You may have heard of the “tragedy of the commons,” where a resource is depleted through collective action, but knowledge is different from other resources—knowledge can be duplicated, aggregated, integrated, analyzed, stored, shared, and disseminated in countless ways. Given that knowledge is a critical resource for seemingly intractable problems, the opportunity of the commons (or the tragedy of the lack of commons) is worth thoughtful consideration.
Imagine that you or a loved one is suffering from a terminal or debilitating disease and that data and knowledge are out there, waiting to be combined and harnessed for a cure or a transformational treatment. Imagine that self-interest (including attribution), legal restrictions (including intellectual property protections), inertia, complexity and difficulty of collective action, and other weighty forces are between you and that breakthrough discovery. Though not a new concept, commons have been garnering attention lately as an alternative framework for catalyzing groundbreaking research and development, particularly when relevant data and knowledge are scattered and particularly in the life sciences community. But before we all throw away our patents and data-dump our trade secrets, there are some thorny aspects to governing a data (or knowledge) commons. For example:
- A commons is essentially its own society. Anyone who has been part of a homeowners’ association knows that collective governance is almost always muddy. Aligning incentives, objectives, and values can be challenging.
- Founders may have trouble relinquishing control or enabling change. Participants may become confused or upset if rules or priorities change.
- Commons are not as well understood and tested. They must coexist with, and within, other systems that may be more rigid and rules-based. Participants may be logistically, intellectually, and otherwise tied to traditional methods and may prefer semi-exclusive zones rather than open collaboration.
- It may be difficult to measure the effectiveness or value of commons.
- Policing activities (e.g., authentications or restrictions) may be burdensome. And once the cat is out of the bag, it’s difficult to undo uses or disclosures.
- Commons managers may not be willing to take on certain responsibilities or liabilities that would make participants more comfortable.
- Different types of information and tools have different levels of sensitivity and protection. Certain information, like personal data, is highly regulated.
Scholars have taken theoretical frameworks built for natural resources and adapted them to the data commons setting. Key findings include that data commons must be designed to evolve and that communities with high levels of shared trust and values are most likely to succeed. Whereas governance through exclusivity (e.g., patents) is useful when trust levels are low, a resource sharing governance model (e.g., commons) can be effective when trust levels are high.
If you’d like to know more:
- We will be hosting a webinar with one of the aforementioned scholars—Professor Michael J. Madison, faculty director at PittLaw—on Tuesday, December 18, 2018, from 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm ET. Register and join us for the discussion.
- In a subsequent post, we will provide some tips and considerations with respect to drafting policies, standard terms, data contribution agreements, and other governing documents for data commons.