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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2006

Captured by Private Interests

Samuel E. Trosow

Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth

David Bollier. New York: Routledge, 2003; 260 pp; ISBN: 0-4159-4482-1, paper $19.95 us.
David Bollier’s Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of our Common Wealth is an important contribution to an understanding of how public assets — resources held for the common good in society — are increasingly being appropriated by the private sector. Using the notion of the commons as an organizing metaphor, Bollier weaves together a diverse set of examples from the physical environment, agriculture, computer programming, university research, culture and publishing to present a coherent analysis of the erosion of gift economies in the face of private enclosures.

While Bollier provides a critique of how market values have eroded the commons in various sectors, he also notes he is not hostile to the notion of markets as such. He argues that “the issue is not market versus commons (but rather) is how to set equitable and appropriate boundaries between the two realms” (p. 4) and asks “what kind of rapprochement the market and the commons can negotiate.” (p. 44)

However, Bollier ultimately fails to justify this notion of rapprochement, indeed the arguments he presents consistently seem to undermine this approach. As well, the book is firmly rooted in an American perspective. With the exception of a brief discussion about the privatization of water (where he relies heavily on the work of Maude Barlow) there is no mention of Canada or Canadian perspectives. Even so, the work is relevant to a Canadian audience, since much of his subject matter is generalizable across borders.

Bollier organizes the book into three sections. In the first part he sets out his terminology and defines his concepts, such as the commons, the gift economy and the dynamic of market enclosures. These concepts are applied in the second part to a wide range of settings, including “the exploitation of nature, the abuse of federal lands, the privatization of the Internet, the overmarketization of knowledge and creative expression, the corporatization of academic research, the giveaway of the public airwaves and the commercialization of public spaces and institutions.” (p. 9) In the final section, he sets forth his recommendations on what can be done to reclaim the commons and protect it from further enclosure.

One theme that runs consistently throughout most of the chapters is the importance of the recent expansionary tendencies in intellectual property laws. While Bollier does not present much detail about legal doctrines contained in copyright, patent and trademarks laws, he does provide examples of how they have become overreaching and enable the process of enclosure of the various realms of commons. While there are some significant differences between Canadian and U.S. intellectual property laws most of the examples based on American laws seem generalizable across borders. In those areas where Canadian intellectual property laws diverge from those of the U.S., Canadian policy makers are under increasing pressure to conform to the U.S. model, so many of the author’s arguments are relevant to ongoing policy debates here.

Bollier raises a crucial question that goes to the heart of the current controversies over intellectual property policy: “Is the Western system of intellectual property rights the most effective and sustainable way to promote innovation, or do the cooperative regimes of indigenous cultures have some lessons to teach the market-driven First World?” (p. 79)

Of particular interest to academics is the chapter entitled “Enclosing the Academic Commons.” While Bollier talks specifically about the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which led to the further commercialization of university research, this chapter seems particularly applicable to developments in Canadian universities over the past decade. Bollier argues that while the university has historically been seen as a commons rooted in the values of gift-exchange, “(t)he corporate invasion of university life over the past twenty years is calling into question this proud legacy.” (p. 137)

He describes the “sweeping privatization of publicly-funded knowledge, a ceding of research agendas to the private sector and an erosion of public confidence in the independence of university research.” (p. 139). His observation that “(w)hat may be most disturbing is how university administrators have so thoroughly internalized market values into their management outlooks” (p. 146) seems equally evident in Canada.

Bollier is senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and cofounder of Public Knowledge, a public policy advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. On his web site he describes himself as “an independent policy strategist, journalist, activist and consultant with an evolving public-interest portfolio (whose) work tends to focus on ... reclaiming the American commons, understanding how digital technologies are changing democratic culture, fighting the excesses of intellectual property law, fortifying consumer rights and promoting citizen action.” All of these attributes are well represented throughout the pages of Silent Theft, a book that should be held by every academic library.

Samuel E. Trosow is an assistant professor in the faculties of law and information & media studies at the University of Western Ontario.