Law and Critique

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 61–86 | Cite as

The Commons as a Legal Concept



Scientific debates about the political, economic and even legal aspects of commons have circulated wherever commons are perceived to pose a challenge to the increasing commodification of people’s lives. Indeed, a wide range of commons has emerged worldwide. Emerging commons pose a challenge to the law which is now requested to provide legal tools to resist the dispossession of the common wealth. Nevertheless, commons do not embody a reality which is external or unfamiliar to the law. This paper is an attempt to reframe the commons as a legal concept. In this article I argue that commons are not just a marginal element of contemporary legal systems. Rather, they embody the premises for important transformative practices and discourses and represent a subversive site in the legal order. I maintain, first, that the law of the commons is consistent with the law in force and the current legal regimes of private property and, second, that the current stage of globalization is most favourable to the establishment of a law of the commons both in the peripheries and at the core of the capitalist system. However, given the persistent dominance of the individual-based property paradigm, the legitimacy of the commons on legal grounds remains problematic. Certainly the recognition and protection of the commons challenge the legal regime of property in force and query about the possible limits that the law may impose upon property rights. It is evident that the true core of the commons discourse as a legal discourse rests upon its relation with property and depends on the notion of property that we assume as normative. The Hohfeldian idea of property as a bundle of rights offers a good starting point for articulating a legal theory of the commons under positive law.


Access and use Bundle of rights Commons Italian legal system Property Urban space 



Professor of Private Law, University of Perugia, Department of Law. I wish to thank Costas Douzinas for encouraging me to write this article and Paolo Napoli for the several discussions on this topic at the EHESS-CENJ, Paris. For excellent editorial and research assistance my thanks to Elisa Contu.


