The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain

43 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2003

See all articles by James Boyle

James Boyle

Duke University School of Law


We are in the middle of a second enclosure movement. It sounds grandiloquent to call it "the enclosure of the intangible commons of the mind," but in a very real sense that is just what it is. True, the new state-created property rights may be "intellectual" rather than "real," but once again things that were formerly thought of as either common property or uncommodifiable are being covered with new, or newly extended, property rights. In this article, I try to develop the vocabulary and the analytic tools necessary to turn the tide of enclosure. I offer an historical sketch of various types of skepticism about intellectual property, from the antimonopolist criticisms of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, through the emergence of affirmative arguments for the public domain, to the use of the language of the commons to defend the possibility of distributed methods of non-proprietary production. In many ways, it turns out, concepts of the public domain show the same variation in assumptions, and the same analytic differences, as the concept of property itself. I conclude by arguing that, for a number of reasons, the appropriate model for the change in thinking which I argue for comes from the history of the environmental movement. The invention of the concept of "the environment" pulls together a string of otherwise disconnected issues, offers analytical insight into the blindness implicit in prior ways of thinking, and leads to perception of common interest where none was seen before. Like the environment, the public domain must be "invented" before it is saved. Like the environment, like "nature," the public domain turns out to be a concept that is considerably more slippery than many of us realize. And, like the environment, the public domain nevertheless turns out to be useful, perhaps even necessary.

Keywords: Intellectual Property, Public Domain, History of Copyright

JEL Classification: O3, B31, K11, K12

Suggested Citation

Boyle, James, The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain. Available at SSRN: or

James Boyle (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

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Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
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