Reassessing the ‘Digital Commons’

Part I -- Sustainability and Funding

Funding FLOSS contributions

Individual contributors

Sustainability of Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) has been an ongoing subject of concern. In 2017, Sustain released a practical report on the topic, sharing findings and recommendations pertaining to the sustainability of FLOSS [Nickolls, 2017]. The authors of this report, also known as the Sustainers, use the term 'FOSS' and, more often, 'OSS.' We prefer using the term 'FLOSS' to express neutrality [Stallman, 2013].

At the lowest level, FLOSS consists of lines of code contributed by individuals. The latter contribute either voluntarily or because they are paid to do so [Schweik, 2011]. Some organizations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, hire people to work on FLOSS projects, either part-time or full-time. To quote the Sustainers, "contributions are often made on the basis of immediate and individual needs." And so is the funding of these contributions, from a standpoint where we equate a contribution with its funding: That is, a contribution would not have landed, had it not been funded somehow, whether directly or indirectly, whether in the form of money or time.

This individual-centric perspective makes funding, if not sustainability, a non-issue. It is only good at answering, as an individual, the all-too-common question "How do you make money working on FLOSS?" We consider that sustainability includes, but is not restricted to, funding. Indeed, what if you have funding, but no talent existing or available to take advantage of it? Now, we may ask the holistic question: Isn't a FLOSS project more than the sum of its individual contributions?

Collective projects

FLOSS projects which see communities of practice emerge and organize around them are definitely much more. An example we cherish would be SciPy, a Python-based ecosystem for scientific computing. Interactions between members of these communities create value, knowledge, and culture. These members do not have to be code contributors; they may be end users, power users, or contributors in a broader sense. Remarkably, the yt project has pushed the definition of its "members" (yt is a Python package for analyzing and visualizing high-dimensional scientific data): Quoting [Turk, 2016], "yt has a model in place for recognizing contributions that go beyond code."

So, can we grasp this collective dimension? We sense that sustainability should be a concern shared throughout the community. When, additionally, whole segments of technological, cultural, educational, and economic activities rely on FLOSS projects, we agree with the Sustainers that the concern for sustainability (including funding) should be shared by "stakeholders" who are many and diverse, far beyond the small circle of (code) contributors. The Sustainers call this key subset of FLOSS our "essential digital infrastructure." Further, they identify it as a "public good." For each piece of this infrastructure, the circle of contributors is indeed very small with respect to its end-user base, made up of "consumers" or "users" [Nickolls, 2017].

Although the Sustainers link to Elinor Ostrom's "8 Principles for Managing A Commmons [sic]" when recommending good governance, we argue that their report is a missed opportunity for leveraging the concept of Commons. In the following, we explain why we care about viewing FLOSS as a digital commons (rather than a public good). We note that other digital (information, knowledge) commons have been approached as public goods. One example would be information acquisition, as studied by [Ramachandran and Chaintreau, 2015]. They also report very low ratios of "contributors" to "consumers," falling within a production/consumption view.

Bringing the Commons into play

They say FLOSS is a digital commons

Historically, the Commons have described natural resources that were shared within a community---not only as a matter of fact, but through intentional rules and collective self-management which ensured their sustainability and fair access [Maurel, 2016]. As more and more commons were enclosed and sacrificed to private interests (including that of the State), they all but disappeared from the official economic discourse. Instead, the discussion narrowed down to the private/public dichotomy. In that paradigm, "public" goods merely qualified what could not (at the time) be realistically privatized, such as air or water. They were described in contrast to private goods, as non-rivalrous and non-excludable [Hess and Ostrom, 2011a].

The concept of Commons reappeared with the rise of environmental concerns [Bollier, 2011] as well as the development of technologies, which suddenly enabled "the capture of what were once free and open public goods" [Hess and Ostrom, 2011a]. In a somewhat similar way, knowledge has long been able to straddle the ambiguous border between private and public: the necessity of print grounding it in the private property realm, while the public domain materialized its non-rivalrous, non-excludable nature.

The Internet and the advent of the digital era have changed this situation. Once the limitations inherent to print are gone, the complex status of knowledge is revealed. Defining it as a commons is an attempt to grasp and honor this complexity. Indeed, the term "Commons" translates a desire to move away and beyond the simplistic understanding of private vs public. By speaking of commons, its advocates seek to build a new framework for analysis, which integrates the philosophical, political, and social dimensions along with the traditional, market-centred economic one [Bollier, 2011].

How is the collective dimension enforced?

