David Bollier

Mike Linksvayer, March 5th, 2009

As promised in last week’s post on The Commons Video, here’s an interview with David Bollier, author of Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own, which we said in January “will likely establish itself as a definitive guide for those seeking to understand and discover the key players and concepts in the digital commons. From the beginnings of the Free Software Movement, to Wikipedia’s Inception, to Lessig founding Creative Commons at Harvard Law School, Bollier thoughtfully examines the principles and circumstances that helped nurture our digital commons from idea to (meta)physical reality.”

Read on for an explanation of how Bollier became interested in digital commons movement, how he sees the its long term impact shaping up, and much in between.

You’ve been involved in efforts to understand and evangelize the broad concept of “the commons” for a long time, including as an editor of What first got you interested in the commons, and when was that?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I worked for Ralph Nader and a number of Washington public-interest advocacy groups. Far from being the reviled figure that he became following the 2000 election, Nader was revered among progressives for his sophistication in politicizing and developing dozens of issues. These were generally taboo or “boring” topics that were utterly off the national agenda – topics that had not even crystallized as “issues,” such as auto safety, clean air and clean water, open government and congressional reform, not to mention countless niche issues like mobile home safety, nutritional labeling and whistleblower protection. (For more, see the DVD, “An Unreasonable Man.”)

I attended a 1980 conference that Nader convened that affected me a great deal. It was entitled, “Controlling What We Own,” and it dealt with the many resources that the American people nominally or even legally own, but which we do not control or reap benefits from. Nader groups were involved in most of these issues.

For example, commercial broadcasters use the publicly owned airwaves for free, but give virtually nothing in return for their use. (Some token public-interest obligations like the Fairness Doctrine were de-regulated into oblivion in the 1990s, and the government requires no payments for use of the public spectrum.) Mineral extraction from public lands is still governed by a law passed during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, in 1872, which grants access rights for $5 an acre or less. Grazing and logging on public lands are usually allowed under leases with below-market fees. Federally financed drug research is usually given away to drug companies for a pittance. Pharmaceutical companies then charge us exorbitant prices for drugs that we, as taxpayers, financed in the first place.

In 2000, I was inspired to write a book about these “enclosures of the commons” because they were generally not recognized as a broader phenomenon. The result was Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth, which was published in 2002.

Besides describing the many common assets that are being stolen from us, the book developed an analysis of the commons. It drew somewhat upon the scholarship of pioneers such as Elinor Ostrom, Yochai Benkler, Larry Lessig and others in the nascent free culture movement. I was excited about applying the commons framework more broadly than academics did, and in more accessible, popular ways. That’s because I see the commons paradigm as having an enormous intellectual and political potential.

It is especially useful in confronting the limitations of conventional economics and its parochial notions of “value,” which focuses almost exclusively on prices in market transactions. The commons encompasses a far wider, qualitatively different universe of “value.” It validates a more humanistic and socially grounded matrix of value. Yet it does so in an intellectually coherent framework that has its own logic and principles; the commons is not simply a moralistic rhetoric for “the common good.”

The commons is about specific types of social management and policy mechanisms. And because the commons has the capacity to manage shared resources effectively, it implicitly challenges the conventional legal and economic premises of copyright and other property-rights regimes. It provokes a new dialogue that has the potential to transform the existing policy consensus. That’s exciting.

How do you contextualize the movement to create, curate, and protect an intellectual commons (of which Creative Commons is a part) within the broad concept and history of the commons?

Unfortunately, Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 essay in Science on the “tragedy of the commons” has cast a long shadow on the commons. Mainstream economists and conservative political groups seized upon the “tragedy” paradigm. They saw it as a way to promote the idea that only private property rights can truly solve the problem of over-exploitation of a shared resource. They helped turn the “tragedy of the commons into an economic truism that simply isn’t really true. (As he later admitted, Hardin was discussing an open access regime, in which there is no community and no rules, which of course is not a commons.)

With her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, however, Indiana University political scientist Elinor Ostrom marshaled many empirical examples of natural resources that have been managed as commons for decades or even hundreds of years. She identified some recurrent principles that seem to make a commons work – things like clearly defined boundaries around a resource; group monitoring of usage of the resource; and graduated sanctions against free riders or those who might abuse a resource.

