Friday, August 04, 2006

An Ecology of Intellectual Property

Given Jim's paean to numeracy yesterday, I figured I could do worse than blog about my piece on the quantification of benefits from looser copyright protections. In Toward an Ecology of Intellectual Property, I argue that IP scholarship needs to push the environmental analogy pioneered by James Boyle a bit further by using tools developed by environmental economists. In order to give a fuller sense of the value of an intellectual commons protected by fair use, copyright defendants should mimic the type of valuation of environmental commons pioneered by economists studying biodiversity.

Here's an example. There is no "market" for beautiful views from buildings. However, economists can use "hedonic pricing" mechanisms to get a sense of how much of the value of a given residence is attributable to its view. By the same token, information economists may want to try to measure the value of "open" vs. "closed" cultural artifacts.

For example, why are so many people adopting "wikipedia?" How much are they saving by using this free, P2P resource rather than, say, paying for a subscription to Brittanica or Encarta? Rishab Ghosh is pioneering such a "substitution method" of valuation. Moreover, we might want to assess human capital formation: what critical thinking skills are users gaining by both editing and assessing entries? Nissenbaum & Benkler suggest there are many capabilities enhanced by such projects.

The traditional story here is that new, P2P alternatives are going to kill off traditional information sources. However, even if that is the case, we need to be able to assess not only the costs, but the benefits, of the transformation. Moreover, I think one can tell a happier tale of symbiosis, or at least mutualism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very intersting.

I have not finished reading your paper, but I am already motivated to post a comment.

The thing about environmentalism is that there is a built-in scarcity that drives many of the discussions. We only have one planet, one atmosphere or we are losing species or ecosystems and therefore biodiversity.

There seems to be no analog in information ecologies - there seems to always be "more" information, so where is the scarcity?

I am informed by the "Attention Economy" folks and especially this article.

Attention "is" scarce, but how would this relate to information and knowledge production?

Ideally, we want people's "attention" to be on higher order processes like solving problems, pursuing better lives, creating a better world for themselves and their families, etc. instead of spending all their attention on getting food, clothing, shelter, etc.

This is too crude an analogy and so I would propose something that extends Maslow's heirarchy or at least parses it out into a fine-grained continuum.

If all the efforts to find the right balance of IP protection result in a nation of videogamers and porn-consumers, that may or may not be good depending on whether there are seriousl problems to be solved (global warming, war, famaine, etc.).

Knowledge and education are funny things such that the more you give them away, the more you have. Or so it seems as per Benkler et al.

8/04/2006 11:27 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Thanks for the comment, John. Given my paper on information overload, I think we have a lot in common!

As for the natural scarcity point: yes, that is a fundamental discontinuity or disanalogy between the IP and physical worlds.

But I think attention and money really are scarce, and that's where the analogy seems more promising. There is real value in knowing that certain cultural/information resources are "common," that one needn't negotiate some license fee to use them. I think this is much like the "peace of mind" that one gets from knowing, say, Central Park is always "off limits" to bidding. One need not spend resources to "buy a piece of it" out of fear that it will all be bought up.

8/05/2006 7:44 AM  

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