Commons Course Syllabus

  The Commons Rising

I taught the "The Commons Rising," as Sociology 42, as a 14-week course at Amherst College in the Spring 2010 semester.  Below is the syllabus for the course.  You can find pdocasts of each class presentation (recorded outside of class later) on this site, under "Podcasts." 

There are, of course, many ways to approach the commons.  I know of a handful of courses on the commons taught in North American colleges and universities by (among others) Peter Linebaugh at the University of Toledo, Charles Zerner at Sarah Lawrence College, and Becky Lentz at McGill University.

Below, my course description and syllabus:

The commons has long been regarded as a side-theme of English history and a cautionary fable about the over-exploitation of shared resources (“the tragedy of the commons”).  In recent years, however, the commons has been rediscovered as a versatile paradigm of self-governance and resource management.  In circumstances as varied as open source software, Wikipedia, ocean fisheries, indigenous cultures, fresh water supplies and public spaces -- and in countries from Brazil and India to Germany and the United States -- self-organized communities are developing their own commons as practical alternatives to markets and government.  Some see the commons as a way to challenge the privatization and commodification of shared resources (“enclosures”); others see it as a practical tool for re-imagining governance and ecological stewardship in the face of market and government failures.  Still others see the commons as a way to reintegrate the psychic and cultural wounds of modernity.

This course surveys the political and economic history of the commons, its strengths and limitations over the centuries, and its burgeoning contemporary manifestations.  We will be guided by the writings of Elinor Ostrom, Peter Linebaugh, Yochai Benkler, Lawrence Lessig, Peter Barnes, Lewis Hyde and David Bollier as well as by a range of films, essays and Web resources.  The course will have direct conversations with policy experts, academics and activists who are at the forefront of commons work, and confront the ambiguities and perplexities of this still-emerging realm of thought and action.


Week 1              Introduction

Introduction to the commons as a emerging field of inquiry, politics, activism and culture.


Week 2               Varieties of Commons  /  The Commons as a Political Agenda

            Donald M. Nonini, “The Global Idea of ‘the Commons’ ” (pdf, course website)

            David Bollier, “A New Politics of the Commons,” Renewal, 2007 (e-reserve).

            Tomales Bay Institute,State of the Commonsand The Commons Rising reports.

            Onthecommons.orgblog posts:  browse site

            Ivan Illich, “Silence is a Commons.”

            Bollier and Racine, “Ready to Share:  Creativity in Fashion & Digital Culture.”


Week 3              Property & Commons  /  The Gift Economy         

            C.B. MacPherson,editor, Property, Chapters 1-3, pp. 1-37; and

            Morris Cohen, Chapter 10, “Property and Sovereignty,” pp. 153-176.

            Carol Rose,Property and Persuasion:  Essays on the History Theory and Rhetoric of

                 Ownership; Introduction and Chapters 1, pp. 1-23.

            Garrett Hardin,“The Tragedy of the Commons” Science, May 1, 1968,

                 pp. 682-68.              

            Lewis Hyde,The Gift:  Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Introduction -

                  Chapter 5, pp. xi - 92.

            DavidBollier,Silent Theft, Chapter 2, “The Stubborn Vitality of the Gift Economy,”

                  pp. 27-42.


Week 4                            The History of Commons & Enclosure

            Peter Linebaugh,The Magna Carta Manifesto, Introduction - Chapter 4, pp. 1-93.

            Karl Polanyi,The Great Transformation, Chapters 3-15, pp. 33-191.

            Also of interest: 

            Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra:  The Hidden

                History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, pp. 149-167.

            Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch:  Women, the Body and Primitive 

                 Accumulation, pp. 61-84.

            E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common.


Week 5            The Dynamics of Modern Enclosure  /  Governing the Commons

            Bollier, Silent Theft, Chapters 3 - 6, pp. 43-98.

            Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons, Chapters 1-3, pp. 1-102.

            Margaret Jane Radin, Contested Commodities, Chapters 1-3, pp. 1-45.

            Agnès Varda, The Gleaners and I[documentary film]


Week 6             Land as a Commons  /  Water as a Commons

            Eric T. Freyfogle, The Land We Share, Intro. - Chapter 1, pp. 1-36; Chapters 4 - 10,

                  pp. 101-201.

            Maude Barlow, “Our Water Commons:  Toward a New Freshwater Narrative” [report],


            Adam Davidson-Harden, et al.,“Alternatives for Local Control of Water Commons”


            José A. Rivera, Acequia Culture, pp. 25-40 and pp. 49-62.

            Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, Thirst [documentary film]


Week 7             The Atmosphere and Commons Trusts

            Peter Barnes, Capitalism 3.0:  A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons, pp. 1-116.

            Peter Barnes, Who Owns the Sky? pp. 1-78.


Week 8             The Second Enclosure Movement: Creativity and Culture

      William Patry, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, Chapters 1 - 4, pp. 1-96.

      Bollier, Brand Name Bullies:  The Quest to Own and Control Culture, Part I, pp. 1-79, and

             Part III, pp. 145-196.

      Carrie McLaren,The Illegal Art Exhibit [DVD]

      Also of interest: 

       James Bessen and Michael J. Meurer, Patent Failure

      Good Copy, Bad Copy [DVD]


Week 9                         The Internet as a Super-Commons

         Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas, Part I, “Dot-Commons,” pp. 19-99.

         Bollier, Silent Theft, Chapter 7, “Can the Internet Commons Be Saved?” pp. 99-118.

         Bollier, Viral Spiral,Chapter 1, “In the Beginning Was Free Software,” pp. 23-41; and

                        Chapters 2, “The Discovery of the Public Domain,” pp. 42-68.

         Richard Stallman, “The GNU Manifesto.

         Eben Moglen, “Anarchism Triumphant:  Free Software and the Death of Copyright,”

                 First Monday, August 2, 1999, at

         Hess & Ostrom, Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, Introduction, pp. 3-26.

         Also of interest: 

         Wikipedia, “End-to-End Principle”

         Eric Raymond, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” [essay]   

         Committee for Economic Development, “Open Standards, Open Source, Open

               Innovation:  Harnessing the Benefit of Openness,” April 2006.                            


Week 10      New Genres of Collaborative Creativity  /  The Economics of Online Sharing

       Bollier,Viral Spiral, Chapters 4, 5 and 6, “Inventing the Creative Commons,

            “Navigating the Great Value Shift,” and “Creators Take Charge,” pp. 93-167.

       Kembrew MacLeod,Copyright Criminals [DVD on remix music]

       Bollier,Viral Spiral, Chapter 10, “The New Open Business Models,” pp. 229-252.

       Yochai Benkler,The Wealth of Networks, Part I, “The Networked Information Economy,”

                 pp. 29-127.     

       Michel Bauwens,“The Political Economy of Peer Production," Post-Autistic Economics Review, April 2006, article 3, pp. 33-44.

       Also of interest:

       Adam Arvidsson, “Crisis of Value and the Ethical Economy.”


Week 11                       Academia as a Commons

       Jennifer Washburn,University Inc., Introduction - Chapter 5, pp. 1-136; and Chapter 9, pp. 225-241.

       Bollier,Silent Theft, Chapter 9, “Enclosing the Academic Commons,” pp. 139-146.

       Bollier,Viral Spiral, Chapters 11 and 12 (on open education and open science), pp. 253-293.


Week 12       Media Commons  /  Enclosures of Identity:  Places, Spaces, Food & Antiquity

       Robert McChesney,“The Battle for the U.S. Airwaves, 1928-1935,” Chapter 6, pp. 157-180, and Chapter 15, pp. 341-354, in The Political Economy of Media:  Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas.

       Snider, J.D.,“The Cartoon Guide to Federal Spectrum Policy,” New America Foundation,                     2004, at


      James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity? Preface & Chapter 1, pp. 1-43.

      Joseph Sax, Playing Darts with Rembrandt, Chapters 4-6, pp. 48-92

      Bollier,Silent Theft, Chapter 10, pp. 147-162.  

      Carlo Petrini,Slow Food:  The Case for Taste, pp. 1-63.

      Juan Friere,“From the Analog Commons to the New Hybrid Public Spaces,” at



Week 13                       International Politics and the Commons

     Crottorf Castle reportof international retreat on the commons, at

      Alain Lipietz essay on the commons, at

      Barcelona Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge, at

      World Social Forum, “Reclaim the Commons,” at

      Commons Manifesto:  “Strengthen the Commons.  Now!” [Germany] at  


      Michael F. Brown,Who Owns Native Culture? Introduction - Chapter 2, pp. 1-68.

      Vandana Shiva,Protect or Plunder?  Understanding Intellectual Property Rights, pp. 1-133.

      Bollier,Viral Spiral, Chapter 9, “The Many Faces of the Commons,” pp. 203-226.

      David Martin:  Global Innovation Trust and heritable trusts for indigenous peoples





      Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite,Information Feudalism

      Anupam Chander and Madhavi Sunder,“The Romance of the Public Domain,”

            California Law Review, (2004), pp. 1341+.


Week 14          Review of the Commons Today