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COASE’S PENGUIN Oct. 2001 parameter is whether use of the resource is common to everyone in the world or to a well-defined subset. The term “commons” is better reserved for the former, while the latter is better identified as a common property regime (CPR)45 or limited common property regime.46 The second parameter is whether use of the resource by whoever the set of people whose use is privileged is regulated or not. Here one can more generally state, following Rose, that resources in general can be subject to regimes ranging from total (and inefficiently delineated) exclusion—the phenomenon Heller has called the anticommons 47 —through efficiently-delineated property and otherwise regulated access, to completely open, unregulated access.48 The infamous “tragedy of the commons” is best reserved to refer only to the case of unregulated access commons, whether true commons or CPRs. Regulated commons need not be tragic at all, and indeed have been sustained and shown to be efficient in many cases.49 The main difference here is that CPRs are usually easier to monitor and regulate—using both formal law and social norms 50 —than true commons, hence the latter may more often slip into the open access category even when they are formally regulated.
Ostrom also identified that one or both of two economic functions will be central to the potential failure or success of any given commons-based production system. The first is the question of provisioning, the second of allocation. This may seem trivial, but it is important to keep the two problems separate, because if a particular resource is easily renewable if allocated properly then institutions designed to assure provisioning would be irrelevant. Fishing and whaling are examples. In some cases, provisioning may be the primary issue. Ostrom describes various water districts that operate as common property regimes that illustrate well the differences The most extensive consideration of commons and the resolution of the collective action problems they pose is Ostrom, supra.
See Ostrom, supra.
Carol M. Rose, The Several Futures of Property: Of Cyberspace and Folk Tales, Emission Trades and Ecosystems, 83 Minn. L. Rev. 129 (1998).
Michael A. Heller, The Tragedy of the Anticommons: Property in the Transition from Marx to Markets, 111 Harv. L. Rev. 621 (1998). I refer to Heller, rather than to Michelman, who to the best of my knowledge coined the term, see Frank I. Michelman, Ethics, Economics, and the Law of Property, in Nomos XXIV: Ethics, Economics, and the Law 3 (J. Roland Pennock & John W. Chapman eds., 1982), because the concept, applied to inefficiently defined property rights relative to the efficient boundaries of resources as opposed to resources as to which everyone has a right to exclude, took off with Heller’s use rather than earlier.
Carol M. Rose, Left Brain, Right Brain and History in the New Law and Economics of Property, 79 Org. L. Rev. 479 (2000).
Ostrom, Governing the Commons, is the most comprehensive survey. Anther seminal study was James M. Acheson, The Lobster Gangs of Maine (1988). A brief intellectual history of the study of common resource pools and common property regimes can be found in Charlotte Hess & Elinor Ostrom, Artifacts, Facilities, And Content: Information as a Common-pool Resource, (paper for the “Conference on the Public Domain,” Duke Law School, Durham, North Carolina, November 9-11, 2001).
The particular focus on social norms rather than formal regulation as central to the sustainability of common resource pool management solutions that are not based on property is Ellickson’s, supra.
COASE’S PENGUIN Oct. 2001 between situations where allocation of a relatively stable (but scarce) water flow exists, on one hand, and where provisioning of a dam is the difficult task, after which water is relatively abundant.51 Obviously, some commons will require both.
Peer production of information entails purely a provisioning problem.
Because information is nonrival, once it is produced no allocation problem exists.
Moreover, provisioning of information in a ubiquitously networked environment may present a more tractable problem than provisioning of physical matter, and shirking or free riding may not lead quite as directly to non-production. First, the modularity and granularity of the projects suggests that occasional defections can be overcome by redundant provisioning, and will not threaten the whole. Second, the likelihood of free riding increases as the size of the pool increases and the probability of socialnorms-based elimination of free riding declines.52 But as the size of the pool increases, the project can tolerate increasing levels of free riding as long as the absolute number of contributors responding to individually appropriated gains— pleasure, human capital, reputation etc.—remains sufficient to pool the effort necessary to produce the good. Indeed, for those who seek indirect appropriation like reputation, human capital, or service contracts, a high degree of use of the end product (including by “free riders” who did not contribute to writing it) increases the social value of the product, and hence the reputation, human capital, and service market value of contribution. Third, the public goods nature of the product means that free riding does not affect the capacity of contributors to gain full use of their joint product, and does not degrade their utility from it. This permits contributors who contribute in expectation of the use value of the good to contribute without concern for free riding.
A number of types of defection that would affect either motivation to participate or the efficacy of participation could however, affect provisioning. The former covers actions that could reduce the intrinsic value of participation or the expected extrinsic value contributors expect to reap. The latter relates to potential failures of integration, due to an absence of an integration process, or due to poor quality contributions, for example. These are the kinds of defection a peer production process must deal with if it is to be successful.
There are two kinds of actions that could reduce the intrinsic benefit of participation. First is the possibility that behavior will affect the contributors’ valuation of the intrinsic value of participation. Two primary sources of negative Ostrom, Governing the Commons, 69-88.
