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The Information Commons
A Public Policy Report

By Nancy Kranich
Senior Research Fellow, 2003-04
Free Expression Policy Project

© 2004. Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
It may be reproduced in its entirety as long as the Free Expression Policy Project is credited, a link to the Project's Web site is provided, and no charge is imposed. The report may not be reproduced in part or in altered form, or if a fee is charged, without our permission. Please let us know if you reprint.

Thanks to David Dorman, Frederick Emrich, Lewis Friedland, Michael Gurstein, Bennett Haselton, Susan Kretchmer, Daniel Kutz, Peter Levine, Mary Minow, Miriam Nisbet, Elinor Ostrom, Alice Robbin, Wendy Seltzer, Jorge Reina Schement, Peter Suber, Julie Van Camp, and Diane Zimmerman for numerous helpful and insightful comments on a draft of this report.





Evolution of the Information Society
The Promise of the Internet and the Challenge of Information Access


History and Theories of the Commons
Applying the Idea of the Commons to Information
Examples of Open Democratic Information Resources

Software Commons
Licensing Commons
Scholarly Communication - Open Access
Scholarly Communication - Digital Repositories
Institutional Commons
Subject Matter Information Commons

Principles and Characteristics of Information Commons


Policy Recommendations and Strategies

APPENDIX: Policies and Principles Related to Information and Communications Technologies


INDEX [not available in html version]


The Internet offers unprecedented possibilities for human creativity, global communication, and access to information. Yet digital technology also invites new forms of information enclosure. In the last decade, mass media companies have developed methods of control that undermine the public's traditional rights to use, share, and reproduce information and ideas. These technologies, combined with dramatic consolidation in the media industry and new laws that increase its control over intellectual products, threaten to undermine the political discourse, free speech, and creativity needed for a healthy democracy.

In response to the crisis, librarians, cyber-activists, and other public interest advocates have sought ways to expand access to the wealth of resources that the Internet promises, and have begun to build online communities, or "commons," for producing and sharing information, creative works, and democratic discussion. This report documents the information commons movement, explains its importance, and outlines the theories and "best practices" that have developed to assist its growth.

Human societies have always used common property, from grazing fields and town halls to streets, sidewalks, and libraries. Even in today's profit-dominated markets, economists have found that communal ownership and control of resources can be efficient and effective. Scholars meanwhile have described the salient characteristics of successful "common property regimes," including clearly defined boundaries, rules, the equal exchange of goods and knowledge, and the building of trust and social capital.

Libraries, civic organizations, and scholars have begun to turn the idea of the commons into practice, with a wide variety of open democratic information resources now operating or in the planning stages. These include software commons, licensing commons, open access scholarly journals, digital repositories, institutional commons, and subject matter commons in areas ranging from knitting to music, agriculture to Supreme Court arguments.

These many examples of information sharing have certain basic characteristics in common. They are collaborative and interactive. They take advantage of the networked environment to build information communities. They benefit from network externalities, meaning that the greater the participation, the more valuable the resource. Many are free or low cost. Their governance is shared, with rules and norms that are defined and accepted by their constituents. They encourage and advance free expression.

Building the information commons is essential to 21st century democracy, but it is neither easy nor costless. Creating and sustaining common-pool resources, and combatting further information enclosure, require investment, planning, aggressive political advocacy, and nationwide coalition building. But if the public's right to know is to be protected in today's world, citizens must have optimal opportunities to acquire and exchange information. The stakes are high, for as the Supreme Court noted years ago, American democracy requires "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources."

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In May 2004, it became part of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. FEPP is supported by grants from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Any material on this site may be reproduced in its entirety as long as the Free Expression Policy Project is credited and a link to the Project's Web site is provided. No material may be reproduced in part or in altered form without permission. Please let us know if you reprint!