The success of Wikipedia has brought the notion of commons to public attention. Commons are not new but were a dominant part of most economic systems prior to the Industrial Revolution.

In England, for example, the people of a village would have an area of common land which they could all use for grazing cattle, collecting fruit, gathering firewood and so on. This system was brought to an end between 1760 and 1820 by the “enclosure” of village common land. The result, whether as a deliberate ploy of the capitalists (as Marx claimed) or coincidentally, was to deprive thousands of ordinary “commoners” of a large part of their livlihood – and create a large workforce desperate enough to put up with the atrocious conditions of the factories.

"MandK Industrial Revolution" (public domain)
“MandK Industrial Revolution” (public domain)

 This is starting to happen with creative commons, wikis and open source programs while the old model for managing intellectual property – with copyright and patents – is failing. The recording industry is one example. In the Industrial Age, the main challenge was to record and reproduce music. Now, anyone can record and reproduce a song for a few cents and that cost is continuing to fall. The real value of music is in its composition and performance not in its mechanical reproduction. Yet the recording industry is battling to continue to achieve a return on its investment in reproduction and distribution infrastructure which, in reality, is becoming worthless.

The same is true for all types of creative and intellectual endeavour such as movies, books, computer games and software. The argument that there would be no creative activity without artists being rewarded through the old recording or motion picture structure has been shown to be nonsense by the success of Wikipedia and YouTube which certainly don’t lack contributors.

The commons concept does not only apply to intellectual property. Take real estate, for example: people always lived in villages or tribes – communities in which there was mutual support and some shared property. It is only since the Industrial Revolution that it has people have aspired to live in isolated houses. This has happened because it was necessary to break up village communities to provide factory workers and because people saw the rich creating enclosed estates and wanted to emulate them by building their own “McMansions”. This structure no longer makes any sense, either from an economic point of view or from the point of view of meeting people’s real wishes beyond conforming to a fashion for owning a big pile of bricks. Many people are now beginning to see that a much better lifestyle can be achieved living in apartments or small houses which share facilities such as gardens and pools and have easy access to public transport, parks and waterways which are shared with the broader community.

"Suburbia Winter Sunrise" by FrankMaurer ex Flickr
“Suburbia Winter Sunrise” by FrankMaurer ex Flickr

Another example is car ownership. Most of the time, most people’s cars are parked. It would make much more sense if some cars were owned communally. The same is even more true of recreational boats.

The concept of doing things as a community goes well beyond the ownership of goods and property. Much of the development on the internet now happens through communities. All of the social networking sites (like Facebook and MySpace), the sharing sites (like YouTube and Flickr), the wikis, the open source developments and the forums are communities creating common facilities.