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February 9, 2013

The OTC Dictionary of the Commons

From Acequia to Wiki, words to share

The commons is an enduring element of human civilizatlon that has been rediscovered in recent years. That means the language we use to describe what we share and how we share it is evolving quickly. This “dictionary” of terms is updated from the glossary All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, and we welcome your suggestions of new words and phrases that help us to better understand and protect the commons. Email info[at]onthecommons.org with your contributions.

—Jay Walljasper

Acequias: A centuries old cooperative irrigation system in New Mexico Hispanic communities. Acequias refer both to the irrigation ditches and the community of farmers organized around them.

Agricultural land trust: A legal mechanism that enables private or cooperative organizations to conserve and manage farmland, acknowledging that while the land may be privately held, it is nonetheless a commons upon which future generations depend.

Aloha: In the traditional definition as defined by the state of Hawaii, aloha means “the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.”

Anti-commons: A dysfunctional scenario that occurs when private property claims are so restrictive and fragmented that they result in an inability to share resources and innovate because the economic transaction costs are too high.

Barter: A foundation of a commons-based sharing economy, where goods and services are traded directly instead of money transactions, creating connections between people.

Bien Commun: French for “Public Good.” A phrase that highlights the ideas of free speech and civic engagement, but not the whole extent of the commons.

Bienes Comunes: A rough Spanish translation for the commons.

Biopiracy: The appropriation and privatization of genes, plants and other biological resources in developing countries by multinational corporations.

Cap-and-dividend: A commons-based system of environmental regulation in which companies pay for pollution permits, and the proceeds are given back to citizens on an equal basis.

Capitalism 3.0: An evolution of capitalism, in which the economy’s operating system is redesigned to protect the commons. Taken from the title of a book by entrepreneur Peter Barnes.

Commodity: Something that is bought and sold.

Commodification: When non-commercial goods or services are converted into a commodity for sale.

Common Good: Policies and customs that are judged to be what is best for the public as a whole, even if such a policy might, at times, be inconvenient for an individual. Often used in everyday speech to describe the commons, but not the same thing.

Commons: Creations of both nature and society that belong to all of us equally, and should be preserved and maintained for future
generations. This includes the social networks that maintain and protect commons as well as the things themselves.

Common assets: Those parts of the commons that have a value in the market. Radio airwaves are a common asset, as are timber and minerals on public lands.

Commons paradigm: A worldview in which reclaiming and expanding the commons is central to the workings of society. The goal is to assure the vitality of various commons, which in turn will boost economic, social, scientific and cultural advancement.

Common pool resource (CPR): A commonly held resource that is available for everyone to use (e.g., fish from a lake or ocean, or irrigation water from a stream). The danger of overuse often calls for a commons management system.

Commoners: In modern use, the people who use a particular commons; especially those dedicated to reclaiming and restoring the commons.

Commoning: A verb popularized by historian Peter Linebaugh to describe the social practices used by commoners in the course of managing shared resources and reclaiming the commons.

Commons-based society: A society whose economy, political culture and community life revolve around promoting a diverse variety of commons institutions and the basic principles of the commons. There is an important role for a flourishing economic market in a commons-based society, but its value is not treated as more important than the value of healthy commons.

Commons-based solutions: Distinctive innovations and policies that remedy contemporary problems by helping people manage resources cooperatively and sustainably.

Cooperative: A commons-based business structure in which employees or customers own an enterprise and share in all decisionmaking.

Co-housing: A cooperative living arrangement in which residents own property together and share in both decisionmaking and many aspects of daily life. Different from a commune in that residents have private space, including usually their own kitchen. However community kitchens and social spaces are typical in many co-housing developments.

Creative Commons & Creative Commons licenses: A nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that provides a series of free, public licenses that allow copyright holders to make their creative works legally available for copying, sharing and re-use. Creative Commons licenses have now been adapted to the legal codes of more than fifty nations.

Copyleft: A form of copyright licensing that authorizes re-use and modification of creative works so long as any derivative works remain available to others for further sharing and re-use.

Cornucopia of the commons: A term that describes “the more, the merrier” principle occurring in online commons that invite open participation. The term was coined by software programmer Dan Bricklin to rebut the “Tragedy of the Commons” mythology.

