

[5] More information about the Google search algorithm: PageRank, Wikipedia

6(, Wikipedia; Definition of Free Cultural Works



Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.