Blockchains are not self-executing machines. They are resource systems designed by people, maintained by people, and governed by people. Their technical protocols help to solve some difficult problems in shared resource management, but behind those protocols there are always communities of people struggling with familiar challenges in governing their provision and use of common infrastructure.
In this Article, we describe blockchains as shared, distributed transactional ledgers using two frameworks from commons theory. Brett Frischmann’s theory of infrastructure provides an external view, showing how blockchains provide useful, generic infrastructure for recording transactions and why that infrastructure is most naturally made available on common, nondiscriminatory terms. Henry Smith’s theory of semicommons provides an internal view, showing how blockchains intricately combine private resources (such as physical hardware and on-chain assets) with common resources (such as the shared transactional ledger and the blockchain protocol itself). We then detail how blockchains struggle with many of the governance challenges that these frameworks predict, requiring blockchain communities to engage in extensive off-chain governance work to coordinate their uses and achieve consensus. Blockchains function as infrastructure and semicommons not in spite of the human element, but because of it.