Digital commons (economics)

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

Paradox of Digital Commons[edit]

Based on the analysis of commons conducted by Elinor Ostrom the is a two-dimensional classification of material goods:

Two-dimentional classification of goods[11]
Yes No
Exclusivity No Commons Public good
Yes Private good Club good

The paradox implies the fact that while being non-rival digital technologies still belong to commons, as they construct and enrich data, call for new definitions and enrich the publicity.[12] This means that economists need to change the definition of goods to include digital commons, or that they need to reshape the understanding of digital commons to fit it into the existing classification.

Opportunity of Digital Commons[edit]

The usage of digital commons has lead to the disruption of industries that benefited from publishing (authors and publisher), however, brought a huge potential to many industries. Many wikis help to pass knowledge to be used in the productive manner.[13] They also have increased opportunities in education, healthcare, manufacturing, governance, finance, science, etc.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are the 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 the public availability. Nowadays most scientific journals have an online presence as well.

Tragedy of Digital Commons[edit]

Based on the Tragedy of the Commons(TC) and Digital Divide, Gian Maria Greco and Luciano Floridi[14] have described the Tragedy of Digital Commons (TDC). As well as with the TC, the problem of TDC 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 Infosphere. This implies the indiscriminate and improper usage of the technology and digital resources and overproduction of data. This brings excess of information that leads to corruption of communication and information overload. The example is spam, which takes up to 45% of email traffic.

TDC also considers another artificial agents. Like worms, they can self-replicate and spread the copies within computer systems, which also lead to the pollution. Virus programs can also be related to artificial agent that damages the information system and leads to the disruption.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stadler, 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. ^
  9. ^ a b "Precious Plastic is Open Source". Retrieved 2020-01-10.
  10. ^ "Precious Plastic Global Community". Retrieved 2020-01-10.
  11. ^ Ostrom, Elinor (1933-2012). Autor. (2018). Governing the commons : the evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-56978-2. OCLC 1121430764.
  12. ^ "Digital health: a game changer". EBioMedicine. 43: 1–2. May 2019. doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2019.05.030. ISSN 2352-3964. PMC 6558292. PMID 31162112.
  13. ^ Thompson, Neil; Hanley, Douglas (2018-02-13). "Science Is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence From a Randomized Control Trial". Rochester, NY. SSRN 3039505. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ 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.

External links[edit]