Tragedy of the Virtual Commons?

The theory of the tragedy of the commons was originally publicized in the late 1960s by Garrett Hardin, an ecologist with an economic mind. Summarized, the theory argues that individuals, in accordance with their self-interest, often behave contrary to the larger group’s best long-term interests by depleting a common resource. Often used to discuss air, water, and public land issues due to collective overuse or pollution, the same theory might apply to the commons that is the modern Internet. If we fail to restrict certain behaviors on the web, misuse can lead to some issues.


Ahhhh, the joys of the World Wide Web… Isn’t it just wonderful how virtually anyone on the planet can get on the internet and find a plethora of information, websites, photos, forums, and news articles about nearly any topic they wish?  Especially students– they’ve got it made when they’re trying to find that perfect image for their PowerPoint at the last minute before class.

But, users of the most widely available free resource in the world should take caution when “borrowing” that image or blog thought. There’s a new tool in the toolbox for creators to pick up when they need to protect their ownership rights, their little piece of the virtual mega-commons.


Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 2001 and now has been used for hundreds of millions of licensed works.  A Creative Commons license can be employed on its own to reserve “some” rights, or can be used as a supplement to a copyright.  In addition, different licenses exist with varying levels of restrictions for creators (“licensors”) to choose from.  To add more options and amplify communicability, the licenses themselves contain different layers (legal, reader-friendly, and technology-friendly).

Frantic students beware! Copyrights aren’t the only property licenses to keep your eyes out for. Let’s all do our part to make sure the commons that is the Internet doesn’t turn to tragedy like most of our society’s other shared resources.


Check out these links for some examples of Creative Commons license violations: (Australian iPad handout example) (Flickr librarian example)