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Code of the Commons:
Canonical Organizational Design of a Common

September 28, 2002
To: intercommons-list
From: Bruce Damer on What is a Commons? and How to Structure a Commons

Revisions to November 2002

What is a Commons?

A commons in everyday parlance is a common space, often a parcel of open land owned and operated by and for a community of people. We use the term Commons with a big 'C' to denote a novel organizational form that can serve communities of constructive collaboration operating through the medium of Cyberspace.

The Purpose of a Commons

Our conception of a Commons is not simply about the sale of products or services, which is handled well by traditional marketplaces, nor is it a community of interest, which is the domain of clubs or political organizations. When an exchange of value is meant to accomplish a more complex shared goal, this implies there will be a relationship entered into for some period of time. Building relationships through constructive collaborative works is the real purpose of a Commons.

Process by which a member may join or leave a Commons

Who may Join a Commons?

A Commons, as with most other organizations, is a group of individual people. While companies or other organizations can belong to a Commons, it is only through the the representation of an individual. In the interfaces of a Commons described in the previous section there is no category for organizations, only people. Therefore if an individual representing an organization is replaced by that organization, they must go through the process of seeking membership for a new individual. In addition, if an individual who is a Commons member leaves their own organization they retain their membership in the Commons.

Joining a Commons

If a member has taken steps to seek to join a Commons they may be accepted as a member based on one of the following three processes. It is recommended that a Commons employ only one of the following processes for all members, not mix the processes.A Commons may start with one process and decide later to change to another, and in this case it should universally change to the new process.

  1. Open: any individual can simply apply for and automatically receive membership. It is encouraged that in the application process that members state what they hope to gain and what they feel they can contribute by being a Commons member.

  2. Sponsored: an existing member may sponsor an individual for membership, creating a commitment and social link visible to the whole Commons. As well as the new member stating what they hope to gain and can contribute (as in 1) the sponsoring member should say something about the new member for the benefit of the Commons. Membership is automatic

  3. Sponsored with Qualification: this is the most highly selective process in which new members come into a Commons. An existing member sponsors an individual for membership but that individual will only attain membership after a process of qualification. Qualification processes must be agreed to in advance by the Commons and could include a period of time, the completion of one or more projects, and feedback or voting by all or part of the Commons membership.

The consummation of membership occurs when the individual accepts their License, which must be agreed between them and the Commons in a manner legally binding in both the jurisdiction of the Commons an the individual's physical jurisdiction. The License is availalbe for review at any time before or after attaining membership. The license must not violate any laws in the jurisdiction which a member resides at any time. If this occurs that membership is placed under review (see section below).

Review of Membership

By prior conditions agreed to by the Commons membership, an individual's membership may come under review. This can happen if the member comes into a perceived violation of the License or some other action deemed inappropriate by the Commons.

Lapsing of Membership

Based on conditions established by and published for all members, a Commons can cause a membership to be classified as lapsed. The purpose of this process is to discrourage inactive or gratuitious membership.

Leaving a Commons

A member may opt to leave a Commons or their membership may be revoked by a Commons, in which case the benefits extended to them under the License are no longer available, unless a special arrangement is agreed to by the Commons. After leaving, they are no longer bound by the responsibilities of the license but they must complete any pending committments under that license or make some other arrangement by agreement with the Commons. A Commons may establish an appeals or other process by which an individual may again apply for membership.

Fees for Membership is Discouraged

Fees for membership are not encouraged for a Commons. It is important that the focus on accepting new members is on their individual qualities, not on their ability to provide financial input. Opt-in fees for services and in-kind contributions could be required for specific activities after members have joined.

Trial membership is Discouraged

The reason that any kind of trial membership is not encouraged is that members should be able to rely on other members being there in the long term. Would-be members must also be serious in their intent to become part of a commons.

The License: Rights, and Responsibilities for a Member of a Commons

The key document for the creation of a Commons is the License, which defines a member's relationship with the Commons. The License contains elements of a Bill of Rights as well as important facets of constitutional and civil law. The License must accomplish a lot and yet be brief enough and clear enough for members to easily internalize an understanding of what it entails.

A Commons must provide all members with an identical license, or in other words, all members of a Commons have the benefit of and must abide by the terms of an identical license. Instituting several different licenses creates another type of organization than a Commons.

