[okfn-discuss] Tragedy of the Lurkers
rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Mon Oct 2 10:22:09 BST 2006
peter murray-rust wrote:
> Rufus et al.
> In my latest post http://wwmm.ch.cam.ac.uk/blogs/murrayrust/?p=78 I have
> argued that lurking in an Open Source project constitutes a tragedy. I
> have no idea whether this is widely recognised or whether an economic
> theory has been developed about it - if not does it makes sense?
As you point in your blog post you need to distinguish several different
types of 'tragedy of the commons'.
i) (the original use of tragedy of the commons) Over-use of a rival[^1],
but non-excludable[^2], resource such as common grazing land or
fisheries. Here the assumption is that because
a) my use affects yours (because the good is rivalry)
b) there is no way to make take account of this impact
the good will be overused. (Note that while this problem is often
attributed to a lack of enforceable property rights it is better to see
as occuring from a break-down in community self-regulation of whatever
kind -- there are many societies without formal property rights who have
successfully regulated access to communal resources for long periods of
ii) (tradegy of the anti-commons): under-use of a *nonrival* good due to
many different excludable rights. Example: suppose there I wish to
create a new drug or device but there are many existing patent holders
from whom I would have to seek permission (and agree royalty rates with)
to be able to do this. The combination of transaction costs and risk of
hold-up might deter me from doing this in which case the new good would
not be created.
iii) (under-provision): under-provision of a good (be it rival or
nonrival). This will usually be due to the free-rider problem, which
arises from imperfect excludability (and imperfect information). Here
the issue is that because it will be possible to benefit from the good
without contributing to its production some people will try to 'free-ride'.
Item (iii) is the classic justification for creating monopoly rights in
knowledge (Intellectual Property). By giving out the right to exclude
(the monopoly) the aim is to force those who would otherwise free-ride
to contribute to the production of the good. Of course in doing so one
incurs two costs:
1. 'under-use' of the good (some people will be excluded who shouldn't
be -- the good after is nonrival so everyone should it is optimal for
everyone to get access to it)
2. 'under-production' as a result of item (ii) -- reuse is reduced below
The issue of 'lurkers' that you discuss falls firmly into category
(iii). 'Lurkers' after all are those who use the knowledge you've
created without contributing back. Whether this constitutes a tragedy is
difficult to say. Of course it would be better if more of these people
contributed to the projects they used -- and the lack of contribution
may well be resulting in 'under-production'. However in trying to do
anything about this one is caught in the classic dilemma: in trying to
exclude people (or force them to contribute more) one will reduce usage
and perhaps prevent the full reuse of one's work (and you'll almost
certainly reduce the contributions of those who currently *aren't* lurking).
Nevertheless there is nothing to prevent you exhorting those 'lurkers'
to do more (and particularly where we are talking about 'Big Pharma'
perhaps getting out their cheque books ...)
[^1] 'rival': a good is rival if my use of it prevents your use of it --
an orange is rival because we can't both eat the same orange and
grassland is rival because if my cattle eat the grass your cattle can't
eat that grass. Conversely a good that I may use without affecting your
use is termed nonrival. The classic example of a nonrival good is
knowledge -- we may both use the same idea at the same time.
[^2] 'excludable': a good is excludable if it is feasible for the
controller of that good (the 'owner') to prevent others using the good
without their permission
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