User Patronage: The Return of the Gift in the 'Crowd Society'

64 Pages Posted: 13 Sep 2015 Last revised: 11 Mar 2019

See all articles by Giancarlo Frosio

Giancarlo Frosio

Queen's University Belfast - School of Law; Stanford University - Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society; Université de Strasbourg - CEIPI

Date Written: September 10, 2015


In this work, I discuss the tension between gift and market economy throughout the history of creativity. For millennia, the production of creative artifacts has lain at the intersection between gift and market economy. From the time of Pindar and Simonides—and until the Romanticism will commence a process leading to the complete commodification of creative artifacts—market exchange models run parallel to gift exchange. From Roman amicitia to the medieval and Renaissance belief that scientia donum dei est, unde vendi non potest, creativity has been repeatedly construed as a gift. Again, at the time of the British and French “battle of the booksellers,” the rhetoric of the gift still resounded powerfully from the nebula of the past to shape the constitutional moment of copyright law. The return of gift exchange models has a credible source in the history of creativity.

Today, after a long unchallenged dominance of the market, gift economy is regaining momentum in the digital society. The anthropological and sociological studies of gift exchange, such as Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, served to explain the phenomenon of open source software and hacker communities. Later, communities of social trust—such as Wikipedia, YouTube, and fan-fiction communities—spread virally online through gift exchange models. In peer and user-generated production, community recognition supersedes economic incentives. User-based creativity thrives on the idea of “playful enjoyment,” rather than economic incentives.

Anthropologists placed societies on an economic evolutionary scale from gift to commodity exchange; in a continuum from the clan to capitalist system of organization. I suggest that this continuum should now extend to the “crowd society,” which features new modes of social interaction in digital online communities. The networked, open, and mass-collaborative character of the crowd society enhances the proliferativeness of the gift exchange model that lies in what anthropologists and social scientists described as a debt-economy.

The exploration of the creative mechanics of online communities put under scrutiny the validity of utilitarian theories of copyright and traditional market economy models. From Émile Durkheim and Mauss to Alain Caillé, anti-utilitarian thought designed a new political economy that defines humans as a “cooperative species,” rather than Homo economicus. In this context, I look into commons theory, through the lens of Elinor Ostrom’s work, and its application to modern commons-based peer production with special emphasis on Yochai Benkler and Jerome Reichman’s work.

In conclusion, I evoke Jean Baudrillard’s essential question: “Will we return, one day, beyond the market economy, to prodigality?” I consider whether the digital revolution that promoted the emergence of the networked information economy is that “revolution of the social organization and of social relations” that might bring about, according to Jean Baudrillard, “real affluence” through a return to “collective prodigality,” rather than our “productivistic societies, which [...] are dominated by scarcity, by the obsession with scarcity characteristic of the market economy.” I argue that a possibility for the reinstatement of Baudrillard’s “collective prodigality” might have materialized in the “crowd society” thanks to technological advancement and the emergence of a consumer gift system or “user patronage,” promoting an unrestrained, diffused, and networked discourse between creators and the public through digital crowd-funding.

Keywords: economics of creativity, creative economy, gift economy, copyright, intellectual property, networked information economy, internet, technology, commons-based peer production, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding

JEL Classification: K, N, O34, O32

Suggested Citation

Frosio, Giancarlo, User Patronage: The Return of the Gift in the 'Crowd Society' (September 10, 2015). (5) Michigan State Law Review 1983 (2015), Available at SSRN: or

Giancarlo Frosio (Contact Author)

Queen's University Belfast - School of Law ( email )

Main Site Tower, Queen's University Belfast
Belfast, BT7 1NN
United Kingdom

Stanford University - Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society ( email )

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Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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Université de Strasbourg - CEIPI ( email )

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