The 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded today to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson for their research on economic governance. Ostrom’s award is particularly exciting, for it cites her study of the commons. Commons? That sounds familiar!
Ostrom’s pioneering work mostly concerns the governance of common-pool resources — resources that are rivalrous (i.e., scarce, can be used up, unlike digital goods) yet need to be or should be governed as a commons — classically, things like water systems and the atmosphere. This work is cited by many scholars of non-rivalrous commons (e.g., knowledge commons) as laying the groundwork for their field. For example, a few excerpts from James Boyle’s recent book, The Public Domain, first from the acknowledgements (page ix):
Historical work by Carla Hesse, Martha Woodmansee, and Mark Rose has been central to my analysis, which also could not have existed but for work on the governance of the commons by Elinor Ostrom, Charlotte Hess, and Carol Rose.
Notes, page 264:
In the twentieth century, the negative effects of open access or common ownership received an environmental gloss thanks to the work of Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1243–1248. However, work by scholars such as Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Carol Rose, “The Comedy of the Commons: Custom, Commerce, and Inherently Public Property,” University of Chicago Law Review 53 (1986): 711–781, have introduced considerable nuance to this idea. Some resources may be more efficiently used if they are held in common. In addition, nonlegal, customary, and norm-based forms of “regulation” often act to mitigate the theoretical dangers of overuse or under-investment.
Notes, page 266:
The possibility of producing “order without law” and thus sometimes governing the commons without tragedy has also fascinated scholars of contemporary land use. Robert C. Ellickson, Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991); Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
In 2003 Ostrom herself co-authored with Charlotte Hess a paper contextualizing knowledge commons and the study of other commons: Ideas, Artifacts, and Facilities: Information as a Common-Pool Resource. It includes a citation of Creative Commons, which was just about to launch its licenses at the time the paper was written:
An example of an effective grassroots initiative is that taken by the Public Library of Science (“PLS”), a nonprofit organization of scientists dedicated to making the world’s scientific and medical literature freely accessible “for the benefit of scientific progress, education and the public good.”126 PLS has so far encouraged over 30,888 scientists from 182 countries to sign its open letter to publishers to make their publications freely available on the web site PubMed Central.127 By September 2002, there were over eighty full-text journals available at this site.128 Another new collective action initiative is the Creative Commons129 founded by Lawrence Lessig, James Boyle, and others to promote “the innovative reuse of all sorts of intellectual works.”130 Their first project is to “offer the public a set of copyright licenses free of charge.”131
The entire paper is an excellent read.
Congratulations to Elinor Ostrom, and to the Nobel Prize committee for making an excellent choice, highly relevant in today’s world. Hopefully this will only be the first of many grand prizes for the study of the commons.
If you want to support the commons in practice right now, I suggest a donation to our 2009 fundraising campaign!