Ostrom went on to found the Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, the Digital Library on the Commons, and the International Association for the Study of the Commons (originally the term “Common Property” was used). There are now hundreds of academics around the world who study “common pool resources,” mostly in the context of natural resources in developing countries.

Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, an entirely different group of academics – mostly law scholars – helped develop the idea of the intellectual commons. Peter Jaszi, David Lange, Pamela Samuelson, Jessica Litman, James Boyle, Yochai Benkler, Larry Lessig and others took the public domain seriously. A number of notable activists such Mitch Kapor, John Perry Barlow, Fred von Lohmann and Gigi Sohn also helped bring the problems of copyright law to public attention.

As the Internet took off in the 1990s, and the film and record industries began to win major expansions of copyright protection, these law scholars and activists helped re-conceptualize the public domain. They re-cast it as something worth protecting. People started to realize that the public domain is necessary for new types of creativity. This challenged the orthodoxies of mainstream copyright law and economics. A major landmark in the evolution of this idea was a November 2001 conference on the public domain organized by Jamie Boyle at Duke Law School.

Over the past decade, “the commons” has come to take on larger valences of meaning that the term, the “public domain,” cannot convey. The public domain, after all, is a specialized legal term with its own history. The commons helps emphasize that public-domain information is not simply “the opposite of property” – as copyright scholars long presumed – but a different sort of value than conventional property. The commons is a means by which a social community generates value; it is not something that derives solely from the” originality” of an individual acting alone.

Copyright law has trouble accepting the idea of the commons as a vehicle of socially created value. That’s why the Creative Commons licenses are such a brilliant innovation. They understand this idea and cleverly use copyright law to legally recognize socially created value: an enormous conceptual improvement in copyright law achieved through an ingenious “hack.”

How did you come to write a history of Creative Commons? And how is that history a “viral spiral”?

After traveling in the worlds of free software, copyright activism and the commons for nearly ten years – mostly as a policy activist – I became acutely aware of how much of this history was invisible to mainstream political culture.

Sure, many people had heard about Linux and open source software, and perhaps even the Creative Commons licenses. But few laypeople really understood the enormous political or cultural implications of these developments or how they arose. Even many people within free software or open-access publishing, for example, do not appreciate the full breadth of the free culture movement or the significance of the commons paradigm. There are few accessible, big-picture histories of the movement as a whole.

Yet here’s the irony: At a time when the Bush Administration in effect achieved a “lockdown” of the political culture from 2001 to 2008 – policy innovation was brought to an utter standstill – free culture was one of the few spaces where idealism and innovation could run free. People with creative, brilliant ideas could actually produce serious, effective mechanisms for change. It has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise moribund political culture.

Free culture has built its own alternative democratic polity – a parallel universe that honors such radical ideas as participation, transparency and accountability. Free culture has acted as a kind of counterpoint and rebuke to our corrupted constitutional polity.

So I wanted to tell this story. I wanted to explain “how the commoners built a digital republic of their own.” This idea seemed like a perfect complement to my previous books. Silent Theft explored the idea of the commons and its many enclosures, and Brand Name Bullies, in 2005, told dozens of stories about how copyright and trademark law are being used to privatize culture. Viral Spiral pulls together the eclectic threads of activism, scholarship, technology and social innovation that have produced free culture over the past generation.

I hit upon the term “viral spiral” as a way to explain the evolution of free culture. Viral refers to the almost-magical ways in which new ideas and innovations proliferate spontaneously on the Internet. People without credentials or money – commoners – can create their own citadels of shared culture and information. Spiral refers to the way in which the innovations of one Internet cohort rapidly becomes the platform used by later cohorts to build follow-on innovations. It’s a messy, non-linear, unpredictable, upward spiral of progress.

Richard Stallman and free software began the viral spiral by pioneering the use of a copyright license – the General Public License — to protect the commons. Free software demonstrated how a viral community could coalesce and generate useful stuff (code), and a license could protect against private enclosure.

Creative Commons licenses built on the example and experiences of free software, but with their own new twists, such as individual choice in how a work may be shared. The CC licenses now serve as a platform for countless new species innovations on the content layer. Some of the most notable examples are open educational resources (OER), open science innovations, and open business models.

