December 29, 2005
Tragedy of the Anticommons

Lawrence Lessig has an intriguing post up about the "anticommons" problem, wherein excessively restrictive and separated property rights lead to the under-utilization of a resource. (This is the opposite of the classic tragedy of the commons, where a resource held in common is overutilized.)

In addition to providing links to a pair of economics papers touching on the topic, Lessig points to an article on music being replaced in the DVD editions of old TV shows as the first of many examples of the anticommons in practice. As Lessig notes:

Maybe enough examples will get the thick-political types to recognize that the issue of IP reform is not about whether you favor property or not, but whether THE PARTICULAR FORM OF PROPERTY the government has crafted operates efficiently.

As evidenced by some of my previous posts on IP, the issues surrounding intellectual property are far more complex and multifaceted than most anti-piracy advocates acknowledge. In addition to anticommons inefficiencies caused by rights-gouging and DRM, there are also a wide range of issues surrounding the perception of 'piracy' on the part of the public. To choose just one example, the MPAA ads in which gofers and grips implore the audience not to pirate movies so they won't lose their jobs just aren't credible when the press trumpets how much money hit movies make and constantly bombards the public with images of the lavish lifestyles of stars and directors. There's also the fact that music buyers know they're getting ripped off when they pay $14 for a CD with two good tracks on it.

The anticommons problem and its cousins, monopolistic and oligopolistic practices, cause most of the public resentment of the current IP regime. And until someone does something that affects the underlying causes of the IP wars, digital piracy isn't going to go away any time soon.