Ejido: Commonly owned land in Mexico distributed to individual families. A tradition going back to Aztec rule, the idea was revived as public policy after the Mexican revolution but weakened by a 1991 law passed to accommodate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Enclose: To convert a commonly shared resource into private property. The term derives from the notorious enclosure movement in English history in which the landed gentry seized land used collectively by village commoners. (Similar to privatize, below)

Externality: A term that describes social or ecological costs of economic activity that are not factored into market transactions. For example, the costs of pollution are “externalized” to nature and the community as a whole, rather than being borne by owners of the factory.

Faux commons: Online commons such as YouTube that are venues for user-generated content and appear to be self-governing commons, but which are actually controlled by for-profit companies.

Free software movement: Started by hacker Richard Stallman in the 1980s as a way to ensure that computer programmers could have the legal freedom to access, modify, improve and share software code without the restrictions of copyright law. The General Public License (GPL) is the legal innovation that makes free software possible.

Full cost accounting: A method of economic assessment that goes beyond the costs of a given marketplace transaction to include the costs borne by the commons, such as environmental destruction, community displacement, etc. (see “externalities” above).

Gemeingüter: A German word for commons.

Givings: An act of government that increases the value of private property. The building of a light rail system, for example, disproportionately increases the value of commercial property near the train stops. Also see “Takings”.

Gift economy: Unlike the transactional relationships of a marketplace, a gift economy revolves around the voluntary giving of gifts to the community without any quid pro quo or strict accounting of individual entitlement.

Hima: Literally “protected place” in Arabic. In Islamic tradition, it is land that is taken care of by the entire community.

iCommons: A spinoff project of Creative Commons that is an international advocate for commons-based sharing of culture and information.

Intellectual property: A body of law that includes copyrights, patents and trademarks. In recent years, corporations and other interests have sought to broaden their proprietary privileges by describing their rights as a form of “property,” ignoring the fact that the public has always held rights in works protected under copyright, patent and trademark law.

Iriachi: Traditional commonly owned land in Japan.

Land trust: A legal mechanism that enables private organizations to conserve and manage land for public enjoyment. Community land trusts have become popular as a way to preserve both nature and affordable housing. See also “Agricultural land trust.”

Linux: A highly popular open-source computer operating system. Developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, Liinux is a widely used Unix-based open source computer operating system that competes with Mac OS and Microsoft Windows.

Market paradigm: A worldview that holds up the workings of the marketplace not simply as an efficient economic tool, but as a moral code dictating how all elements of society should operate. The paradigm holds that the quest for profit should dictate all human endeavors from education to health care to the arts.

Market-based society: A society where most decision making is driven by the rigid dictates of the economic marketplace. With the ascendancy of right-wing leaders beginning with the UK’s Margaret Thatcher in 1979, many nations moved in this direction. However, the global economic crisis beginning in 2008 has sparked widespread rethinking of these policies. Outside the U.S., similar to the term “neoliberal economics.”

Net neutrality: A public policy principle for the Internet that assures open, non-discriminatory access for all users. Net neutrality advocates insist that the Internet will no longer function as an open, innovative commons if the companies who control access to the Internet can favor certain websites and types of digital traffic.

“Open” vs. “Free”: On the Internet and other digital platforms, software or content that is “open” is accessible to everyone. But that does not necessarily make the software or content “free” to use as one wishes without restriction because open content may nonetheless be copyrighted or subject to corporate contracts.

Open access: A term whose meaning depends upon the specific type of commons being discussed. In the context of a finite natural resource like timber or grazing land, an open-access regime means that anyone can use the resource, which may result in its overuse and ruin. In the context of an infinite resource like information, which can be copied and distributed at virtually no cost, an open-access regime does not deplete the source, but more likely adds value to it.

Open access publishing: A burgeoning field of scientific and scholarly publishing that bypasses conventional commercial publishers and relies upon Creative Commons licenses to make journal articles and books freely available.

Open Educational Resources (OER) movement: A diverse movement of projects initiated by colleges, universities, educators, students and others to make educational software, books, journal articles, research and other tools for learning more openly available, inexpensive or free.

