|Site Last Updated 2-28-2005|
The Information Commons
By Nancy Kranich
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.
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."