Paul B. Hartzog on expanding the commons through technology

Technology can play a role in expanding our conception of what is a commons, writes Paul B. Hartzog in the On the Commons blog. Legal technologies such as intellectual proprety, or technological features such as DRM, of course also can have an oppostive effect.

Here we are reproducing his examples about the expansion of the commons only:

Two key concepts in commons theory are subtractability (or rivalrousness) and excludability:

  • Subtractability refers to the degree to which one person’s use of a resource diminishes others’ use. For example, my learning of algrebra does not diminish the amount of algebra remaining for others.
  • Excludability refers to whether or not a user can be efficiently excluded from using a resource. For example, it is typically understood that we cannot be efficiently excluded from breathing the atmosphere.

Historically, when resources are non-excludable they are classified as commons (or public goods), and more specifically when commons are subtractable they are classified as “common pool resources,” or CPRs.

So, here are some concrete examples of how technology changes the possibilities for resource classification:

Technology allows subtractable to become non-subtractable: Because, originally, users had to share the frequency spectrum as a CPR, it was partitioned and licensed to each broadcaster. New technology which enables a more flexible use of the frequency spectrum, makes possible a broader range of sharing of the resource (i.e. open spectrum).

Technology allows excludable to become non-excludable: The Internet is, of course, a powerful force in the reversing of traditional economic excludability (the spread of open-source software is another).”

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