Open business models: A new class of businesses that rely upon online communities and open digital platforms to provide goods and services at a profit.

Open science: A set of research practices and ethical norms that seek to make scientific findings as openly available as possible, reducing impediments caused by copyright law, patent law, and university rules.

Open source: A type of software developed by volunteers and made widely available to the public at little or no cost. Similar to free software in function, but with some philosophical differences. “Open source” is now frequently used to describe cooperative, volunteer efforts in a wide variety of fields. (Also see “Peer production”)

Peer production: A new mode of economic and cultural production on the Internet that enables large numbers of people to collaborate in the production and maintenance of shared information resources. Prominent examples include free software, Wikipedia, and the Flickr photo-sharing website. (Also see “Open Source”)

Privatize: When a commons or other public service or asset becomes private property. (Similar to “enclose”, above) This has been a key plank of libertarian and right-wing political activists over the past 30 years, who have been successful at dismantling government services or handing them over to private interests in many nations.

Public assets: Elements of the commons that are publicly owned and usually managed by a government body: parks, water utilities, public transit, libraries, schools, streets, sewers, communications systems such as the airwaves, etc. These are frequent targets for privatization efforts.

Public domain: A body of creative and cultural works that are freely available for anyone to use, most often because the term of copyright protection for them has expired. Long considered a repository of essentially worthless works (because they have no market value), the public domain is now recognized as a vital resource for new creativity and innovation.

Public goods: An economics term similar to the idea of the commons, meaning goods and services which can be used by everyone without diminishing their availability. But the term does not suggest the possibility of cooperative management or joint ownership of these resources, which is a key commons concept.

Public spaces: Places that are open to everyone, and often play a central role in the social and public life of a community: parks, sidewalks, plazas, civic buildings, downtowns and shopping districts, farmers’ markets, bicycle trails, playgrounds, streets, etc.

Public trust doctrine: A legal principle dating back to Roman law which says that the state holds certain resources—notably access to bodies of water— in trust for its citizens, prohibiting any transfer of those resources to private interests. This doctrine was strengthened in English common law and by rulings of various U.S. federal and state courts.

Querencia: A traditional Spanish term for a sense of home, a love of land, the particular place on Earth where you feel you belong.

Semi-public spaces: Privately-owned places that while not officially “public” function very much like public spaces: coffee shops, farmers markets, vacant lots, houses of worship, museums, community gardens, clubhouses and halls, YMCAs, sidewalk cafes, taverns, etc.

Sharing economy: An emerging economic model in which access becomes more important than ownership. People share, lend, trade, and swap goods and services through online channels, peer-to-peer connections and other social networks instead of owning them .

T’ee teraa’in: “People working together and sharing to accomplish something” in the language of the Gwich’in Athabascan people of Alaska and the Northwest Territories.

Takings: An act of government that takes private property from an individual for public use. Many political conservatives regard environmental regulations and other government policies that may regulate the actions of private land owners as “takings.” Also see “Givings”.

Tragedy of the commons: A term popularized by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968 to describe how exploitation and ruin of commonly shared resources is inevitable. Hardin later conceded he was actually describing the tragedy of an unmanaged commons.

Trust: A legal entity created to manage assets on behalf of beneficiaries. This can be a useful tool in preserving and managing commons outside the realm of government.

Ubuntu: “I am because you are.” A traditional African expression, reflecting a philosophy of sharing, community and generosity. The word is from the Bantu languages of southern Africa, but the idea is expressed in phrases from other languages across the continent.

Una Vida Buena y Sana: In Spanish, “a good and wholesome life,” which some Latino-Americans loosely translates as commons.

Water Commons: A longstanding ethic that water is no one’s private property; it rightfully belongs to all of humanity and the earth and needs to be managed accordingly. This principle should guide all decisions about the use of water, according to the emerging global water commons movement.

Wiki: A type of Web-based software that enables any number of people to contribute and edit a shared body of information and collaborate in its evolution. Although Wikipedia is the most visible wiki project on the Internet, there are a wide variety of wikis on various subjects, including Wikitravel (a collection of user-generated guides to travel destinations), Wikispecies (an inventory of the world’s species) and Open Wet Ware (for biological researchers). The term “wiki” is a Hawaiian word for “quick.”