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Copyright and the Commons

June 28, 2008

When it comes to intellectual property the internet has a split personality. Like chromosomes lining up in preparation for cell division, every piece of web content is caught in opposing forcefields emanating from the Net’s twin poles: the need to Keep, and the urge to Share.

In the Keep corner, here’s the copyright notice on the website of University for industry, which runs the UK government’s learndirect programme:

Save as expressly set out in this Copyright Notice, you may not modify, copy, reproduce, re-publish, upload, post, transmit or distribute in any way any of the learndirect Materials. Any use of the learndirect Materials not expressly permitted in this Copyright Notice is strictly prohibited and will constititute an infringement of the copyright and other intellectual property rights of Ufi..

While over in the Share corner, here’s the copyleft statement on, a wiki-hosting offshoot of Wikipedia.

Except where otherwise specified, the text of all wikis on is freely licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL). Reusers of the content must retain it under the same licence, ensuring it remains free… Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GFDL..

This core polarity between Keep and Share, so intrinsic to the internet, can be understood in several different ways.

It can be traced back to some of the divergent cultural streams identified by Manuel Castells as flowing fortuitously together in the 1970s to form the internet’s distinctive zeitgeist (see Internet Galaxy 2: Net culture). The entrepreneurial tradition, for example, sets a supremely high value on ownership, for entrepreneurs require markets, and markets are about the exchange of property. Entrepreneurs must keep what is theirs until they can sell it for a profit, and it is largely this capitalist drive to marketise the new technology that has fueled the internet’s explosive growth in the last two decades.

The hacker subculture on the other hand has an ethic of knowledge sharing and collaboration, derived partly from the practice of the open source software movement and partly from communitarian philosophical strands in 1960s and 1970s youth culture. The hacker instinct is to donate what they make to the hacker community so it can be used and improved by others. Copyleft and the GNU Free Documentation Licence were bequeathed to the world wide web by the share-alike ideology of this hacker tradition.

Another way of understanding the Keep/Share dualism is as the latest manifestation of the historical struggle between commoners and enclosers, which in the 17th – 19th centuries in England forcibly took most farmland out of common and into private ownership. The Creative Commons open publication licences set out to recreate this ancient communal form of ownership in the context of what Charles Leadbeater calls the “new global information commons”. Leadbeater points out that unlike the real world version, the digital commons does not fall prey to overuse and lack of care – the so-called Tragedy of the Commons – but on the contrary is augmented by sharing: “The sheep grazing the commons shit out more grass. The more the commons is used, the larger it gets.” (Leadbeater, 2008 )

Leadbeater describes the digital-age version of the struggle between commoners and enclosers like this:

In England the village commons were enclosed to encourage more private investment to raise agricultural productivity and provide more food for the expanding urban population.. Now the same argument is being used to justify enclosures of the digital commons.. The argument of large corporations such as Microsoft and News Corporation is that the digital world will work better if everything can be turned into private property, to be protected and controlled. Were these emergent commons to be parcelled up and fenced off .. we could buy, have, make and acquire, but we would find it much more difficult to enjoy collaborating, participating, contributing and playing. (Leadbeater, 2008 )

A still more ancient source of the IP polarity, suggested by Geoff Mulgan in his book Connexity, is the age-old contradiction between the human need for stability and security and the human desire to explore and exchange. This tension dates back to the beginning of civilisation, expressed in the counterbalancing pull of the periphery against the centre, the outpost against the walled city, the frontier against the capital.

The edge places can be found throughout history: they are the hubs, entrepots, port cities. They see themselves as a web of connections, not as a territory. They were often not only creative and absorptive, but also often unstable….
By contrast in the landmasses you find the cultures of the centre. These are built around great empires, huge bureaucracies, absolute religions and ideologies.. They aspire to stasis and immobility. This immobility has been reflected in .. grand buildings that symbolise hierarchy.. (Mulgan, 1997)

Is this tension between centre and edge still at work in the Keep / Share duality? Arguably here again, as with the Tragedy of the Commons, the internet has changed the rules of an old game. For the nature of the global network is that it has no centre, but consists entirely of nodes and connections. The Net is all edge.

Castells M, 2001. The Internet Galaxy: reflections on the internet, business and society. OUP, Oxford
Leadbeater C, 2008. We Think. Profile Books, London. Available in part online from
Mulgan G, 1998. Connexity: responsibility, freedom, business and power in the new century. Vintage, London

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