  1. Agabitini, Chiara. 2012. Tutela possessoria e beni comuni: Il caso del cinema ‘Palazzo’. Nuova Giurisprudenza Civile Commentata 10: 850–858.Google Scholar
  2. Agamben, Giorgio. 2007. La città e la metropoli. Posse 13.
  3. Alexander, Gregory S. 2009. The social-obligation norm in American property law. Cornell Law Review 94: 745.Google Scholar
  4. Bailey, Saki, and Ugo Mattei. 2013. Social movements as constituent power. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 20: 965.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blomley, Nicholas. 2008. Enclosure, common right and the property of the poor. Social Legal Studies 17: 311–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bollier, David. 2011. The commons, short and sweet. Accessed 18 December 2015.
  7. Bottomley, Anne. 2007. A trip to the mall. Revisiting the public/private divide. In Feminist perspectives on land law, ed. Hilary Lim, and Anne Bottomley, 65. London: Routledge Cavendish.Google Scholar
  8. Boyle, James. 2003a. Foreword: The opposite of property? Law & Contemporary Problems 66: 1.Google Scholar
  9. Boyle, James. 2003b. The second enclosure movement and the construction of public domain. Law & Contemporary Problems 66: 33.Google Scholar
  10. Breccia, Umberto, Giovanna Colombini, Emanuela Navarretta, and Roberto Romboli (eds.). 2015. I beni comuni. Pisa: Pisa University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Chardeaux, Marie-Alice. 2006. Les choses communes. Paris: LGDJ.Google Scholar
  12. Chatterton, Paul. 2010. Seeking the urban common: Furthering the debate on spatial justice. City 14(6): 625–628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Ciervo, Antonello. 2012. I beni comuni. Rome: Ediesse.Google Scholar
  14. Coriat, Benjamin (ed.). 2015. Le retour des communs. La crise de l’idéologie propriétaire. Paris: Editions Les Liens qui Libèrent.Google Scholar
  15. Dardot, Pierre, and Christian Laval. 2014. Commun. Essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle. Paris: La Découverte.Google Scholar
  16. Davies, Margaret. 2012. Persons, property, and community. feminists@law 2(2): 1–21.Google Scholar
  17. Davies, Margaret (ed.). 2015. Property Volume IV: Public–private spaces, the commons and the public domain. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. De Angelis, Massimo. 2010. The production of commons and the ‘explosion’ of the middle class. Antipode 42: 954–977.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Demsetz, Harold. 1967. Toward a theory of property rights. The American Economic Review. 57(2): 347–359. Google Scholar
  20. Di Porto, Andrea. 2013. Res in usu publico e beni comuni. Il nodo della tutela. Torino: Giappichelli Editore.Google Scholar
  21. Di Robilant, Anna. 2012. Common ownership and equality of autonomy. McGill Law Journal 58: 263–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Di Robilant, Anna. 2013. Property: A bundle of sticks or a tree? Vanderbilt Law Review 66: 869–932.Google Scholar
  23. Esquirol, Jorge. 2014. Titling and untitled housing in Panama City. Tennessee Journal of Law & Policy 4: 243–302.Google Scholar
  24. Finchett-Maddock, Lucy. 2010. Finding spaces for resistance through legal pluralism: The hidden legality of the UK social centre movement. Journal of Legal Pluralism & Unofficial Law 61: 31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Foster, Sheila. 2011. Collective action and the urban commons. Notre Dame Law Review 87: 57.Google Scholar
  26. Frischmann, Brett. 2012. Infrastructure: The social value of shared resources. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Frug, Gerald E. 1980. The city as a legal concept. Harvard Law Review 93: 1057–1154. Reprinted 1984 (in part) as Chapter 13 in Cities of the mind: Images and themes of the city in the social sciences, eds. Lloyd Rodwin & Robert Hollister, 233–290. Springer.Google Scholar
  28. Gambaro, Antonio. 1990. La proprietà. In Trattato di diritto privato, ed. Giovanni Iudica, and Paolo Zatti. Milano: Giuffrè.Google Scholar
  29. Gaudemet, Yves. 1998. Libertés publiques et domain public. In Mélanges Jacques Robert: libertés, ed. Xavier Robert, 125–134. Paris: Montchrestien.Google Scholar
  30. Giardini, Federica, Ugo Mattei, and Rafael Spregelburd. 2012. Teatro Valle occupato. La rivolta culturale dei beni comuni. Rome: Derive Approdi.Google Scholar
  31. Grey, Thomas C. 1980. The disintegration of property. In Property Nomos n. XXII, ed. J. Roland Pennock, and John W. Chapman, 69–85. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Grossi, Paolo. 1977. Un altro modo di possedere. L’emersione di forme alternative di proprietà alla coscienza giuridica postunitaria. Milano: Giuffrè Editore.Google Scholar
  33. Grossi, Paolo. 1990. Assolutismo giuridico e proprietà collettive. Quaderni fiorentini per la storia del pensiero giuridico moderno 19: 505–555.Google Scholar
  34. Hardin, Garrett. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science, New Series 162(3859): 1243–1248.Google Scholar
