A Letter to the Commons


From the participants of the ‘Shades of the Commons Workshop’

Dear Inhabitants of the ‘legal’ Commons, Greetings!

This missive arrives at your threshold from the proverbial Asiatic street, located in the shadow of an improvised bazaar, where all manner of oriental pirates and other dodgy characters gather to trade in what many amongst you consider to be stolen goods. We call them ‘borrowed’ goods. But a difference in the language in which one talks about things (‘stolen’ vs, ‘borrowed’) is also a measure of the distance between two different worlds.

You can only steal something if it is owned by someone in the first place. If things are not ‘owned’ but only held in custody, then they can only be ‘borrowed’ as opposed to being stolen. So what you call a ‘pirated’ DVD is what we would call a DVD ‘borrowed’ from the street, and the price we pay for it is equivalent, or at least analogous to an incremental subscription to the great circulating public library of the Asiatic street.

We address this, written in the precincts of that library, to all you who enjoy the salubrious comfort of the legal commons, especially the one that calls itself ‘creative’. We have occasionally stepped into your enclosures, and have fond memories of our forays. However, our sojourns in your world have of necessity had to be brief. Before long, we have been asked about our provenance, our intent, our documents. There has rarely been enough paper for us to prove that we had the right of way.

We appreciate and admire the determination with which you nurture your garden of licenses. The proliferation and variety of flowering contracts and clauses in your hothouses is astounding. But we find the paradox of a space that is called a commons and yet so fenced in, and in so many ways, somewhat intriguing. The number of times we had to ask for permission, and the number of security check posts we had to negotiate to enter even a corner of your commons was impressive. And each time we were at an exit we were thoroughly searched, just in case we had not pilfered something, or left some trace of a noxious weed by mistake into your fragile ecosystem. Sometimes, we found that when people spoke of ‘Common Property’ it was hard to know where the commons ended and where property began.

Most of all, we were amazed by the ingenuity (and diligence) you display in upholding the norm that mandates that unless something had been named explicitly as part of the ‘commons’ by its rightful owner, it is somehow out of bounds to everyone else. Hitherto, our understanding of the word you use, ‘the commons’, had suggested to us that it indicated a space where people could take according to their desires and contribute according to their capacities. This implied a relationship essentially between people, founded on a more or less taken for granted ethic of reciprocity, in the sense that what goes around, eventually comes around. However, in the space you designate as ‘commons’, we found that the rule is – take in accordance to the label on the thing that you encounter, and give according to the measure of the license you prefer.

This indicated that a relationship between people, was somehow replaced by a relationship between people and the things that these people owned, inherited, or had created. It meant being told that we could access something only if the owner said we could. This meant that the song or the story or the idea that had no label on it was not for the taking. We have to admit that this did feel a bit suffocating, because it was a bit like rationing the air you breathe according to whether or not you had the right to breathe freely.

Strangely, the capacity to name something as ‘mine’, even if in order to ‘share’ it, requires a degree of attainments that is not in itself evenly distributed. Not everyone comes into the world with the confidence that anything is ‘theirs’ to share. This means, that the ‘commons’ in your parlance, consists of an arrangement wherein only those who are in the magic circle of confident owners effectively get a share in that which is essentially, still a configuration of different bits of fenced in property. What they do is basically effect a series of swaps, based on a mutual understanding of their exclusive proprietary rights. So I give you something of what I own, in exchange for which, I get something of what you own. The good or item in question never exits the circuit of property, even, paradoxically when it is shared. Goods that are not owned, or those that have been taken outside the circuit of ownership, effectively cannot be shared, or even circulated.

Where does this leave those who have no property to begin with? Perhaps, with even less than what they might have in a scenario where there was some comfort in being able to make do with bits and pieces broken off, copied, and patched together and then circulated, essentially by people who had no prior claim to cultural property or patrimony. You see, we undertook our education in the public library of the street, in the archive of the sidewalk.

Here, our culture, came to us in the form of faded and distressed copies, not all wrapped and ribboned with licenses. We took what we could, when we could, where we could. Had we waited to take what we were permitted to ‘share’ in, we would never have gotten very far, because no one would have recognized our worth as ‘shareholders’. Our attainments were not built with the confidence that comes from knowing that you have a right to own what you know, and a duty to know what you own.

Your ‘commons’ is not a place that we can share in easily. Because, often, when you ask us for what we ‘own’, we have to turn away from your inquiring gaze. We own very little, and the little that we own is itself often under dispute, because no one has bothered to keep a detailed enough record of provenances. In these circumstances, if we had listen to your stipulation to share only that which we own, hardly anything would have been passed around. And for life to continue, things have to pass around. So we share a lot of things that we have never owned. They are ‘borrowed’.

You call this piracy. Perhaps it is piracy. But we have to think of consequences. The consequences of absences of the infrastructures that make a culture of sharing that is also a culture of legality possible. In the absence of those infrastructures, we have to rely on other mechanisms. When you do not have a public library, you have to invent one on the street, with all the books that you can muster, with everything you can beg, or borrow. Or steal.

All we ask, dear inhabitants of the ‘legal’ commons, is for you to let us be. To be a little cautious before you condemn us. A world without our secret public libraries would be a poorer world. It would be a world in which very few people read very few books, and only those who could own things were the ones who could share them. It would also mean a world in which, eventually, very few people write books. So instead of more, there would in the end be less culture to go around. The more you own, the less you can share.

All we ask is for a little time. It has not yet been conclusively proven that the culture of ‘borrowing’ which you happen to call ‘piracy’ has only negative consequences for the production of culture. It has also not yet been proven that one must necessarily read negative consequences for culture from negative consequences for the balance sheets of the culture industry. Until such time that this is done, please let us be.

Learn about us by all means if you must, argue with us by all means, but do not rush to destroy the wilderness we inhabit. We admire your carefully cultivated garden. We know it is not easy for you to let us enter that space. We understand and respect that. We do not ask to be appreciated in return for the fact that we prefer hiding in the undergrowth of culture. All we ask for is the benevolence of your indifference. That will do for now.

We remain, yours,