In 2017, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the GNU General Public License version 3 (GPLv3). It is one of the most popular Free Software licenses. To remain neutral, we wish we could use the term 'FLOSS license' to mean any software license approved by both the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative. Free Software licenses are tools designed to safeguard and advance the freedom of software users. Indeed, user freedom is the ultimate motivation underlying Free Software. But, since it is not that of Open Source, we cannot casually replace 'Free Software' with 'FLOSS' in our second-to-last sentence.

What we can highlight is that FLOSS licenses grant individual freedoms. There is no built-in mechanism to account for a community. The sense of community is typically derived from the practice of sharing (allowed by FLOSS licensing), in-person or remote participation in events (conferences, hackathons, etc.), and collaboration on certain contributions (possibly event organization, project maintenance, etc.). We can describe FLOSS as pro-sharing, alongside other movements such as Creative Commons or Open Science. We note that the concern for sharing has been at the heart of Free Software since the very beginning [Stallman, 1983].

At the end of the day, distribution and dissemination are one-way ideas. They do not bear on collective responsibility. Still, we recognize that copyleft---and the related ShareAlike offered by Creative Commons licenses---represent a means to extend some responsibility to all community members. Therefore, we hypothesize that, even though copyleft and related tools do serve the project of building digital commons, they might not be sufficient. And, although FLOSS has been a great source of inspiration to other digital commons [Laurent, 2012], the FLOSS way does not have to be the only way to the digital Commons.

Generally, most of Commons literature seems to present copyright enclosure as the one big threat to the digital Commons. Since digital knowledge is in essence non-rivalrous, there is a presumption that Hardin's famous "tragedy of commons"1 does not apply [Hess and Ostrom, 2011a]. In fact, the opposite is considered more likely to be true: "the tragedy of the anticommons (...) lies in the potential underuse of scarce scientific resources caused by excessive intellectual property rights and overpatenting in biomedical research" [Hess and Ostrom, 2011a]. As a reaction, commons-oriented initiatives tend to overemphasize accessibility, to the expense of sustainability and governance---as if these concerns ranked second in the definition of commons.

Issues, solutions, and questions

A critical take on the priorities put forward for these commons

Commons movements deemed successful include FLOSS, Open Access (OA), or free culture. Why does their focus on free access and use fall short? Mostly because they reflect only the authors' or maintainers' intentions, with little regard for or feedback from the other stakeholders' needs. First of all, the very definitions of what constitutes 'freedom' (in FLOSS and free culture) or 'open access' (in eponymous OA) are subject to a cultural bias. Open Access, for instance, operates a hierarchy between so-called barriers. While the removal of some (price and permission) is a compulsory prerequisite to be labelled OA, others ("handicap access," "connectivity," language, etc.), arguably harder obstacles to overcome, are merely acknowledged as works in progress [Suber, 2011].

This helps us see "free and unfettered access" [Hess and Ostrom, 2011a] as a relative concept, and the set of criteria which determine it as mere guidelines, rather than objective conditions. In this light, we would like to argue for a more comprehensive view of "accessibility." If we are to treat digital Commons as commons, then we may need to do more (or less, depending) than giving up privileges traditionally associated with copyright---a privilege unto itself, ironically! We want to find whatever specific provisions are most likely to serve and engage the community. Yet the 'free/open' argument, insofar as it is arbitrary and partial, necessarily promotes the concerns of some over those of others.

Here is an example of different interests conflicting. In his contribution on OA to book [Hess and Ostrom, 2011b], Suber posits that the concept of open access can be extended to royalty-producing literature [Suber, 2011]. Yet the focus on eliminating the "price barrier" creates a contention. His argument that OA does not adversely affect sales is based on the assumption that people do not read whole books in electronic format---a surprising opinion, which seems irrevocably outdated. Moreover, if maximum dissemination is the goal, then distribution and searchability are more important factors than price---or rather, lack thereof. In many fields where traditional sales channels are still the norm, putting a price on something---even a symbolic one---remains the best guarantee of effectively sharing one's work.

As a matter of fact, in the chapter that follows Suber's, Ghosh argues that a well-regulated marketplace can help realize the process of exchange, which is crucial to the Commons [Ghosh, 2011]. This does not negate Suber's defense of scholars' "insulation from the market", but it does put it into perspective.

