Commons-based peer production

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Commons-based peer production is a term coined by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler.[1] It describes a new model of socio-economic production in which the labor of large numbers of people is coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) mostly without traditional hierarchical organization. Projects are often, but not always, conceived without financial compensation for contributors. The term is often used interchangeably with the term social production.


Benkler contrasts commons-based peer production with firm production, in which tasks are delegated based on a central decision-making process, and market-based production, in which allocating different prices to different tasks serves as an incentive to anyone interested in performing a task.

Benkler first introduced the term in his 2002 paper "Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm",[2] whose title refers to the Linux mascot and to Ronald Coase, who originated the transaction costs theory of the firm that provides the methodological template for the paper's analysis of peer production. The paper cites Eben Moglen as the originator of the concept.[2] In his book The Wealth of Networks (2006), Benkler significantly expands on these ideas. In the book, he makes a distinction between commons-based peer production and peer production. The former is based on sharing resources among widely distributed individuals who cooperate with each other. The latter term is a subset of commons-based production practices.[contradictory] It refers to a production process that depends on individual action that is self-selected and decentralized. YouTube and Facebook, for example, are based on peer production.

Peer production enterprises have two primary advantages over both markets and firm hierarchies:

  1. Information gain: Peer production allows individuals to self-identify for tasks that suit them. Many individuals can generate more dynamic information which reflects individual skills and the "variability of human creativity."
  2. Great variability of human and information resources: leads to substantial increasing returns to scale to the number of people, and resources and projects that may be accomplished without need for a contract or other factor permitting the proper use of the resource for a project.[3]

In Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams suggest an incentive mechanism behind common-based peer production. "People participate in peer production communities," they write, "for a wide range of intrinsic and self-interested reasons....basically, people who participate in peer production communities love it. They feel passionate about their particular area of expertise and revel in creating something new or better."[4]

Aaron Krowne offers another definition:

commons-based peer production refers to any coordinated, (chiefly) internet-based effort whereby volunteers contribute project components, and there exists some process to combine them to produce a unified intellectual work. CBPP covers many different types of intellectual output, from software to libraries of quantitative data to human-readable documents (manuals, books, encyclopedias, reviews, blogs, periodicals, and more)."[5]


First, the potential goals of peer production must be modular. That means, objectives must be divisible into components, or modules, each of which can be independently produced. This allows production to be cumulative and asynchronous, merging the individual efforts of many people, with diverse backgrounds and skills, who are available at various places and times.[6]

Second, the granularity of the modules is essential. Granularity refers to the degree to which objects are broken down into smaller pieces (module size).[6] Different levels of granularity will allow people with different levels of motivation to work together by contributing small or large grained modules, consistent with their level of interest in the project and their motivation.[6]

Third, a successful peer-production enterprise must have low-cost integration — the mechanism by which the modules are integrated into a whole end product. Thus, integration must include both quality controls over the modules and a mechanism for integrating the contributions into the finished product at relatively low cost.[6]


Examples of projects using commons-based peer production include:


Several outgrowths have been:

  • Customization/Specialization: With free and open source software small groups have the capability to customize a large project according to specific needs.
  • Longevity: Once code is released under a copyleft free software license it is almost impossible to remove it from the public domain.
  • Cross-fertilization: Experts in a field can work on more than one project with no legal hassles.
  • Technology Revisions: A core technology gives rise to new implementations of existing projects.
  • Technology Clustering: Groups of products tend to cluster around a core set of technology and integrate with one another.

Related concepts[edit]

Interrelated concepts to Commons-based peer production are the processes of peer governance and peer property. To begin with, peer governance is a new mode of governance and bottom-up mode of participative decision-making that is being experimented in peer projects, such as Wikipedia and FLOSS; thus peer governance is the way that peer production, the process in which common value is produced, is managed.[7] Peer Property indicates the innovative nature of legal forms such as the General Public License, the Creative Commons, etc. Whereas traditional forms of property are exclusionary ("if it is mine, it is not yours"), peer property forms are inclusionary. It is from all of us, i.e. also for you, provided you respect the basic rules laid out in the license, such as the openness of the source code for example.[8]

The ease of entering and leaving an organization is a feature of adhocracies.

The principle of commons-based peer production is similar to collective invention, a model of open innovation in economics coined by Robert Allen.[9]

Also related: Open-source economics and Commercial use of copyleft works.

Open community[edit]

Open Community is an application of the idea of open source to other collaborative effort. What distinguishes an open community from a closed one is that anyone may join and contribute, that the direction and goals are determined collaboratively by all members of the community, and that the resulting work is made available under a free license.


An Open Community Project is a software project that offers a "Free Space" to people around a topic that unites them and is open to the whole Worldwide Community.

Open means free as not having to pay for contribution or adherence while not forcing discrimination in a way that some group would be excluded to participate in developing the project.