  35. Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Harvey, David. 2003. The new imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Harvey, David. 2012. Rebel cities. From the right to the cities to the urban revolution. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  38. Hohfeld, Wesley N. 1913. Some fundamental legal conceptions as applied in judicial reasoning. Yale Law Journal 23: 16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Holder, Jane B. 2008. Emerging commons. Social & Legal Studies 17(3): 299–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kennedy, Duncan. 2006. Three globalizations of law and legal thought: 1850–2000. In The new law and economic development. A critical appraisal, ed. David Trubek, and Alvaro Santos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Lessig, Lawrence. 2004. The creative commons. Montana Law Review 65: 1.Google Scholar
  42. Lessig, Lawrence. 2006. Re-crafting a public domain. Yale Journal of Law & Humanities 18: 56.Google Scholar
  43. Linebaugh, Peter. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and commons for all. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  44. Lucarelli, Alberto. 2013. La democrazia dei beni comuni. Rome-Bari: Laterza.Google Scholar
  45. Madison, Michael J., Brett M. Frischmann, and Katherine J. Strandburg. 2009. The university as constructed cultural commons. Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 30: 365.Google Scholar
  46. Mancini, Pasquale Stanislao. 1886. Del diritto di uso pubblico del Comune e del Popolo di Roma sulla Villa Borghese. Il Filangieri XI, 1–19, 49–78 and 119–151.Google Scholar
  47. Marella, Maria Rosaria (ed.). 2012. Oltre il pubblico e il privato. Per un diritto dei beni comuni. Verona: Ombre corte.Google Scholar
  48. Marella, Maria Rosaria. 2014. The constituent assembly of the commons (CAC). OpenDemocracy. Accessed 10 December 2015.
  49. Marella, Maria Rosaria and Enrica Rigo. 2015. Cliniche legali, commons e giustizia sociale. Parolechiave 53: 181–194.Google Scholar
  50. Mattei, Ugo. 2011. Beni comuni. Un manifesto. Rome: Laterza.Google Scholar
  51. Mattei, Ugo, Edoardo Reviglio, and Stefano Rodotà (eds.). 2007. Invertire la rotta. Idee per una riforma della proprietà pubblica. Bologna: Il Mulino.Google Scholar
  52. Micciarelli, Giuseppe. 2014. I beni comuni e la partecipazione democratica. Da un ‘altro modo di possedere’ ad un ‘altro modo di governare’. Jura Gentium XI: 58.Google Scholar
  53. Negri, Antonio. 2008. Dalla fabbrica alla metropoli. Saggi politici. Rome: Datanews.Google Scholar
  54. Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the commons. The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Parance, Béatrice, and Jacques De Saint Victor (eds.). 2014. Repenser les biens communs. Paris: CNRS Editions.Google Scholar
  56. Pugliatti, Salvatore. 1954. La proprietà e le proprietà. In La proprietà nel nuovo diritto, 159. Milano: Giuffrè.Google Scholar
  57. Quarta, Alessandra, and Michele Spanò (eds.). 2016. Beni comuni 2.0. Contro-egemonia e nuove istituzioni. Udine: Mimesis.Google Scholar
  58. Rodotà, Stefano. 1960. Note critiche in tema di proprietà. Rivista trimestrale di diritto e procedura civile 14: 1252.Google Scholar
  59. Rodotà, Stefano. 2012. Postfazione. Beni comuni: Una strategia globale contro lo ‘human divide’. In Oltre il pubblico e il privato. Per un diritto dei beni comuni, ed. Maria Rosaria Marella, 311–331. Verona: Ombre corte.Google Scholar
  60. Rodotà, Stefano. 2013. Il terribile diritto. Studi sulla proprietà privata e i beni comuni. Bologna: Il Mulino.Google Scholar
  61. Romagnoli, Carlo. 2013. La prevenzione ambientale e gli esposti. Indagine sul punto di vista di comitati territoriali per la salute e la qualità dell’ambiente sulle attività di prevenzione. ISDE Umbria.
  62. Sacconi, Lorenzo, and Stefania Ottone (eds.). 2015. Beni comuni e cooperazione. Bologna: Il Mulino.Google Scholar
  63. Singer, Joseph. 1988. The reliance interest in property. Stanford Law Review 40: 611.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Thomas, Yan. 2002. La valeur des choses. Le droit romain hors la religion. Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 57(6): 1431–1462, on-line
  65. Venezian, Giacomo. 1920. Reliquie della proprietà collettiva in Italia. In Opere giuridiche di Giacomo Venezian, II, Studi sui diritti reali. Rome.Google Scholar
  66. Vezzani, Simone. 2007. Il Primo Protocollo alla Convenzione europea dei diritti umani e la tutela della proprietà intellettuale di popoli indigeni e comunità locali. Diritti umani e diritto internazionale 2: 305–342.Google Scholar
  67. Vezzani, Simone. 2012. I saperi tradizionali e le culture popolari nel prisma dei beni comuni. In Oltre il pubblico e il privato. Per un diritto dei beni comuni, ed. Maria Rosaria Marella, 149–159. Verona: Ombre corte.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento di giurisprudenzaUniversità degli Studi di PerugiaPerugiaItaly

Personalised recommendations