Implications for funding and sustainability

In reality, the issue is cyclical. "Consumers" might object to a price which does not appropriately meet their means, or their perception of the work's value. On the other hand, commoners, who may have a say in setting the price and defining exactly what they are paying for (access, use of a resource, or the work which made both possible), would, presumably, agree to such a (financial) contribution. Here, we are drawing on the now well-known research on common-pool resource systems. It has shown success not to be linked with any specific set of rules, but broader principles [Hess and Ostrom, 2011a]. One of them is of particular interest to us: "Individuals affected by these rules can usually participate in modifying the rules."

But are such findings relevant to digital commons? Usually, the latter are considered a separate category, on the basis of their non-rivalry (or low subtractabilty) [Hess and Ostrom, 2011a]. Unlike common-pool resources, they cannot be depleted or destroyed through overuse. This might be somewhat true of the resource itself, but what about the human labour needed to create and maintain it? We want to point out that time and work capacity are uniquely rivalrous resources. The Sustainers recognize this duality as well ("the sustainability of resources and the sustainability of people"). Therefore, wouldn't a certain level of institutions still be in order, if not to regulate the use of the digital resource, then at least to take care of the human resource?

We are led to believe that a strong sense of community, implying shared values and adherence to the rules in place, is as significant for the sustainability of digital commons, as it is for other types of commons'. When it comes to funding, we have already mentioned that the more engaged users are, the less they should be tempted to free-ride. We also think that, in the case of collective projects, treating every potential user as another commoner can only help with the recruitment and long-term integration of contributors. The orientation of the pandas project (Python data analysis library), as stated in their governance document, seems to support this claim: "we strive to keep the barrier between Contributors and Users as low as possible"; "In general all Project decisions are made through consensus among the Core Team with input from the Community." Evidently, they see value in doing so.

However, we may note that the funding of the project is left to the care of a distinct organization, i.e., NumFOCUS (which, as a side note, Marianne loves). We can also concede that each digital commons has its own specific requirements and culture. For example, formal, centralized types of institutions, which have worked well for environmental commons, will not necessarily be successful with FLOSS commons [Schweik and English, 2007]. Again, rules and systems will be diverse, since they must above all be designed to "[match] local needs and conditions", to quote Hess and Ostrom.


In this article, we chose to target funding as a key to digital commons' sustainability. However, it is obviously not the only issue. Preservation, legitimate use, and diversity should all be core concerns to anyone looking to build and enrich the Commons. For, when we speak of 'the Knowledge Commons', we never mean a particular piece of knowledge, but rather the entire ecosystem which allows as many people as possible to keep creating and sharing knowledge.


Bollier, David. 2011. “The Growth of the Commons Paradigm.” In Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. MIT Press.

Ghosh, Shubha. 2011. “How to Build a Commons: Is Intellectual Property Constrictive, Facilitating, or Irrelevant?” In Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. MIT Press.

Hess, Charlotte, and Elinor Ostrom. 2011a. “Introduction: An Overview of the Knowledge Commons.” In Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. MIT Press.

———, eds. 2011b. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. MIT Press.

Laurent, Philippe. 2012. “Free and Open Source Software Licensing: A Reference for the Reconstruction of ‘Virtual Commons’?” In Conference for the 30th Anniversary of the CRID, 1–19. s.n.

Maurel, Lionel. 2016. “Les Little Free Libraries, victimes d’une Tragédie des Communs ?” Accessed on Thu, December 21, 2017.

Nickolls, Ben. 2017. A One Day Conversation for Open Source Software Sustainers. Sustain. GitHub HG (SF). Accessed on Thu, December 21, 2017.

Ramachandran, Arthi, and Augustin Chaintreau. 2015. “Who Contributes to the Knowledge Sharing Economy?” In Proceedings of the 2015 ACM on Conference on Online Social Networks, 37–48. COSN ’15. New York, NY: ACM.

Schweik, Charles M. 2011. “Free/Open-Source Software as a Framework for Establishing Commons in Science.” In Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. MIT Press.

Schweik, Charles M., and Robert English. 2007. “Tragedy of the FOSS Commons? Investigating the Institutional Designs of Free/Libre and Open Source Software Projects.” First Monday 12 (2).

Stallman, Richard. 1983. “Why Programs Should be Shared.” Accessed on Thu, December 21, 2017.

———. 2013. “FLOSS and FOSS.” Accessed on Thu, December 21, 2017.

Suber, Peter. 2011. “Creating an Intellectual Commons Through Open Access.” In Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. MIT Press.

Turk, Matthew. 2016. “The Royal ‘We’ in Scientific Software Development.” Accessed on Thu, December 21, 2017.

  1. The tragedy of commons describes the overexploitation or free-riding that lead to a shared resource's destruction. 

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