Commons Keys

A commons key is a financial contribution that funds creative work in a way that benefits everyone, not only the contributor.

In a 2019 article, Tim Carmody named this model of funding creative work “unlocking the commons” and described it as: “Fans support the person and the work. But it’s not a transaction, a fee for service. It’s a contribution that benefits everyone. Free-riders aren’t just welcome; free-riding is the point.”

Here, we define the name commons key to describe the contribution that benefits everyone.

The Commons Key Mark

The Commons Key keymark

Licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Download assets

Common Benefits

Next, we define the three kinds of common benefits that can be unlocked by Commons Keys.

1. Common Access

Common Access contributions unlock free access to creative work for everyone.


2. Common Copies

Common Copies contributions unlock free copies of a creative work for everyone.

Example: purchases of physical book unlock free ebook downloads for everyone.

3. Common Use

Common Use contributions unlock free use of a creative work for everyone.

Example: purchases of an art print unlock the art itself into the public domain.


For a purchase or contribution to be a Commons Key, it must meet these two requirements.

1. Unlock at least one Common Benefit

A purchase or contribution might offer other benefits, and might give contributors additional benefits, but it must unlock at least one Common Benefit.

2. The benefit must be unlocked universally (free for everyone)

The Common Benefit must be unlocked for everyone, without preconditions. Common Access can't require an account, for instance. Common Copies downloads can't require sharing an email address.


More Examples


It’s OK if: