[okfn-discuss] Tragedy of the Lurkers

Rufus Pollock 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 optimum

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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