The Commons: Restore or Build New?

Most discussions of the Commons assume that common-pool resources are supplied by nature, like the English fields that were available to locals for grazing, cultivation, and hay-cutting until the Inclosure Acts. However, it is equally possible to create new common pool resources for local control.

Kojo Nnamdi spent an hour on his radio show yesterday discussing cohousing, which is one way to do this. Each resident’s home includes complete facilities, so cohousing avoids the intrusiveness of other kinds of communal living that involve sharing cooking or dining facilities: the commons does not come at the expense of the private. Instead, residents in cohousing communities volunteer to live in communities that are structured around common facilities (generally a park and in some cases a guest house) and are governed by a homeowner’s association that is resolutely non-representative, instead acting only on consensus. (In turn, this reduces the risk that the HOA will become tyrannical.) Meanwhile, residential management of common facilities supplies a “crowding in” opportunity for civic agency, because residents must deliberate about their shared and competing values, investigate facts (for instance, about the costs and benefits of a communal solar system), and develop strategies for actions specific tailored to their community’s needs.

Another way of generating new common-pool resources is through open-source projects. In the early stages of a software or media project, planners can opt to invite collaboration by renouncing commercial interest in the intellectual property that is produced. Usually, this will involve asserting a patent or other licensing interest in the project, but refusing to charge for use of the license. As Wikipedia (another common-pool resource) reports:

In the early years of automobile development, a group of capital monopolists owned the rights to a 2-cycle gasoline engine patent originally filed by George B. Selden. By controlling this patent, they were able to monopolize the industry and force car manufacturers to adhere to their demands, or risk a lawsuit. In 1911, independent automaker Henry Ford won a challenge to the Selden patent. The result was that the Selden patent became virtually worthless and a new association (which would eventually become the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association) was formed. The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all US auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, these patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers. Until the US entered World War 2, 92 Ford patents were being used freely by other manufacturers who were in turn making use of 515 patents from other companies, all without lawsuits or the exchange of money.

Obviously, Ford and the other manufacturers benefited more from the share-and-share-alike approach to research-and-development than they would have benefited from trying the negotiate 515 different licensing deals. It is especially notable that this early knowledge commons both inspired the open-source software movement and has subsequently been undermined by “patent trolls” who purchase the rights to developers’ ideas to seek rents on this intellectual property. While it’s tempting to respond to common-pool resource problems with property-rights claims whenever the community that must share the resource becomes too large and unwieldy to police, it’s notable that burgeoning American industries have long profited from shared intellectual resources, and could again. Perhaps there’s more to “corporate citizenship” than sloganeering and greenwashing?

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