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Régulation mondialisationAfter having long been neglected in the economic, political, and legal spheres as well as by labour movements, the question of common-pool resources is becoming a central issue of the 21st century. In an era marked by environmental crisis, the rise of the knowledge economy, and new modes of governance and production, the concept of the common-pool resource opens up new pathways that have barely begun to be explored.

The theory of common-pool resources

The defining feature of a common-pool resource is that anyone within a group of people may use and abandon it without any individual ever being able to appropriate or gain exclusive control over it. In other words, “Commons are goods over which no social unit (individual, family, company) has exclusive rights of ownership or of use. The example of the commons in medieval Europe (forests and pastures) has served as the historic reference for this concept[2].” During the Middle Ages, land was open for all to harvest; anyone could gather firewood and mushrooms, peasants could graze their sheep on it, etc. Then, in 13th century England, King John and the barons appropriated the commons for their own exclusive use. Their policy of enclosures sparked a popular uprising that culminated in 1215 in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, which introduced new regulations governing the right to use the commons. The notion of the commons re-emerged as a subject of public debate with an article entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”, published in 1968 by the sociobiologist, Garrett Hardin. Using the ex ample of common pastures where herders graze any animals they acquire but in doing so substantially reduce the amount of available grass (through overgrazing), he concluded that open use of the commons leads to the ruin of all. However, Hardin limited his view of the commons to open-access resources. Elinor Ostrom subsequently demonstrated that the commons concept is limited because it is based on an abstract concept that can be refuted with real-life examples of goods that have been collectively managed for thousands of years (such as irrigation works and fishing grounds). Commons are linked to communities and therefore to a sense of collective

interest, where individuals communicate and negotiate from a perspective that is not limited to their immediate self-interests. Indeed, the governance of common-pool resources, which is not imposed by the market or the state, is aimed at reconciling the right to use the resources with the need to conserve them. As the successful management of complex common-pool resources (such as irrigation canals) demonstrates, these two objectives can be achieved thanks to values that are shared by the members of the community. Common values make it possible to overcome management difficulties, transmit collective knowledge and “become

aware of the importance of the adaptability and flexibility of the institution[3]”. The product ion of common-pool resources is therefore a social and political construct that depends on the balance struck by the community between what it can or wants to support for the benefit of all and the production of open access goods. It is up to the community to determine how it wishes to manage these resources; roads, for example, can be open access and free of charge and motorways open access but with toll payments. Common-pool resources may be classified into four categories according to two parameters. The first relates to the quest ion of whether the resource is open to all or only to a particular group. Air or road networks are open to all, but this is not true of farmland or irrigation networks, to which access is limited. The second parameter indicates whether the common-pool resource system is regulated; the air that people breath is not regulated, but the same is not true for the air discharged from a factory or for pollution. In other words, regulations governing common-pool resources vary for a number of reasons (accessibility, policy choices, etc.). But though rules may differ, they are similar in that no higher authority can dictate them. Communities auto-regulate by creating their own systems of control. Elinor Ostrom argues that it is better to encourage cooperation through institutional arrangements that are tailored to local ecosystems than to try to manage everything from a distance. But this does not prevent states and international organisations from playing a decisive role in the recognition of common-pool resources.

Common-pool resources today

The theory of common-pool resources has been regaining currency, especially since the end of the 1990s when the Internet began to be seen as a type of common-pool resource. The difference between this digital common-pool resource (also considered “knowledge commons”) and a natural common-pool resource is that digital resources are not subtractable and that use by one person does not prevent or limit use by another. But even if knowledge commons can seem unlimited, they are nevertheless subject to new enclosures,

