Digital commons (economics)

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The digital commons are a form of commons involving the distribution and communal ownership of informational resources and technology. Resources are typically designed to be used by the community by which they are created. [1] [2]


Examples of the digital commons include wikis, open-source software, and open-source licensing. The distinction between digital commons and other digital resources is that the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources. [3]

The digital commons provides the community with free and easy access to information. Typically, information created in the digital commons is designed to stay in the digital commons by using various forms of licensing, including the GNU General Public License and various Creative Commons licenses.

Early development

One of the first examples of digital commons is the Free Software movement, founded in the 1980s by Richard Stallman as an organized attempt to create a digital software commons. Inspired by the 70s programmer culture of improving software through mutual help, Stallman's movement was designed to encourage the use and distribution of free software. [4]

To prevent the misuse of software created by the movement, Stallman founded the GNU General Public License. Free software released under this license, even if it is improved or modified, must also be released under the same license, ensuring the software stays in the digital commons, free to use.


Today the digital commons takes the form of the Internet. With the internet come radical new ways to share information and software, enabling the rapid growth of the digital commons to the level enjoyed today. People and organisations can share their software, photos, general information, and ideas extremely easily due to the digital commons. [5]

Mayo Fuster Morell proposed a definition of digital commons as "information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusive, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favor use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources". [3]

The Foundation for P2P Alternatives explicitly aims to "creates a new public domain, an information commons, which should be protected and extended, especially in the domain of common knowledge creation" and actively promotes extending Creative Commons Licenses. [6]

Modern examples

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization that provides many free copyright licenses with which contributors to the digital commons can license their work. Creative Commons is focused on the expansion of flexible copyright. For example, popular image sharing sites like Flickr and Pixabay, provide access to hundreds of millions of Creative Commons licensed images, freely available within the digital commons. [7]

Creators of content in the digital commons can choose the type of Creative Commons license to apply to their works, which specifies the types of rights available to other users. Typically, Creative Commons licenses are used to restrict the work to non-commercial use. [7]


Wikis are a huge contribution to the digital commons, serving information while allowing members of the community to create and edit content. Through wikis, knowledge can be pooled and compiled, generating a wealth of information from which the community can draw.

Public software repositories

Following in the spirit of the Free Software movement, public software repositories are a system in which communities can work together on open-source software projects, typically through version control systems such as Git and Subversion. Public software repositories allow for individuals to make contributions to the same project, allowing the project to grow bigger than the sum of its parts. A popular platform hosting public and open source software repositories is GitHub.

City Top Level Domains

Top Level Domains or TLDs are Internet resources that facilitate finding the numbered computers on the Internet. The largest and most familiar TLD is .com. Beginning in 2012, ICANN, the California not-for-profit controlling access to the Domain Name System, began issuing names to cities. More than 30 cities applied for their TLDs, with .paris, .london, .nyc, .tokyo having been issued as of May 2015. A detailing of some commons names within the .nyc TLD includes neighborhood names, voter related names, and civic names. [8]

Precious Plastic

Precious Plastic is an open source project which promotes recycling of plastic through the use of hardware and business models which are available for free under Creative Commons license. [9] It collaboratively designs and publishes designs, codes, source materials and business models which can be used by any person or group to start a plastic recycling project of their own. [9] The online platform also consists of an online shop where hardware and recycled plastic products can be bought. As of January of 2020, more than 80,000 people from around the world are working on some type of Precious Plastic project. [10]


Opportunity of digital commons

The usage of digital commons has led to the disruption of industries that benefited from publishing (authors and publishers) while providing potential to other industries. Many wikis help to pass knowledge to be used in a productive manner. [11] They also have increased opportunities in education, healthcare, manufacturing, governance, finance, science, etc.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a great example of opportunities that digital commons bring, by bringing the opportunity to access high quality education to many people. Mayo Clinic is another example of spreading the medical knowledge to public availability. Nowadays most scientific journals have an online presence as well.

