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<nettime> A Letter to the Commons
Paul Keller on Mon, 22 Jan 2007 21:19:01 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> A Letter to the Commons

[This letter is based on discussions at a workshop that took place
at Waag Society in Amsterdam last may and has been published in the
(Shade of the Commons reader --> http://www.waag.org/project/shade).
For a list of the participants of the Workshop see below. The letter
was drafted by Shuddhabrata Sengupta (Sarai)].

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 a 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 licences. 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 it's 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 licence 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
propreitary 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 enquiring 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

Denizens of Non Legal Commons, and those who travel to and from them

[Based on discussions among: Shaina Anand, Namita Malhotra, Paul
Keller, Lawrence Liang, Bjorn Wijers, Patrice Riemens, Monica Narula,
Rasmus Fleischer, Palle Torsson, Jan Gerber, Sebastian L??ttgert, Toni
Prug, vera Franz, Konrad Becker & Tabatabai]

waag society | nieuwmarkt 4 | NL - 1012 CR amsterdam
e: paul {AT} waag.org | t: +31 20 557 9898 | f: +31 20 557 9880


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