Open Community Projects take place in the Real World as well as in the "Virtual World" and are often supported by Open Software such as Wiki's, mailing lists/discussion fora, chat, polling tools and many more.

A basic example of where the term is used: "It would be a good idea if the United Nations, the USA and the EU and other democracies would also offer the free Hard Disk space they have to their communities for them to develop Open Community Projects on them and a Free Space, thus to foster participation of their and other citizens into democracies and keeping the democratic level in their democracies as high as possible."[10]

International Projects[edit]

Free/Libre Open Knowledge Society in Ecuador[edit]

The National Plan of Ecuador recognizes and stresses that the global transformation towards knowledge-based societies and economies requires a new form for the creation and distribution of value in society. The National Plan's central concept is the achievement of 'Buen Vivir' (Sumak Kawsay) or 'good living'; but good living is impossible without the availability of 'good knowledge', i.e. 'Buen Conocer' ('Sumak Yachay'). The third national plan for 2013-2017 explicitly calls for an open-commons based knowledge society.[11] President Correa himself exhorted young people to achieve and fight for this open knowledge society.[12]

The FLOK Society is a joint research effort by the Coordinating Ministry of Knowledge and Human Talent, the SENESCYT (Secretaría Nacional de Educación Superior, Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación) and the IAEN (Instituto de Altos Estudios del Estado) to develop transition and policy proposals to achieve such an open commons-based knowledge society.

FLOK refers to free, meaning freedom to use, distribute and modify knowledge in universally available common pools; Libre stresses that it concerns free as in freedom, not as in 'gratis'; open refers to the ability of all citizens to access, contribute to and use this common resource. A free, libre and open knowledge society therefore essentially means organizing every sector of society, to the maximum degree possible, into open knowledge commons, i.e. the availability of common pools of knowledge, code and design that are acceptable to all citizens and market entities, to create dynamic and innovative societies and economies, where knowledge is available without discrimination to all who need it to develop their civic and economic activities.

The aim of the research plan is to combine the best advice from the global commons, and Ecuadorian civil society, in order to propose an integrated transition plan and the associated policy framework and proposals.


Some[13] believe that the commons-based peer production (CBPP) vision, while powerful and groundbreaking, needs to be strengthened at its root because of some allegedly wrong assumptions concerning free and open source software (FOSS).

The CBPP literature regularly and explicitly quotes FOSS products as examples of artifacts “emerging” by virtue of mere cooperation, with no need for supervising leadership (without «market signals or managerial commands», in Benkler’s words).

It can be argued, however, that in the development of any less than trivial piece of software, irrespective of whether it be FOSS or proprietary, a subset of the (many) participants always play -explicitly and deliberately- the role of leading system and subsystem designers, determining architecture and functionality, while most of the people work “underneath” them in a logical, functional sense.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Steven Johnson (September 21, 2012). "The Internet? We Built That". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-09-24. The Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler has called this phenomenon 'commons-based peer production'. 
  2. ^ a b Coase's Penguin or Linux and The nature of the firm 112 YALE L.J. 369 (2002), PDF.
  3. ^ Benkler, Yochai; Nissenbaum, Helen (2006). "Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue". The Journal of Political Philosophy. 4 (14): 394-419. Retrieved 22 October 2011.
  4. ^ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (2006), by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Portfolio Books, p 70
  5. ^ Krowne, Aaron (March 1, 2005). "The FUD based encyclopedia: Dismantling the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt aimed at Wikipedia and other free knowledge sources. Free Software Magazine.
  6. ^ a b c d Benkler, Yochai; Nissenbaum, Helen (2006). "Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue". The Journal of Political Philosophy. 4 (14): 394–419. Retrieved 22 October 2011. 
  7. ^ Vasilis Kostakis (2010): Peer governance and Wikipedia. In: First Monday 3-1(15)
  8. ^ Michel Bauwens (2005): The Political Economy of Peer Production. In: Ctheory
  9. ^ Robert C. Allen (1983): Collective invention. In: Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 4(1), p. 1-24
  10. ^ Ugo Pagallo, Massimo Durante, Three Roads to P2P Systems and Their Impact on Business Practices and Ethics, Journal of Business Ethics, 2010, 90, S4, 551
  11. ^ Plan Nacional del Buen Vivir 2013-2017, p.19 : “La Revolución del Conocimiento, que propone la innovación, la ciencia y la tecnología, como fundamentos para el cambio de la matriz productiva, concebida como una forma distinta de producir y consumir. Esta transición llevará al país de una fase de dependencia de los recursos limitados (finitos) a una de recursos ilimitados (infinitos), como son la ciencia, la tecnología y el conocimiento.”
  12. ^ Speech at the Campus Party event,
  13. ^ Magrassi, P. (2010). Free and Open-Source Software is not an Emerging Property but Rather the Result of Studied Design" Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Intellectual Capital, Knowledge Management & Organisational Learning, Hong Kong Polytechnic, Nov. 2010

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