Gender imbalance in digital commons

The traditional under-representation of women and the lack of gender diversity in the field of STEM and in the programmer culture is also present in digital commons-based initiatives and open-source-software projects like Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap. [12] Also smaller initiatives, like hackerspaces, makerspaces or fab labs are characterized by a considerable gender gap among their participants. [13]

There are different initiatives trying to face these challenges and bridging this gap by providing and creating empowering spaces where women and non-binary persons can experiment, exchange and learn with and from each other. Feminist hackerspaces were founded as a reaction to women’s experiences of sexism, harassment and misogyny shown by the brogrammer culture in hackerspaces. Besides closing the gender gap among participants and creating safe spaces for female and non-binary persons, some projects additionally want to visualize the under-representation and lack of gender-related topics in the movements and in the outcome of their work. The collective Geochicas for example is engaged in the OpenStreetMap community looking on maps through a feminist lens and visualize data linked to gender and feminism. One project launched during 2016 and 2017 aimed to map cancer clinics and feminicides in Nicaragua. [14] In the same years Geochicas created visibility campaigns on Twitter under the hashtag "#MujeresMapeandoElMundo" [15] and the “International Survey on Gender Representation”. [16] In 2018 they created a virtual map by analyzing data from OpenStreetMap to rise awareness of the lack of representation of women's names on the streets of cities in Latin America and Spain. [17]

Tragedy of digital commons

Based on the tragedy of the commons and digital divide, Gian Maria Greco and Luciano Floridi [18] have described the "tragedy of digital commons". As with the tragedy of the commons, the problem of the tragedy of the digital commons lies in the population and arises on two ways:

  1. the average user of the information technology (infosphere) behaves in the way Hardin's herdsmen behave by exploiting common resources until they no longer can recover, meaning that users do not pay attention to the consequences of their behaviour (for example, by overloading of the traffic by wanting to access the webpage as quick as possible).
  2. the pollution of the infosphere, i.e., the indiscriminate and improper usage of the technology and digital resources and overproduction of data. This brings excess information that leads to corruption of communication and information overload. An example of this is spam, which takes up to 45% of email traffic.

The tragedy of the digital commons also considers other artificial agents, like worms, that can self-replicate and spread within computer systems leading to digital pollution.

See also

Related Research Articles

Free software Software licensed to preserve user freedoms

Free software is computer software distributed under terms that allow users to run the software for any purpose as well as to study, change, and distribute it and any adapted versions. Free software is a matter of liberty, not price: users and computer programmers are free to do what they want with their copies of a free software regardless of how much is paid to obtain the program. Computer programs are deemed "free" if they give both programmers and end-users ultimate control over the software and, subsequently, over their devices.

Open content Creative work that others can freely copy or modify without asking permission

Open content describes any work that others can copy or modify freely by attributing to the original creator, but without needing to ask for permission. This has been applied to a range of formats, including textbooks, academic journals, films and music. The term was an expansion of the related concept of open-source software. Such content is said to be under an open licence.

Openness is an overarching concept or philosophy that is characterized by an emphasis on transparency and collaboration. That is, openness refers to "accessibility of knowledge, technology and other resources; the transparency of action; the permeability of organisational structures; and the inclusiveness of participation". Openness can be said to be the opposite of closedness, central authority and secrecy.

FSF Free Software Awards one of the two awards awarded by the Free Software Foundation (along with Q25400485)

Free Software Foundation (FSF) grants two annual awards. Since 1998, FSF has granted the award for Advancement of Free Software and since 2005, also the Free Software Award for Projects of Social Benefit.

Open-source hardware Hardware from the open-design movement

Open-source hardware (OSH) consists of physical artifacts of technology designed and offered by the open-design movement. Both free and open-source software (FOSS) and open-source hardware are created by this open-source culture movement and apply a like concept to a variety of components. It is sometimes, thus, referred to as FOSH. The term usually means that information about the hardware is easily discerned so that others can make it – coupling it closely to the maker movement. Hardware design, in addition to the software that drives the hardware, are all released under free/libre terms. The original sharer gains feedback and potentially improvements on the design from the FOSH community. There is now significant evidence that such sharing can drive a high return on investment for the scientific community.

Open educational resources educational materials that can be freely used and reused

Open educational resources (OER) are freely accessible, openly licensed text, media, and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes.

Commons-based peer production (CBPP) is a term coined by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler. It describes a model of socio-economic production in which large numbers of people work cooperatively; usually over the Internet. Commons-based projects generally have less rigid hierarchical structures than those under more traditional business models. Often—but not always—commons-based projects are designed without a need for financial compensation for contributors. For example, sharing of STL design files for objects freely on the internet enables anyone with a 3-D printer to digitally replicate the object saving the prosumer significant money.

Social peer-to-peer processes are interactions with a peer-to-peer dynamic. These peers can be humans or computers. Peer-to-peer (P2P) is a term that originated from the popular concept of the P2P distributed computer application architecture which partitions tasks or workloads between peers. This application structure was popularized by file sharing systems like Napster, the first of its kind in the late 1990s.