On the relationship between how small and closely knit a group is, and its capacity to use social norms to regulate behavior see Robert C. Ellickson, Order Without Law (1991). On the importance of social norms in regulating behavior generally, and how it relates to regulation of behavior in cyberspace see Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999).
COASE’S PENGUIN Oct. 2001 effect seem likely. The first is a failure of integration, so that the act of individual provisioning is seen as being wasted, rather than adding some value to the world.
This assumes that contributors have a taste that places some positive value on contributing to a successful project. If this is not the case—if integration is not a component of the intrinsic value of participation—then failure to integrate would not be significant. The World Wide Web is an example where it is quite possible that the putting a web site on a topic one cares about is sufficiently intrinsically valuable to the author, even without the sense of adding to the great library of the web, that integration is irrelevant to the considerations of many contributors.
The second, and most important potential “defection” from commons-based peer production, is unilateral53 appropriation. Unilateral appropriation could, but need not, take the form of commercialization of the common efforts for private benefit.
More directly, appropriation could be any act where an individual contributor tries to make the common project reflect his or her values too much, thereby alienating other participants from the product of their joint effort. The common storytelling enterprise called LambdaMOO, and the well-described crises that it went through with individuals who behaved in sundry antisocial ways—like forcing female characters to “have sex” that they did not want to have in the story54 —is a form of appropriation— taking control to have the joint product serve one’s own goals. In LambdaMOO the participants set up a structure for clearing common political will in response to this form of appropriation. 55 Similarly, some of the software-based constraints on moderation and commenting on Slashdot and other sites have the characteristic of preventing anyone from taking too large a role in shaping the direction of the common enterprise, in a way that would reduce the perceived benefits of participation to many others.
Another form of appropriation that could affect valuation of participation is simple commercialization for private gain. The effect is motivational, in the sense that it will create a sucker’s reward aspect to participation in a way that, if the joint product remains free for all to use, and no one takes a large monetizable benefit, it would not. This effect would be consistent with (though not identical too) the “crowding-out” phenomenon, thought to associate the introduction of commodified sources of provisioning of certain goods—like blood—with a decline in their As opposed to collective, as in the conversion of some aspect of the commons to a common property regime where high quality or consistent contribution to the commons could become a criterion for membership.
Larry Lessig, Code and other Laws of Cyberspace (2000).
See Julian Dibbell, A Rape in Cyberspace or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society, The Village Voice, December 21, 1993, pages 36 through 42, text available ftp://ftp.lambda.moo.mud.org/pub/MOO/papers/VillageVoice.txt.
COASE’S PENGUIN Oct. 2001 provisioning by volunteers.56 Clearly this effect is not particularly important in free software production, which has seen billions made by small contributors and nothing but honor made by the leaders of major projects. But it is not implausible to imagine that individuals would be more willing to contribute their time and effort to NASA or a nonprofit enterprise than to a debugging site set up by Microsoft. Whether this effect exists, how strong it is, and what are the characteristics of instances where it is or is not important is a valuable area for empirical research.
In addition to intrinsic value of participation, there is also an important component of motivation that relies on the use value of the joint project and on indirect appropriation based on continued access to the joint product—service contracts, human capital etc. For such projects, defection again may take the form of appropriation, in this case by exclusion of the contributors from the use value of the end product. (Why academics, for example, are willing to accept the bizarre system in which they contribute to peer review journals for free, sometimes even paying a publication fee, and then have their institutions buy this work back from the printers at exorbitant rates remains a mystery.) In free software, the risk of defection through this kind of appropriation is deemed a central threat to the viability of the enterprise, and both the more purist licenses on the style of the GNU GPL and the more accommodating open source licenses, at least those that comply with the open source definition, prevent one person from taking from the commons, appropriating the software, and excluding others from it. This creates a problem that, on its face, looks like an allocation problem—one person is taking more than their fair share. But again, this is true only in a metaphoric sense. The good is still public, and is physically available to be used by everyone. Law (intellectual property) may create this “allocation problem,” but the real problem is effect on motivation to provision, not an actual scarcity that requires better allocation. The risk of appropriation lowers the expected value contributors can capture from their own contribution, and hence lowers motivation to participate and provide the good.
Third, there is the problem of provisioning the integration function itself. It is important to understand from the discussion here that integration requires some process for assuring the quality of individual contributions. This could take the form of (a) hierarchically managed review, as in the Linux development process, (b) peer review, as in the process for moderating Slashdot comments, or (c) aggregation and averaging of redundant contributions. Academic peer production of science is See Osterloh & Frey, supra. Obviously the crowding out effect is different, in that there the possibility of commercialization by the contributors leads them to lose motivation, but presumably the availability of a third party who will commerialize, rather than the opportunity to commercialize oneself, will likely have greater effects of the same variety.
COASE’S PENGUIN Oct. 2001 traditionally some combination of the former two, although the Los Alamos Archive 57 and the Varmus proposal for changing the model of publication in the health and biomedical sciences58 towards free online publication coupled with post-publication peer commentary as a check on quality would tend to push the process further towards pure peer review.