February 9, 2010

Too much ownership creates gridlock

The Columbia Law School professor Michael Heller is perhaps best known for his book The Gridlock Economy from 2008. A book which popularizes the concept of "tragedy of the anticommons". He summarizes the thesis in a speech at Google 2008 as "When too many people own pieces of the same thing, no one can use it".

Gridlock Economy
His works on the Gridlock Economy comes from the time when he was working for the World Bank on post socialist property in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. The state had little experience in private property and ended up in many cases dividing the property in too small and conflicting pieces for anyone to be able to use it.

He published his experiences in the 1997 article "The Tragedy of the Anticommons: Property in the Transiton from Marx to Markets".
From this came 2008 the book The Gridlock Economy. Heller writes in the abstract to the 1997 article:
"When there are too many owners holding rights of exclusion, the resource is prone to underuse -- a tragedy of the anticommons. Anticommons property may appear whenever new property rights are being defined. For example in Moscow, multiple owners have been endowed initially with competing rights in each storefront, so no owner holds a useable bundle of rights and the store remains empty. Once an anticommons has emerged, collecting rights into private property bundles can be brutal and slow. This article explores the dynamics of anticommons property in transition economies, formalizes the empirical material in a property theory framework, and then shows how the idea of anticommons property can be a useful new tool for understanding a range of property puzzles."

Modern gridlock
To understand the concept of the tragedy of the anticommons one can think of a piece of land divided in to so small pieces that in order for any one person to farm one acre he would need permission from hundreds of property owners. The cost and effort needed to gather all of those property owners and negotiate agreements with each would take more time and cost more than what it would be worth farming the land. In the terms of Heller this would be the opposite of the tragedy of the commons where for instance a pond is fished dry of fish since there is no owner managing the fishing in the pond.

The effects of the gridlock can rarely be seen even though they might be most significant. The New Yorker puts it as that
...the effects of underuse created by too much ownership are often invisible. They’re mainly things that don’t happen: inventions that don’t get made, useful drugs that never get to market.
One of the clearest examples of tragedy of the anticommons today is patent gridlock. The fact that there is in a specific are so many patents that you can not in any meaningful way use the technology without infringing on potentially hundreds or thousands of patents. This could be the way with for instance mobile phones which might be covered by some 5000 patents or new drugs which could have similar patent thickets laid out.

A similar situation is present when it comes to the documentary series "Eyes on the prize" from the late 80s. Heller talks about that the series which portraits the African-American Civil Rights Movement to a large extent is built on archival footage and contemporary songs, met problems when it was to be broadcast again and also released on DVD since it was too costly to track down each rights holder to get permission for the new release. Further on this can be read here.

One way to get around these problems with too fragmented rights can be to pool the rights. This is commonly used for patents, where it for many products would be an impossible task to evaluate each patent and track down it's potential rights holder. Collection societies such as ASCAP and BMI can provide the same function for copyrighted works, for instance music played on the radio.

But as Michael Heller concludes in a Newsweek article we still have a big challenge in the gridlock economy.

A survey sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences found that scientists now routinely respond to gridlock by becoming patent pirates, just like students who illegally download music. Commercial drug developers, of course, cannot risk disregarding competitors' patents. Many of the world's leading drugmakers simply redirect investment toward less challenging areas and innovation quietly slips away. The dearth of new blockbuster drugs should prod Big Pharma off its longstanding position that the existing patent regime must be defended no matter what.

Commons and Anticommons
The ideas of commons and anticommons are not new and Michael Heller does not claim to have come up with the concepts, though he has coined the term "tragedy of the anticommons". It is in this rich idea tradition the newly published anthology "Commons and Anticommons" edited by Heller, takes an in depth approach trying to understand the relation between overuse and underuse of property.

Heller has collected 35 articles over a total of 1,192 pages in two volumes. Contributors ranging from Aristotle and Carl Shapiro to the 2009 Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and Michael Heller himself.

To me, the book's contribution lays in that it collects most of the relevant research on the tragedy of the commons and anticommons in one place and thus challenges the reader to understand the broader picture as well as the specifics of for instance spectrum allocation and the fishing industry.

Johan Orneblad
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Further resources

Audio and video
Authors@Google: Michael Heller on YouTube
Heller on Gridlock and the Tragedy of the Anticommons on Econtalk
Tragedies of the Gridlock Economy, an Economy Information Project conference on the Gridlock Economy hosted by George Mason University School of Law, with a discussion by Michael Heller and Richard Epstein. The conference is discussed here and some of the papers from the book Commons and Anticommons can also be found on the conference website.
Hearsay Culture interview with Michael Heller
Are patents and copyrights making innovation impossible? Out-Law Radio interview with Michael Heller

Gridlock Economy on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
Commons and Anticommons on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk


  1. This paragraph is a little suspicious -

    [The one starting "one of the clearest examples..."

    My initial comment was going to be "Do you have any evidence that this ever actually occurs?"

    Then, in trying to cut and paste the paragraph, I find that you've locked the text of the page so no one can copy it.

    OK, so now we know your real view, your revealed preferences for protection of intellectual property. Geeze louise.

  2. The above is by David Boundy. I don't mean to be anonymous, it's just that this blog has a baroque system for posting comments.

  3. David, thanks for your comment. I have not forgotten about it and will post a followup discussing patent gridlock in a couple of days.

    Not sure why you could not copy from the page, strange.

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