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Understanding Knowledge as a Commons

Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice

Charlotte Hess
Elinor Ostrom
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 382
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  • Book Info
    Understanding Knowledge as a Commons
    Book Description:

    Knowledge in digital form offers unprecedented access to information through the Internet but at the same time is subject to ever-greater restrictions through intellectual property legislation, overpatenting, licensing, overpricing, and lack of preservation. Looking at knowledge as a commons--as a shared resource--allows us to understand both its limitless possibilities and what threatens it. In Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, experts from a range of disciplines discuss the knowledge commons in the digital era--how to conceptualize it, protect it, and build it.Contributors consider the concept of the commons historically and offer an analytical framework for understanding knowledge as a shared social-ecological system. They look at ways to guard against enclosure of the knowledge commons, considering, among other topics, the role of research libraries, the advantages of making scholarly material available outside the academy, and the problem of disappearing Web pages. They discuss the role of intellectual property in a new knowledge commons, the open access movement (including possible funding models for scholarly publications), the development of associational commons, the application of a free/open source framework to scientific knowledge, and the effect on scholarly communication of collaborative communities within academia, and offer a case study of EconPort, an open access, open source digital library for students and researchers in microeconomics. The essays clarify critical issues that arise within these new types of commons--and offer guideposts for future theory and practice.Contributors:David Bollier, James Boyle, James C. Cox, Shubha Ghosh, Charlotte Hess, Nancy Kranich, Peter Levine, Wendy Pradt Lougee, Elinor Ostrom, Charles Schweik, Peter Suber, J. Todd Swarthout, Donald Waters

    eISBN: 978-0-262-25634-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. I Studying the Knowledge Commons

    • 1 Introduction: An Overview of the Knowledge Commons
      (pp. 3-26)
      Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom

      This book is intended as an introduction to a new way of looking at knowledge as a shared resource, a complex ecosystem that is acommons—a resource shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas. The traditional study of knowledge is subdivided into epistemic areas of interests. Law professors argue the legal aspects of knowledge in regard to intellectual property rights. Economists consider efficiency and transaction costs of information. Philosophers grapple with epistemology. Librarians and information scientists deal with the collection, classification, organization, and enduring access of published information. Sociologists examine behaviors of virtual communities....

    • 2 The Growth of the Commons Paradigm
      (pp. 27-40)
      David Bollier

      In introducing his then-novel economic theories, John Maynard Keynes was not concerned about the merits of his new ideas. What worried him was the dead hand of the past. “The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious,” he wrote. “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”¹

      So it is in talking about the commons. The commons is not such a difficult frame of analysis in itself. It...

    • 3 A Framework for Analyzing the Knowledge Commons
      (pp. 41-82)
      Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess

      Who has not heard of the six blind men of Indostan encircled around an elephant?¹ The six—a political scientist, a librarian, an economist, a law professor, a computer scientist, and an anthropologist—discover, based on their own investigations, that the object before them is a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, and a rope. The story fits well with the question that propelled this chapter: How can an interdisciplinary group of scholars best analyze a highly complex, rapidly evolving, elephantine resource such asknowledge? Trying to get one’s hands around knowledge as ashared resourceis...

  5. II Protecting the Knowledge Commons

    • 4 Countering Enclosure: Reclaiming the Knowledge Commons
      (pp. 85-122)
      Nancy Kranich

      For centuries, scholars, students, and the general public have relied on libraries to serve as their knowledge commons—a commons where they could share ideas and “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”¹ For scholarship to flourish, researchers have always needed free and open access to ideas. In today’s digital age, this means access to knowledge and information online. In the early days of the Internet, new technologies promised exactly that—abundant open access to an infinite array of resources available anywhere, anytime. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, new technologies transformed the way students learn, faculty members...

    • 5 Mertonianism Unbound? Imagining Free, Decentralized Access to Most Cultural and Scientific Material
      (pp. 123-144)
      James Boyle

      I have written far too many pages on intellectual property, the public domain, and the commons.¹ I care deeply about the future of scholarly communications, particularly in the sciences. Designing an architecture for freer and more usefully accessible scholarly work is a fascinating task, and I agree with many of the contributors to this book that the literature on the commons has a number of insights to offer.² So I was pleased to be given the task of writing about the commons and the public domain in scholarly communications. This enthusiastic prologue notwithstanding, I am going to stray from that...

    • 6 Preserving the Knowledge Commons
      (pp. 145-168)
      Donald J. Waters

      In 1997, Anthony Grafton, the distinguished Princeton historian, published a remarkable history of the footnote. He argued that the footnote is an intellectual tool that is “the humanist’s rough equivalent of the scientist’s report on data.” It offers “the empirical support for stories told and arguments presented.” However, footnotes work their magic as part of a scholarly reference structure if and only if the underlying works—the referents—have been reliably preserved and are available to be tested and verified for their ability to support new advances in knowledge.

      Many readers will no doubt remember their own experiences of awe...

  6. III Building New Knowledge Commons

    • 7 Creating an Intellectual Commons through Open Access
      (pp. 171-208)
      Peter Suber

      Open access(OA) is free online access. OA literature is not only free of charge to everyone with an Internet connection, but free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. OA literature is barrier-free literature produced by removing the price barriers and permission barriers that block access and limit usage of most conventionally published literature, whether in print or online.¹

      The physical prerequisites for OA are that a work be digital and reside on an Internet server. The legal prerequisite for OA is that a work be free of copyright and licensing restrictions (statutory and contractual restrictions) that would bar OA....

    • 8 How to Build a Commons: Is Intellectual Property Constrictive, Facilitating, or Irrelevant?
      (pp. 209-246)
      Shubha Ghosh

      The termintellectual propertyelicits the question: Is the subject matter of patent and copyright law, as well as its close cousins, meaningfully described as “property”? That this question is compelling is indicated by the countless articles that adopt it as a key focus of inquiry.¹ But whatever the accepted meaning of property, whatever property’s status as metaphor, and however interesting these topics are to discuss and debate, the question of whether intellectual property is actually property is a distraction. The more relevant question is what role the concept of intellectual property plays in building an information commons.

      In this...

    • 9 Collective Action, Civic Engagement, and the Knowledge Commons
      (pp. 247-276)
      Peter Levine

      For the most part, the other chapters of this book treat knowledge as a good. The authors advocate better ways to create, disseminate, preserve, and organize knowledge as a common resource. While I certainly share the goals of those chapters, the focus here is somewhat different. I take theprocessof creating public knowledge as an additional good, because such work builds social capital, strengthens communities, and gives people skills that they need for effective citizenship. If this is correct, then we should aim to include as many people as possible in the collaborative creation of “free” (i.e., open-access) knowledge....

    • 10 Free/Open-Source Software as a Framework for Establishing Commons in Science
      (pp. 277-310)
      Charles M. Schweik

      In his article “High Noon: We Need New Approaches to Global Problem-Solving, Fast,” Rischard (2001, 507) emphasizes that “the current setup for solving global problems doesn’t work” and that we need new approaches to solving these problems at a much faster pace. In this chapter I argue that the collaborative ideals and principles applied in Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects could be applied to any collaboration built around intellectual property (not just software) and could potentially increase the speed at which innovations and new discoveries are made. In other words, we can conceive of a future where such...

    • 11 Scholarly Communication and Libraries Unbound: The Opportunity of the Commons
      (pp. 311-332)
      Wendy Pradt Lougee

      The world in which ideas and information are created, shared, and documented—the world of scholarly communication—is undergoing some of the most phenomenal transformations in the history of recorded knowledge. One can point to pivotal events in the history of these centuries-old traditions (whether it is the invention of the printing press, or the establishment of scientific societies), but more recent technologies have enabled a sea change of unusual scale and impact. While technology has prompted new venues and models for communication, it has also motivated the various stakeholders in the scholarly communication arena in both subtle and not-too-subtle...

    • 12 EconPort: Creating and Maintaining a Knowledge Commons
      (pp. 333-348)
      James C. Cox and J. Todd Swarthout

      Public and academic libraries are traditionally designed and run by librarians and information specialists. The advent of the World Wide Web, however, gave the capacity to build useful libraries to anyone with subject knowledge and information-technological expertise. This chapter focuses on an open-access digital library of microeconomics for students, teachers, researchers, and the general public. This digital library, EconPort (, is a new knowledge commons.

      EconPort was created, beginning in 2002, by a team from the Economic Science Laboratory ( and the Artificial Intelligence Lab ( at the University of Arizona, under a grant from the National...

  7. Glossary
    (pp. 349-352)
  8. Index
    (pp. 353-368)