A Canonical License

1. The Commons and its membership would like to welcome you as a member and extend to you the following benefits. We would also request that you agree to the following responsibilities.

... link to the canonical license when developed

Structuring and Growing a Commons

The number one challenge: maintaining a high order of personal behavioral integrity

A significant amount of oversight must be sustained by a Commons to screen against the tendency of some in human society to use coercive behavior and rely on the cheap motivator of fear to attain a position of power and material accumulation. Even more challenging for a Commons is to encourage those already conditioned to respond to coercive regimes to shed old behaviors and stand in opposition to these methods when they arise. When governments or other organizations succumb to those practicing these methods, disaster for a much greater number of people in the future is almost assured. As the goal of a Commons is to serve the interests of the total membership over a long period of time, these practices are anathema to the very practice of a Commons. Those in positions of influence in a Commons must use that influence to serve the greater interests of the membership, not their own interests.

Screening of members seeking to join a Commons is an important first line of defense of the Commons’ behavioral integrity. More importantly, each member must personally perpetuate a culture of vigilance against coercive behavior. Two important tools in this culture are firstly, the clear enunciation of the power of an individual to not accept coercive methods from another member or indeed from others in their lives or work and two, clear channels of communication and facilities of aid and arbitration. Another key tool is that each member of a Commons has a public record, which is available for anonymous and non-anonymous feedback and contributes to the record and reputation of that member.

This greatest challenge to sustain the viability and lifespan of any Commons is akin to the defense that an immune system provides a living body. Every organ and cell in our bodies works in concert, in mutual support, Disease creates short-term gain for an invading organism at the expense of the entire body. The immune system screens against invaders who seek to upset that synergy. An important property about immune systems is that they are built into a body at almost every level. A Commons behavioral immune system must similarly be built in at all levels. Immune systems themselves can become weapons of destruction in the body and care must be taken that a Commons immune system does not itself become a tool of coercion.

Creating a trusted framework for a Commons

Relationships are built first on a framework of trust. Self-interest is a secondary factor for the forming and continuing of a relationship. Creating and maintaining a framework that can be trusted by members is the key challenge of a commons. This is also a key challenge often unmet by governments. A Commons must be designed with the following properties to engender trust:

  • Equitability: all members are fundamentally equal in their rights and responsibilities.
  • Representation: all members have the right to participate in decisions affecting them and the Commons as a whole through trusted democratic practices.
  • Freedom from fear and other coercive behavior: all members seek to maintain in themselves and in their peers a high level of personal behavioral integrity (as described in the previous section).
  • Free Speech and a Right to be Heard: all members know that they have a right of free speech and that facilities in the Commons are mandated to hear them and empowered to take action.
  • Fairness: members know that all interfaces, algorithms, posted information, or transactions are not influenced in the favor of any one member or group of members.
  • Transparency: information about activities in the governance and daily operations of the commons, as well as the reputation and records about members, projects or tools is available to all members.
  • Appeal and Redress: members know that any situation involving public information affecting them, agreements, or decisions by organs of the Commons have a mechanism of appeal and redress open to them.

Energizing a Commons

A commons will thrive only through the combined energy and commitment of its members. A commons is a platform for entrepreneurial ventures, permitting the combination of resources, tools and ideas. Many nations and most industries have elements of a commons operating at some level of health. Governments or industrial monopolies that prevent the creation of new ventures preclude the existence of a true commons.

The Interfaces to a Commons defining the services and facilities its members benefit from

The key to creating an energized Commons is information. As the purpose of a Commons is "building relationships through constructive collaborative works" such information must be presented in an interface that enables people to find one another, engage opportunities and apply tools to collaborative works. Therefore the information interfaces to a Commons must consist of the following five cateogries:

Members | Opportunities | Projects | Tools | Clients

1) Members
  lists who is involved with the Commons and what they declare about themselves and their work

2) Opportunities shows ideas, jobs, inquiries coming into the Commons.

3) Projects displays the current activities of the Commons, coding, content creation.

4) Tools discloses the intellectual property, codebases, models, methods of the Commons.

5) Clients details outside entities who have been or are clients of Commons products or services.

See the detailed layout of the Code of the Commons database project


See the notes for the completion of this section

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