Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Comedy of the Commons

Today, Laurence Lessig opened the current SDForum Distinguished Speaker series with a talk called "The Comedy of the Commons". The title refers to a typically gloomy Malthusian essay called "The Tragedy of the Commons", written by Garrett Hardin in the late 60's.

The Tragedy of the Commons argues that when you try to share a common property amongst a group, each member of the group will try to exploit it to the full to get their fair share and in the end overexploit the property. The commons is a reference to medieval English village which had common land where all the villagers could graze their animals. A more modern example is going in a group for dinner with the understanding that you will all share the expense equally. You know that there is no point in ordering a cheap meal as the others will order something more expensive and you will end up subsidizing their meal, so everyone orders an expensive meal and you all end up paying more than necessary or intended.

Lessig argues that while this may be true for physical property, the opposite is true for intellectual property. An idea shared is more valuable than an idea that is kept secret, and in some sense, the more an idea is shared, the more valuable it becomes. This applies to any Intellectual Property, which I suppose leads to comedy, like a record company that on one hand pays radio stations to BROADCAST its hit song, while at the same time complaining that it is losing money because people are sharing the song on their computers.

The current interest in the commons comes from the fact that the US has been tightening up Intellectual Property law, for example by extending copyright, at the behest of a few large corporations that own a lot of intellectual property. At the same time there is a rising interest in shared common IP such as Free and Open Source Software, which is the focus of this years Distinguished Speakers series. Finally digital technology now means that there is effectively no cost to sharing intellectual property.

Professor Lessig is concerned with the IP extremists who want to prevent free sharing of Intellectual Property. As information becomes more valuable when it is shared, preventing the free sharing of information devalues the information. High barriers to sharing Intellectual Property could make the US an intellectual backwater and thus a loser in the information economy of the new millennia.

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