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Is Culture a Commons … or is it Free?

photo of Sepp Hasslberger

Sepp Hasslberger
16th July 2011


Culture cannot be a commons, says Nina Paley on her blog.

“Economists talk about rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods, but Culture is neither rivalrous, nor non-rivalrous; it is anti-rivalrous.” By this, Nina means that culture is outside of the framework of being owned or not being owned. Culture can’t be owned, she says, and as a matter of fact culture being anti-rivalrous means that it must not be owned if it is to be of value. Every time a work of art is seen, it becomes more valuable.

Nina patiently explains this concept in her article Culture is Anti-Rivalrous.

If I steal your bicycle, you have to take the bus

Anti-rivalrous goods increase in value the more they are used. For example: language. A language isn’t much use to me if I can’t speak it with someone else. You need at least two people to communicate with language. The more people who use the language, the more value it has.

Which language do you think more people would pay to learn?

  • English
  • Esperanto
  • Latvian

More people spend money and time learning English, simply because so many people already speak English.

Social networking platforms increase in value when more people use them. I use Facebook not because I love Facebook (I certainly don’t), but because everyone else uses Facebook. I just joined Google+, and will use that instead of Facebook if enough other people use it. If enough people flock to yet another platform, I’ll use that instead. Meanwhile I love Diaspora in principle (I was an early Kickstarter backer, before they surpassed their initial $ goal), but I don’t use it, because not enough other people do. When it comes to social networks, I am a sheep.

A classic "Nina's Adventures" comic, which I only realized was anti-rivalrous a few years ago. ? Copying is an act of love. Please copy and share.

Now it happens that not everyone seems to agree, for one reason or another, with the concept of culture being free (or non-rivalrous, as Nina puts it), and a lively discussion developed in the comments section of her post, so much so that Nina wrote another article, trying to clarify the concept for the doubters.

In Addendum: Why do I say Culture is not a Commons? she adds, by way of explanation:

I’m not going to fight against anyone calling Culture a commons. Most progressives do it, and we should be working together, blah blah etc. But I did want to clarify why I wrote that Culture is not a commons, since it may freak some people out. Sometimes I refer to “our shared cultural heritage,” which is about as close as I come to calling it a commons myself. Language is tough. For example, there’s no word for the opposite of property. Until there is, it may be difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that something actually isn’t property and can’t be owned, collectively or privately.

Check out her blog and steal her art. She’s happy every time it happens…

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