equality human rights social justice

Ten things you didn’t know you owned

This week I’ve been reading All That We Share, an introduction to the idea of the commons by Jay Walljasper. It’s got me thinking about the commons, and I thought I’d post a few things.

The commons are the things that are shared between us, owned by nobody but available to all. You might naturally think of ‘the common’, but there’s more to the commons than grazing rights. To make the point, here are ten things you might not realise you owned:

1. The English language
The words, jokes, metaphors and turns of phrase, the ever-evolving lexicon of slang, it’s all yours to play with. There are no fees to use it, and nobody will sue you if you shorten a word or make up a new one. Since the English language belongs to you and me, it shouldn’t really be possible to trademark expressions like ‘Just do it’ or ‘Every little helps’ – or at least not unless every English speaker in the world gets compensated for it.

The air: yours

2. Air
In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1990 science fiction film Total Recall, people had to pay to breathe the air. But that was on Mars. On earth, breathing the air is free. Unfortunately, so is polluting it. Since we all own it, and those that pollute the air are damaging something of value to us, it is not remotely unreasonable to expect industry to pay for the right to emit toxic or climate destabilising agents.

3. The Internet
Perhaps because it was developed by engineers rather than businessmen, the internet isn’t owned by anybody. It runs on the TCP/IP protocol, where all networked machines relay data packets without charging, in return for being able to use everybody else’s network pathways. Tim Berners Lee was also kind enough not to copyright hypertext, making the internet truly accessible to all through the World Wide Web.

4. The Emergency Services
Imagine a world where the fire service wouldn’t respond unless you were a paid-up member of their insurance club. The first fire services worked exactly like that, with the city of London formalising fire services after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Most modern fire services are state funded, often topped up with volunteer staff and local fundraising, but they are a public service and you have the right to call them free of charge, along with the police and the ambulance services.

5. Antarctica
Since Antarctica doesn’t have a native population, it was set aside by the international community for research purposes. If you want to go there, nobody will ask to see your passport on arrival. Nobody will be there to ask anything at all, most likely. It may not be that way forever mind you. Several countries believe they have a claim to it, some of them rather tenuous, but for now its frosty wastelands belong to us all.

6. Democracy
There are many components to a healthy democracy, including a free press, a declaration of rights of some kind, and the rule of law. There are all kind of institutions to preserve and enhance those components, regulators and courts and committees. None of them own democracy, and when a government encroaches on it by declaring martial law or by excluding certain people, they are taking something that isn’t theirs.

The pavement: yours.

7. The pavement
You have to pay to drive a car on the roads in Britain, but you don’t have to pay to walk on the pavement. The world’s sidewalks are free to use, maintained by local government but by no means belonging to them. In some countries, you can also play instruments on the street, drink booze or sell things, although the British authorities take a dim view of some of those activities.

8. The library
I’ve declared my love of libraries before, and have watched the government’s attack on community libraries with sadness. They’re not just a place to borrow books. They’re a statement that an educated population is a public good, that access to information and learning should be universal, and that participation in culture should not be the province of the wealthy alone.

9. The human genome
Begun in 1990 and completed in 2003, the Human Genome Project successfully mapped the human genetic code and then made the whole thing available to science. It’s just as well they did, because there were private companies racing the international government-funded project to complete it. If they’d got there first, medical research would have been tangled up in expensive genomic patents and permissions, even though the code is written in every cell of our bodies.

Ratatouille: does not belong to Pixar

10. French cuisine
I’ve picked French cuisine because it’s my favourite, but you can insert Italian or Mexican or Lebanese or Ethiopian. Culinary traditions are passed from generation to generation, tweaked and reinterpreted, improvised around, a gift to us all. I am free to draw on those traditions and cook boeuf bourguignon, risotto, chapatis, enchiladas or a full English breakfast. The same would not be true if I were to attempt to make a Big Mac ™.


  1. Re: point seven: “You have to pay road tax to drive on the roads in Britain, but you don’t have to pay to walk on the pavement. ”

    The idea that people in the UK pay road tax seems never to die. However, in the UK vehicle users pay ‘Vehicle Excise Duty’ (VED) which has been summed up as a payment to society to offset the costs of something inherently unhealthy. That’s why we pay excise on cigarettes and alcohol, and also why we pay it for motor vehicles. The irony, of course is that VED doesn’t pay for the damage to society caused by excessive motor vehicle use either, it’s users of motor vehicles that are ‘not paying for the roads they use’, not other people.

    The problem with calling VED ‘Road tax’ is that it gives people in motorised vehicles the idea that they pay for the road and as such they should have precedence over all other users like cyclists or pedestrians. In fact roads are funded from the public purse, and are considered to be a ‘common good’ in the UK and as such we DO own them if we use a car or not.

    (Look up ‘Vehicle Excise Duty’ on Wikipedia with the section of ‘Other terms in commin use’ for a fuller explanation)

  2. This is interesting reading. I was wondering about people in this – we don’t ‘own’ mps as much as employ them,but do we ‘own’ the royal family? It is more than a job to be royal,but the concept of owning people doesn’t sit right. So is it the institution or concept that we own?

    1. Hmm, I’m sure we own the institutions of government, but I don’t know what the legal standing of the royal family is. I wouldn’t be surprised if, officially, they still own us.

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