with the private sector appropriating knowledge and methods (through patents on sof tware and knowledge, for example). Knowledge, an intangible resource, is one of the primary issues driving debate about common-pool resources . Pierre –Joseph Proudhon and Victor Hugo, among others, made the point in the 19th century that the production of ideas was only possible because authors could draw on society and use it as a resource. They believed that a text became common proper tyas soon as the author disseminated it, forfeiting his or her copyrights in favour public rights. This utopia seems possible today, now that knowledge has been divorced from the medium used to disseminate it and become freely accessible in digital form. Indeed, we are seeing the development of open source platforms, open access to scientific knowledge (for example, with the creation of the Public Library of Science in 2000 and free access to the review Biology), Creative Commons licences[4], etc. The advantage claimed for such common-pool resources is that they foster innovation without infringing on existing interests. Common-pool resources encourage strong growth for non-commercial production, especially in the information and culture sectors, through the Internet. Conflicts have emerged around software, medication, genes and agricultural seeds, pitting those who wish to see them treated as universal common-pool resources against those who wish to appropriate them, especially through patents. This raises a number of issues, including that of the patentability of life. John Sulston, who was awarded the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002, made the following comment about the relationship between common-pool resources and the genome : “[…] The genome sequence is a discovery, not an invention. Like a mountain or a river, the genome is a natural phenomenon that existed, if not before us, then at least before we became aware of it. I believe that the Earth is part of the common good; it is better off not owned by anyone, even though we may fence off small parts of it. But if an area proves important because it is especially scenic or is home to some rare species, then it should be protected in the public interest”[5]. Here Sulston raises the question of the common-pool resource as a natural good or a manmade good, implying that man-made goods such as roads and certain digital products can be considered common-pool resources. Other types of goods – such things as geostationar y orbit s clogged with satellite debris, or the accessible fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum – may be classified as common-pool resources in the future, with controversial political, legal implications. The issue of common-pool resources has become crucial in the current globalization era, with the economic crisis challenging existing modes of property management, the environmental crisis obliging us to develop new ways of managing natural resources (such as water), and the technological crisis requiring us to rethink our relationship with the living world and outer space. The debate has likely only just begun.


Philippe Aigrain, Cause commune : l’information entre bien commun et propriété, Paris, Fayard, 2005.

Collectif, « Biens communs et propriété », Développement durable & territoires, dossier n° 10, 2008,disponible sur http://developpementdurable.revues.org/5143

Garrett Hardin, « The Tragedy of the Commons », Sc ience, vol. 162, n° 3859, 1968, pp. 1243-1248.

Elinor Ostrom, La Gouvernance des biens communs, Bruxelles, éditions De Boeck, 2010.

Riccardo Petrella, L’Eau, bien commun public, alternatives à la « pétrolisation » de l ’eau, La Tour d’Aigues, Éditions de l’Aube, 2004.

Oran R. Young, « Gérer les biens communs planétaires », Critique internationale, n° 9 octobre 2000, pp. 147-161.

[1] This article is taken from Conventions, a newsletter published jointly by the DGM of the French Ministry of Foreign and

European Affairs and the Institute for High Judicial Studies (IHEJ). It can be accessed by subscribers in pdf format. To subscribe,

visit: www.convention-s.fr

[2] Daniel Compagnon, “La biodiversité, entre appropriation privée, revendications de souveraineté et coopération international”,

Développement durable et territoires, dossier No. 10 “Biens communs et propriété”, http://developpementdurable.revues.org/

index5253.html, placed on line on 7 March 2008.


[3] Giangiacomo Bravo and Beatrice Marelli, “Ressources communes”,

Revue de géographie alpine, 96-3, 2008, http://rga.revues.

org/index524.html, placed on line on 4 March 2009.


[4] These licences offer a legal alternative to people who do not wish economic and

to protect their work through their country’s standard intellectual

property rights. The goal is to encourage the simple and legal circulation

of work, exchange, and creativity (especially in the sense

that certain types of licences allow a piece of work to be supplemented

or changed by a third party).

[5] John Sulston, Le Monde diplomatique, December 2002, p. 28-29.

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About the Author

Édouard Jourdain

Edouard Jourdain est docteur en sciences politique et en philosophie de l’EHESS où il a soutenu une thèse intitulée « Le politique entre guerre et théologie. La révision du marxisme et l’ombre de Carl Schmitt ». Spécialiste de Proudhon, Il a publié entre autres Proudhon, Dieu et la guerre (l’Harmattan, 2006), Proudhon, un socialisme libertaire (Michalon, 2009) et L’anarchisme (La découverte, 2013). Chargé de mission sur le projet Conventions (Enjeux croisés du droit de l’économie et de la mondialisation), ainsi que sur les séminaires de philosophie du droit et de philosophie politique, il enseigne aussi la théorie politique notamment à l’Ecole nationale des ponts et chaussées et à l’Institut catholique de Paris.