Free-culture movement Social movement promoting the freedom to distribute and modify the creative works of others

The free-culture movement is a social movement that promotes the freedom to distribute and modify the creative works of others in the form of free content or open content without compensation to, or the consent of, the work's original creators, by using the Internet and other forms of media.

An information commons is an information system, such as a physical library or online community, that exists to produce, conserve, and preserve information for current and future generations. Wikipedia could be considered to be an information commons to the extent that it produces and preserves information through current versions of articles and histories. Other examples of an information commons include Creative Commons.

Free content Creative work with few or no restrictions on how it may be used

A free content, libre content, or free information, is any kind of functional work, work of art, or other creative content that meets the definition of a free cultural work.

Hackerspace community-operated physical space where people with common interests, often in computers, technology, science, or art, can socialise, collaborate, or make

A hackerspace is a community-operated, often "not for profit", workspace where people with common interests, such as computers, machining, technology, science, digital art, or electronic art, can meet, socialize, and collaborate. Hackerspaces are comparable to other community-operated spaces with similar aims and mechanisms such as Fab Lab, men's sheds, and commercial "for-profit" companies.

Copyleft Practice of mandating free use in all derivatives of a work

Copyleft is the practice of granting the right to freely distribute and modify intellectual property with the requirement that the same rights be preserved in derivative works created from that property. Copyleft in the form of licenses can be used to maintain copyright conditions for works ranging from computer software, to documents, art, scientific discoveries and even certain patents.

The open-source model is a decentralized software development model that encourages open collaboration. A main principle of open-source software development is peer production, with products such as source code, blueprints, and documentation freely available to the public. The open-source movement in software began as a response to the limitations of proprietary code. The model is used for projects such as in open-source appropriate technology, and open-source drug discovery.

GNU Free Documentation License Copyleft license primarily for free software documentation

The GNU Free Documentation License is a copyleft license for free documentation, designed by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) for the GNU Project. It is similar to the GNU General Public License, giving readers the rights to copy, redistribute, and modify a work and requires all copies and derivatives to be available under the same license. Copies may also be sold commercially, but, if produced in larger quantities, the original document or source code must be made available to the work's recipient.

The open-source-software movement is a movement that supports the use of open-source licenses for some or all software, a part of the broader notion of open collaboration. The open-source movement was started to spread the concept/idea of open-source software. Programmers who support the open-source-movement philosophy contribute to the open-source community by voluntarily writing and exchanging programming code for software development. The term "open source" requires that no one can discriminate against a group in not sharing the edited code or hinder others from editing their already-edited work. This approach to software development allows anyone to obtain and modify open-source code. These modifications are distributed back to the developers within the open-source community of people who are working with the software. In this way, the identities of all individuals participating in code modification are disclosed and the transformation of the code is documented over time. This method makes it difficult to establish ownership of a particular bit of code but is in keeping with the open-source-movement philosophy. These goals promote the production of high-quality programs as well as working cooperatively with other similarly-minded people to improve open-source technology. This led to software such as MediaWiki, the software with which the Wikipedia website is built.

The term "knowledge commons" refers to information, data, and content that is collectively owned and managed by a community of users, particularly over the Internet. What distinguishes a knowledge commons from a commons of shared physical resources is that digital resources are non-subtractible; that is, multiple users can access the same digital resources with no effect on their quantity or quality.

Maker culture community interested in do-it-yourself technical pursuits

The maker culture is a contemporary culture or subculture representing a technology-based extension of DIY culture that intersects with hacker culture and revels in the creation of new devices as well as tinkering with existing ones. The maker culture in general supports open-source hardware. Typical interests enjoyed by the maker culture include engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of Computer Numeric Control tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and, mainly, its predecessor, traditional arts and crafts. The subculture stresses a cut-and-paste approach to standardized hobbyist technologies, and encourages cookbook re-use of designs published on websites and maker-oriented publications. There is a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them to reference designs. There is also growing work on equity and the maker culture.

A free license or open license is a license agreement which contains provisions that allow other individuals to reuse another creator's work, giving them four major freedoms. Without a special license, these uses are normally prohibited by copyright law or commercial license. Most free licenses are worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, and perpetual. Free licenses are often the basis of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding projects.

Open source products include permission to use the source code, design documents, or content of the product. It most commonly refers to the open-source model, in which open-source software or other products are released under an open-source license as part of the open-source-software movement. Use of the term originated with software, but has expanded beyond the software sector to cover other open content and forms of open collaboration.


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  16. Geochicas "" Retrieved April 27, 2020
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