Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Anti Commons

A previous post on manging the fisheries commons led me to look at the following on the Anti-Commons problem, i.e. the problem that can arise when there are too much property rights (I think I'm summarizing the anti-commons correctly.)
1. The Tragedy of the Anti-Commons: A New Problem. An Application to the Fisheries
Abstract: The operation and management of common property resources (“the commons”) have been exhaustively examined in economics and political science, both in formal analysis and in practical applications. “Tragedy of the Commons” metaphor helps to explain why people overuse shared resources. On the other side, Anti-Commons Theory is a recent theory presented by scientists to explain several situations about new Property Rights concerns. An “anti-commons” problem arises when there are multiple rights to exclude. Little attention has been given to the setting where more than one person is assigned with exclusion rights, which may be exercised. We analyze the “anti-commons” problem in which resources are inefficiently underutilized rather than over-utilized as in the familiar commons setting. In fact, these two problems are symmetrical in several aspects.
2. Do Formal Intellectual Property Rights Hinder the Free Flow of Scientific Knowledge? An Empirical Test of the Anti-Commons Hypothesis
Abstract: While the potential for intellectual property rights to inhibit the diffusion of scientific knowledge is at the heart of several contemporary policy debates, evidence for the anti-commons effect has been anecdotal. A central issue in this debate is how intellectual property rights over a given piece of knowledge affects the propensity of future researchers to build upon that knowledge in their own scientific research activities. This article frames this debate around the concept of dual knowledge, in which a single discovery may contribute to both scientific research and useful commercial applications. A key implication of dual knowledge is that it may be simultaneously instantiated as a scientific research article and as a patent. Such patent-paper pairs are at the heart of our empirical strategy. We exploit the fact that patents are granted with a substantial lag, often many years after the knowledge is initially disclosed through paper publication. The knowledge associated with a patent paper pair therefore diffuses within two distinct intellectual property environments one associated with the pre-grant period and another after formal IP rights are granted. Relative to the expected citation pattern for publications with a given quality level, anticommons theory predicts that the citation rate to a scientific publication should fall after formal IP rights associated with that publication are granted. Employing a differences-indifferences estimator for 169 patent-paper pairs (and including a control group of publications from the same journal for which no patent is granted), we find evidence for a modest anti-commons effect (the citation rate after the patent grant declines by between 9 and 17%). This decline becomes more pronounced with the number of years elapsed since the date of the patent grant, and is particularly salient for articles authored by researchers with public sector affiliations.

Less technical:
1. James Surowiecki reviews a new book called the Gridlock Economy.
We hear a lot about the “tragedy of the commons”: if a valuable asset (a grazing field, say) is held in common, each individual will try to exploit as much of it as possible. Villagers will send all their cows out to graze at the same time, and soon the field will be useless. When there’s no ownership, the pursuit of individual self-interest can make everyone worse off. But Heller shows that having too much ownership creates its own problems. If too many people own individual parts of a valuable asset, it’s easy to end up with gridlock, since any one person can simply veto the use of the asset. ...

The commons leads to overuse and destruction; the anticommons leads to underuse and waste. In the cultural sphere, ever tighter restrictions on copyright and fair use limit artists’ abilities to sample and build on older works of art. In biotechnology, the explosion of patenting over the past twenty-five years—particularly efforts to patent things like gene fragments—may be retarding drug development, by making it hard to create a new drug without licensing myriad previous patents. Even divided land ownership can have unforeseen consequences. Wind power, for instance, could reliably supply up to twenty per cent of America’s energy needs—but only if new transmission lines were built, allowing the efficient movement of power from the places where it’s generated to the places where it’s consumed. Don’t count on that happening anytime soon. Most of the land that the grid would pass through is owned by individuals, and nobody wants power lines running through his back yard. ...

Property rights (including patents) are essential to economic growth, providing incentives to innovate and invest. But property rights need to be limited to be effective. The more we divide common resources like science and culture into small, fenced-off lots, Heller shows, the more difficult we make it for people to do business and to build something new. Innovation, investment, and growth end up being stifled. ...

When something you own is necessary to the success of a venture, even if its contribution is small, you’ll tend to ask for an amount close to the full value of the venture. And since everyone in your position also thinks he deserves a huge sum, the venture quickly becomes unviable.

2. The Environmental Economics blog is closer to the commons problem:

The Economist takes another tack. It reviews some of Elinor Ostrom's critiques of Harding. She has found several examples, including the "miracle of the Rhine," that showed how the commons can be managed without selling off every last bit and assigning ownership, the usual solution to Harding's problem. Management of Swiss (or Austrian) Alpine pastures is another example. Farmers don't tend to add animals until the ecosystem collapses. Quite the opposite: Many of these pastures have been managed successfully for decades or sometimes centuries, despite belonging to no one in particular.

The Economist also tracked down the 12th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons last month, where Charlotte Hess spoke about extending the concept of the commons to global public goods like oceans or Antarctica. That's where managing becomes more difficult. Once the entire Earth is the common, like with climate change, it's not as simple as having a handful of farmers divvy up a pasture or establishing unwritten norms for Sahelian nomads.

No comments: