Opening the Citizenship Commons

As a part of participating in the #OpenEdMOOC, we’ve been asked to reflect on copyright, the public domain, and the commons and I’m inspired to link these topics to the thinking I’ve been doing on opening knowledge practices (OKP).

One of the fundamental assumptions I’ve been making is that OKP must be centered in public institutions like schools, colleges, universities, research groups, libraries, and maybe in some cases, nonprofits. Why? Because — at least in the US — only public institutions have both the track records to house persistent practices and are mostly aligned with the values that infuse OKP — in their missions if not always in their practices. For-profit, commercial organizations may certainly make invaluable contributions to OKP, but have not shown themselves to have the lifespans nor sufficient alignment with OKP values to be primary stewards.

Yet when I reflect on copyright, the public domain, and the commons, I’m reminded — especially in David Bollier’s The Commons, Short and Sweet — that we might best not consider the commons to be an institution of the state in the way that those public institutions I call to house OKP are. As Bollier puts it, the commons is both: “A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.” and “A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.”

So why call for OKP to be housed in organizations that so clearly rely on the state? (Though we might talk about how, at least in the US, these institutions receive less and less state funding, even if they are still sanctioned by the state.)

Having participated myself in several self-organizing commons (most often open-source technology communities), I’ve long experienced that most of these commons have great difficulty persisting unless they become quite large and have strong market connections (eg, Drupal, Linux, Mozilla) or become supported by single or multiple public institutions that have greater purposes, constituencies and resources (eg, OER, Sakai). Despite the recent weaknesses experienced by public institutions, I am far more wary of the fickleness of the marketplace as a guarantor of values-based persistence than I am of centering commons activity in public institutions authorized by governments.

Especially in the US, the main reason to house OKP in public institutions is not just that they are the best we have to do it, but also that we desperately need our public institutions to be commons: to be those places where we come together to (learn to) cooperate in the stewardship of our mutual resources. If our public institutions are not operating as commons, than they are also no longer effectively bringing us together as citizens. So as much as OKP may need public institutions, public institutions need OKP even more, so they can be better mechanisms to generate our civic connections. The alternative is to continue to degenerate further into smaller communities based on shared commonalities, but also in greater tension with the identities of other communities.

Which leads me to think about ways to evaluate governments specifically by the degree to which they support healthy commons activity in public institutions or not — something I’m sure many more than I have thought and written much about. If we decide our government is lacking in its support of the commons, we should amplify and enrich commons activity in public institutions as a mechanism to engage more people in transforming the state to be a better participant in ensuring our mutual future. The US government and many state and local governments in the US are not currently scoring well in their support of any commons. It’s time for us to infuse public institutions with open knowledge practices to enable everyone to participate in commons and ensure neither the state nor the market jeopardize or take our common resources for granted.

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