What are the economics of the commons? After discussing the theoretical dimension of the commons, Olivier Blondeau shows how the Github platform, well known to makers and developers, constitutes a common good.
In my previous column, I talked about the originality of economists Elinor Ostrom and Benjamin Coriat’s work in defining the commons, well beyond common goods, by three criteria: resource, system of ownership and structure of governance.
As an illustration of their work, Wikipedia immediately comes to mind. However, the online collaborative encyclopedia remains a very particular form of commons, in the sense that it receives more consultations than contributions. It would seem wiser to examine the Github platform, well known to makers, where developers can “deposit” their projects, store their code, modify it, share it and even borrow bits of code developed by others. I hear open-software advocates’ harsh criticism of this commercial and proprietary platform, and I too plead in favor of its open alternative Gitlab.
However, it seems to me that Github, which is free to use if the code is open, articulates these three elements: informational common good, non-exclusive ownership defined as a bundle of rights—read, include, reuse, etc.—and structure of governance of the goods, itself integrated into the platform.
While free riders exist—one of the conditions necessary for a commons to exist—the rules for “sampling” are very clearly defined and even built into Github so that you can “branch” a project, using the plant analogy, to borrow all or part of its code. Targeted at the limited community of developers—yet another necessary condition for a commons—, Github offers, as I explained in my first column, an authentic regulation system that both guarantees distribution rights among commoners and aims for an orderly use of the resource, which allows it to be reproduced in the long term.
To “branch” a project is to borrow part of the code, either for personal use or to improve the project. Moreover, Github makes it possible to merge branches, in other words, to group different branches together under the same collective project. This tree (the Linux Distribution Timeline of chronological versions is particularly edifying) documents the production history of a commons in which anyone can contribute to a collective work, while remaining “proprietary” in the sense that the individual defines their own rules for access and usage.
Github is a renewed form of this commons, whose conditions for continuation and reproduction could be managed in a non-exclusive and therefore non-predatory manner, without even invoking the blockchain to prevent fake contributions.
Jean Tirole has dedicated his last book to the economics of commons. But in the foreward (the only time he discusses the topic, in spite of the book’s title), this latest winner of the Nobel prize in economics confuses a common good and the common good, where good is an essentially moral value assimilated with everyone’s best interest. Are the political implications of the new emergence of commons post-capitalist, post-communist, post-workerist from the multitudes of Toni Negri? I will attempt to lay out the terms of this delicate debate in the third episode of this series dedicated to the commons.
Read the previous columns on Makery by Olivier Blondeau, co-author of “Libres enfants du savoir numérique” (Free children of digital knowledge) (L’Eclat, 2000)