The Knowledge Commons is Different

OCTOBER 13, 2009

I was looking again recently at “Understanding the Knowledge Commons” which I had perused previously.

While reading the introductory chapter by Hess and Ostrom I came across:

People started to notice behaviors and conditions on the web-congestion, free riding, conflict, overuse, and “pollution” – that had long been identified with other types of commons. They began to notice that this new conduit of distributing information was neither a private nor strictly a public resource.

I think they are absolutely right to consider the analogies of “knowledge commons” with traditional commons. However, and at the same time, I think it essential to emphasize that “knowledge commons” are also fundamentally different.

The key difference here is in the nature of the underlying good that makes up the commons: in traditional cases the good is some physical resource – seas, rivers, land – to which usage is shared (either de facto or de jure), while in the knowledge case, well, it’s knowledge!

Now physical resources are by their nature ‘rival’ (or ‘subtractable’ as the authors put it), that is your usage and my usage are substitutes – your usage reduces the amount available for me to use and, when we are close to capacity, is strictly rival – either I use it or you use it. Knowledge, however, is a classic example of a non-rival resource: when you learn something from me I’ve lost nothing but you’ve gained something.

This means, for example, that the classic ‘tragedy’ of the commons where overuse leads to destruction of the resource is simply not possible for a knowledge commons – in fact, knowledge is like some magical food from a fairytale where the more its used the more of it there is!

The more useful ‘commons’ analogy for knowledge is not in relation to use but to production and the ‘free-rider’ problems that can arise where something must be done by a team or community. The issue here is that a separation appears between your effort (private) and the resulting outcome (shared) which may lead to an under-supply of effort and ‘free-riding’ on the efforts of others (if there are ten people on guard duty late at night, one can probably take a nap endangering the city but if all ten of them do it then it could be disastrous).


1. Before any misunderstanding arises I should make clear that the authors also acknowledge the role of rival/non-rival distinction – Ostrom, in fact, was one of the ‘coiners’ of the term rivalry. However, the article’s overall focus is on the analogies with the traditional commons.

2. Jamie Boyle has talked about the “second enclosure movement”. Though interesting to make this analogy I think references to the original enclosure movement is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it reinforces the mistaken analogy between knowledge and physical goods. Second, the evidence that the original enclosure movement was bad isn’t very compelling (in fact, it probably delivered net benefits).