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Elinor Ostrom and the solution to the tragedy of the commons

Elinor Ostrom's "research concerned the governance of common resources (also known as commons). The commons are natural resources, like land for grazing, fishing areas, forests for timber, water for the irrigation of farmland, and also more intangible resources, like knowledge, for which it is very expensive to control and fence in 'user' consumption. The problem with these types of resources, as shown in 1968 by Garrett Hardin (but Aristotle had already observed a similar phenomenon) is that they are over-exploited, or at least their care and sustainability is overlooked by users. The reason is that people behave opportunistically (like free-riders) and consider the resource they are accessing, without the possibility of being excluded, as a free resource, and they therefore maximize their private benefits but neglect, or collectivize, the costs.

Hardin coined the phrase 'tragedy of the commons' to describe this phenomenon and gave social sciences one of the most evocative metaphors after Adam Smith’s 'invisible hand'. These two metaphors are effective because they capture two essential social situations in marked contrast to one another. When social interactions are guided by an invisible hand, they reconcile individual choice and socially desirable results, whereas in the tragedy of the commons, individuals pursuing their private objectives cause disastrous consequences for themselves and others. The solution to the tragedy of the commons, before the contribution of Ostrom and her studies, was to privatize resources or, in a diametrically opposite view, to form a Leviathan state in order to manage them.

Instead, Ostrom demonstrated that, within communities, rules and institutions of non-market and not resulting from public planning can emerge from the bottom up to ensure a sustainable, shared management of resources, as well as one that is efficient from an economical point of view. Besides the village of Törbel, Ostrom shows examples of common lands in the Japanese villages of Hirano and Nagaike, the huerta irrigation mechanism between Valencia, Murcia and Alicante in Spain, and the zanjera irrigation community in the Philippines. Also, the property in the form of 'vicinale', neighborhoods, typical of regions of Italy like Emilia, the Belluno and the Ticino, are also collective institutions, although not investigated by Ostrom. The argument then has a more modern example if one notices that even the 'Wikipedia community' is a form of successful collective institution of a communal resource (knowledge)."

(Flavio Felice, Massimiliano Vatiero, 27 June 2012)



Adam Smith • American political economist • assets • Belluno • bottom-up organisation • collective institutions • collective interests • common pool resources (CPR) • common propertycommons • communal resource • economic governance • economic science • Elinor Ostrom • Emilia • English Industrial Revolution • exploitationfencing • Flavio Felice • Garrett Hardin • governance of common resources • Hirano • huerta irrigation mechanism • individual choice • invisible hand • Karl Polanyi • land management • Massimiliano Vatiero • Nagaike • natural resourcesopportunism • over-exploitation • political economics • political economist • political economyprivate control • privatisation • privatisation of land • public government • public planning • resource managementsocial interactionssocial situation • socially desirable results • sustainabilitysustainability thinking • Ticino • Torbel • tragedy of the commons • vicinale • Wikipedia • Wikipedia community • zanjera irrigation community


Simon Perkins
11 JANUARY 2012

Engagement Commons: A new tool to empower civic engagement

"With the explosion of open data, we've seen a proliferation of civic software aiming to get community information on everything from road closures to restaurant inspections into people's hands.

The apps have great potential for engaging people in improving their communities. But often the people closest to the data – city leaders and staffers – have a difficult time finding and weeding through all the software to determine what's right for both their needs and their community.

That's why we're building Engagement Commons, a comprehensive catalogue of civic engagement software. It's a project of Civic Commons, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Technology for Engagement Initiative, which funds projects that use technology to inspire on–the–ground action."

(Nick Grossman, Civic Commons Executive Director, 11 January 2012)


2012appapplicationart appreciation • art creation • Bostoncity • city leaders • Civic Commons • civic engagementcivic softwarecommonscommunity • community information on everything • discover art • editable catalogue • empowerment • Engagement Commons • find a tool • improve the community • non-emergency • on-the-ground actionopen dataPhiladelphia • proliferation of civic software • Public Art App • restaurant inspection • road closure • San FranciscoSeattle • SeeClickFix • software catalogue • Technology for Engagement Initiative • technology to inspire • toolwiki


Simon Perkins
24 MAY 2010

Digital Commons: a shared social-ecological system

"With the Internet nurturing the sharing spirit inherent in people, 'commons' has taken on a new meaning. Free software proved spectacularily that the commons is a viable alternative to commodification. The term 'Digital Commons' is widely used but only losely defined. Still, it has an obvious evocative power, and the potential to reconceptualize our knowledge environment and to unite those fighting for its freedom.

Charlotte Hess will give an overview of the historical and contemporary uses and meanings of the 'commons,' 'common–pool resources,' and 'common property' as they apply to both natural and digital resources. The challenge she takes up is to build shared understandings and definitions in this rapidly emerging area of scholarship which will give rise to appropriate collective action."

(Wizard of OS, 12 June 2004)

[2] Hess, C. and E. Ostrom (2006). Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, MIT Press.



2004 • Charlotte Hess • commodificationcommon property • common-pool resources • commonsdigital • digital commons • digital culturedigital resources • information commons • information in contextintegrationInternetknowledge commons • knowledge environment • sharingtechnology


Simon Perkins
19 MAY 2010

Balancing the interests of creators with society's interest in fostering later expression and creation of new works

"several theoretical views support the position that in life one has strong economic and non–economic claims for control over one's intangible creations. Yet, the paper finds that historical and literary theory in conjunction with recent economic arguments of Professors Brett Frischmann and Mark Lemley regarding positive externalities generated by access to ideas and information, militate in favor of limits on heirs' control over these creations. Furthermore, insofar as society provides the building blocks from which these creations arise, all the theories show that creations must at some point become part of the commons to enable others to generate new creations. Thus the paper argues against the growth of trademark or trademark–like author's rights which have no temporal limit and offer heirs extreme control over access to and use of an author's work and seeks to balance the interests of creators with society's interest in fostering later expression and creation of new works."

(Deven Desai)

Desai, Deven R., Property, Persona, and Publicity (August 21, 2007). TJSL Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1008541. Available at SSRN:


2007accessaccess to ideasaccess to information • author's rights • authorshipbereavement • Brett Frischmann • commonscontrolcopyrightcreationculture • Deven Desai • ethicsexpressionheirsintangible creationsintellectual property • Mark Lemley • new creations • new worksownershippersonaprivacy rightsproperty • right of publicity • social constructionism • spillover • SSRNtrademark


Simon Perkins
21 JUNE 2009

CC Talks With: Illegal Art

"A museum exhibit called 'Illegal Art' might sound like a history of naughty pictures. Turns out that the exhibit (through July 25 at SF MOMA Artist's Gallery) is more innocuous than most primetime TV: A Mickey Mouse gasmask. Pez candy dispensers honoring fallen hip–hop stars. A litigious Little Mermaid. Not kids' stuff, exactly–but illegal?

Copyright holders have threatened and sued many of the show's artists for sampling, remixing, and recontextualizing other people's artistic creations without permission. Featuring audio and visual exhibits, a full length CD, and several films, the show highlights how copyright, typically considered an engine of creativity, can stifle art and free speech.

'Copyright is often so esoteric and theoretical,' said Carrie McLaren, the exhibit's curator. 'We wanted to make copyright's problems as real to the average person as they are to our featured artists.'"
(Creative Commons)


attributioncommercialismcommonscopyrightcreative capitalCreative Commonsfree culturefunding • lessig • market failuremarkets • no derivatives • non-commercialopen sourceownershippatronpiracy • share-alike • social gainsponsorshipvalue of art


David Rogerson

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