Digital commons (economics)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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[edit]

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[edit]

Creative Commons[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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 2020, more than 80,000 people from around the world are working on some type of Precious Plastic project.[10]

Digital Commons as a policy[edit]

In October 2020 the European Commission[11] adopted its new Open Source Software Strategy 2020–2023.[12] The main goal of the strategy being the possibility to achieve European wide digital sovereignty.

It has been recognized that open source impacts the digital autonomy of Europe and it is likely that open source can give Europe a chance to create and maintain its own, independent digital approach and stay in control of its processes, its information, and its technology.

The digital strategy makes it clear that ‘collaborative working methods will be the norm within the Commission’s IT community to foster the sharing of code, data and solutions’. The principal working methods encouraged by this open-source strategy are open, inclusive and co-creative. Wherever it makes sense to do so, the Commission will share the source code of its future IT projects.

For publication of these projects, the European Union public licence (EUPL) will be preferred. The Commission will focus these efforts on an EU-centric digital government code repository (for ex. one in Estonia[13]) In addition, the developers will be free to make occasional contributions to closely related open-source projects. The principles and actions of the new open-source strategy will make it easier to obtain permission to share code with the outside world.

Open data[edit]

Both definitions of Open Data and Commons revolve around the concept of shared resources with a low barrier to access. Open Data usually is linked to data produced by the government and make available to public but it can come from many sources like science, non-profit organizations and society in general.[14]


Opportunity of digital commons[edit]

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.[15] 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[edit]

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.[16] Also smaller initiatives, like hackerspaces, makerspaces or fab labs are characterized by a considerable gender gap among their participants.[17]

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.[18] In the same years Geochicas created visibility campaigns on Twitter under the hashtag "#MujeresMapeandoElMundo"[19] and the “International Survey on Gender Representation”.[20] 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.[21]

Tragedy of digital commons[edit]

Based on the tragedy of the commons and digital divide, Gian Maria Greco and Luciano Floridi[22] 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[edit]


  1. ^ Stalder, Felix. Digital Commons: A dictionary entry. 22 April 2010.
  2. ^ Bauwens, Michel, Kostakis, Vasilis, and Alex Pazaitis. 2019. Peer to Peer: The Commons Manifesto. London: University of Westminster Press
  3. ^ a b Fuster Morell, M. (2010, p. 5). Dissertation: Governance of online creation communities: Provision of infrastructure for the building of digital commons.
  4. ^ Bollier, David. Viral Spiral. How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. New York, London, New Press, 2008
  5. ^ Ghosh, Rishab Aiyer. CODE: Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2006
  6. ^ "P2P Foundation:About – P2P Foundation".
  7. ^ a b Walljasper, Jay. All That We Share: How to save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities, and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us. New York: New, 2010.
  8. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 April 2019. Retrieved 12 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ a b "Precious Plastic is Open Source". Retrieved 2020-01-10.
  10. ^ "Precious Plastic Global Community". Retrieved 2020-01-10.
  11. ^ "European Commission | Choose your language | Choisir une langue | Wählen Sie eine Sprache". Retrieved 2020-12-26.
  12. ^[bare URL PDF]
  13. ^ "Estonia creates a public code repository for e-governance solutions". e-Estonia. 2019-04-30. Retrieved 2020-12-26.
  14. ^ van Loenen, Bastiaan; Vancauwenberghe, Glenn; Crompvoets, Joep; Dalla Corte, Lorenzo (2018), van Loenen, Bastiaan; Vancauwenberghe, Glenn; Crompvoets, Joep (eds.), Open Data Exposed, Information Technology and Law Series, The Hague: T.M.C. Asser Press, pp. 1–10, doi:10.1007/978-94-6265-261-3_1, ISBN 978-94-6265-261-3, retrieved 2022-01-10
  15. ^ Thompson, Neil; Hanley, Douglas (2018-02-13). "Science Is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence From a Randomized Control Trial". Rochester, NY. SSRN 3039505. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. ^ Nafus, D. (2012). "“Patches don’t have gender”: What is not open in open source software" New Media and Society, 14(4), 669–683. Retrieved April 22, 2020
  17. ^ Keune, A. et al.(2019). "Recognition in makerspaces: Supporting opportunities for women to “make” a STEM career" Computers in Human Behavior, 99, 368–380. Retrieved April 22, 2020
  18. ^ Yang, S. (March 8, 2019). ""Geochicas, la colectiva geo-sorora" Revista Emancipa Retrieved April 27, 2020
  19. ^ GeochicasOSM (2019). "Mujeres, tecnología libre e información geográfica voluntaria" Retrieved April 26, 2020
  20. ^ Geochicas "[1]" Retrieved April 27, 2020
  21. ^ Moloney, A. (March 8, 2020). "'Visible women': Feminist mappers bridge data gap in urban design"
  22. ^ Greco, Gian Maria; Floridi, Luciano (2004-06-01). "The tragedy of the digital commons". Ethics and Information Technology. 6 (2): 73–81. doi:10.1007/s10676-004-2895-2. ISSN 1572-8439. S2CID 5990776.

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