Artifacts, Facilities, and Content: Information as a Common-Pool Resource

Charlotte Hess
Elinor Ostrom

Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Paper to be presented at the “Conference on the Public Domain,” Duke Law School, Durham, North Carolina, November 9-11, 2001.


The recent competition for ownership of the intellectual public domain is a direct outcome of new technologies and global markets. Distributed digital technologies have the dual capacity to increase as well as restrict access to information. These technologies have brought a larger number of the people of this earth greater access to important information about history, science, art, literature, and current events in specific places. At the same time, however, these new technologies enable profit-oriented firms the capability of extracting resources previously held in common for their value and for establishing property rights. Multiple forces are vying for capture and restriction of traditionally available knowledge: corporations vs. indigenous peoples (Monsanto owning the patent on the genetic structure of the neem); federal and state governments vs. citizens (encryption and digital surveillance vs. privacy); universities vs. professors (institutional vs. individual intellectual property rights); publishers vs. libraries (ephemeralization of library collections through licensing, bundling, and withdrawal of information). This competition for ownership of previously shared resources is not unique to the public domain of knowledge. Given the opening of vast markets for commodities of all kinds, many natural as well as human-made resources are under pressure. The world?s fisheries are fighting depletion because of the capture capabilities of larger trawlers, wider and finer nets, and larger fleets. Indigenous forest systems are being privatized, with the forests being burnt or logged at alarming rates, not only rapidly reducing primary growth forests as a resource but polluting the global atmosphere as well. Indeed, commodification and privatization of resources is a trend and a problem in regard to virtually all resources. And radical changes in the structure and process of all natural and human-constructed resources can occur through the development of new technologies. The goal of this paper is to summarize the lessons learned from a large body of international, interdisciplinary research on common-pool resources (CPRs) in the past 25 years and consider its usefulness in the analysis of the information as a resource. We will suggest ways in which the study of the governance and management of common-pool resources can be applied to the analysis of information and ?the intellectual public domain.? The complexity of the issues is enormous for many reasons: the vast number of players, multiple conflicting interests, the general lack of understanding of digital technologies, local versus global arenas, and a chronic lack of precision about the information resource at hand. We suggest, in the tradition of Hayek, that the combination of time and place analysis with general scientific knowledge is necessary for sufficient understanding of policy and action. In addition, the careful development of an unambiguous language and agreed-upon definitions is imperative. As one of the framing papers for this conference, we will focus on the language, the methodology, and outcomes of research on common-pool resources in order to better understand how property regimes affect the provision, production, distribution, appropriation, and consumption of scholarly information. Our brief analysis will suggest that collective action and new institutional design play as large a part in the shaping of scholarly information as do legal restrictions and market forces.