For me, “viral spiral” helps point to the historical interconnectedness of this evolution of commons-based innovation. It’s a great story about how a motley assemblage of self-selected activists, thinkers and volunteers built the technological infrastructure, legal rules and social ethic for a new movement. The movement is more than a bid for “controlling what we own,” however. It’s a movement about democratic transformation and renewal – a story that is still unfolding.

What parts of the book did you find most fun and most frustrating to write?

It was great fun interviewing key figures in the free culture movement – Larry Lessig, Richard Stallman, Joi Ito, Ronaldo Lemos, Jamie Boyle and many others — to ask questions that had always perplexed me, and to figure out how the movement evolved fitfully over time.

Learning more about the international expansion of the CC licenses and free culture was really exciting. It was exciting to learn that this movement is not just about law scholars tweaking boring copyright licenses – but about the rise of a new type of international political culture. The licenses have attracted passionate musicians from Brazil, resourceful hackers from Amsterdam, talented remix artists from Japan, educators from South Africa concerned with open education and open access publishing, and so many other people. Each of the iCommons conferences – in Rio, Dubrovnik and Sapporo were fantastic experiences that showed the deep global appeal – and yet the diverse manifestations – of free culture.

The most difficult challenge in writing Viral Spiral was identifying the overarching narrative. There was such a dense, confusing mass of material, participants and historical developments to sort through. I had to immerse myself in vast quantities of information, interviews, Web content and personal experiences – and somehow tease out an intelligible storyline. If my book achieves anything, I hope it confirms that the rise of the digital commons is truly one of the great stories of our time.

The book’s subtitle “How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own” is in past tense, though your concluding chapter, which really covers this, “The Digital Republic and The Future of Democratic Culture”, is visionary and (obviously) looking to the future. To what extent have we already built something that could be called a “digital republic”?

Well, my preceding answers make this clear: a large and impressive “digital republic” is already flourishing. There are shared Internet protocols; thousands of free software and open source software programs; Creative Commons licenses that enable sharing and new creativity; countless varieties of online commons from wikis to the blogosphere to social networking; new creative genres like music remixes, video mashups and podcasting; and on and on.

What’s so great about this messy viral spiral is that it is still evolving! Yesterday’s innovations are the platform for new ones tomorrow. And while the new commons sector is invigorating the commercial marketplace with new creativity, this sector cannot be captured and taken private by the marketplace. That’s a significant political achievement.

Again in your concluding chapter, you write of the commons as the backdrop for enabling “history-making citizenship.” Is this a more approachable form of Benkler’s lengthy “freedom to do more for oneself, by oneself, and with others” and brief “autonomy” (, or do you see this as a significantly different take on what the commons enables?

My sense of the commons as an enabler of “history-making citizenship” is entirely compatible with Benkler’s vision in Chapter 5 of The Wealth of Networks. Indeed, I can’t begin to calculate how influential Yochai has been in my thinking, and he certainly explores this idea with great philosophical precision.

That said, I have a different emphasis than Yochai does. He discusses the freedoms that a commons enables as a contrast to those of the marketplace – which is certainly true and significant. But I am fascinated with the ways in which the commons constitutes a whole new layer of governance and offers new types of collective-action possibilities in civil life. Perhaps this is what Benkler is saying as well, but I tried to place this theme front-and-center, and place it in the history of citizenship itself.

Unlike previous eras of citizenship that were constrained by one’s economic station or access to political parties or the media, ordinary citizens now have some incredibly powerful tools for “making history.” They can directly influence politics, governance and civic life, and do not necessarily have to work through surrogates like political parties or the press. Citizens can realistically instigate direct action themselves and have an impact on politics, culture and the marketplace. Any self-organized group has the capacity to speak to a global audience, organize functionally powerful collectives and influence official governance.

History-making citizenship is still in a rudimentary stage. But it’s clear that citizen-led collectives are calling into question the moral and social legitimacy of existing institutions. It is forcing new voices to be heard and represented.

So long as the Internet remains an open-access infrastructure, new commons will keep arising, and growing stronger. As they do, they will empower like-minded citizens to challenge unresponsive institutions and remake the political culture in their own image. This is huge. Developing a new rapprochement between centralized institutions and decentralized commons will take time, and be politically contentious and messy. But I remain optimistic that the viral spiral will be a potent force for improving democratic culture in the years ahead.

Thanks David!

Anyone who found this interesting, please check out (or buy or download) Viral Spiral, available under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial license.

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