Info-Communism? A Critique of the Emerging Discourse on Property Rights in Information
13 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2012
Date Written: August 15, 2005
This paper has three goals. The first is to salvage the rationality of the debate over the nature of property institutions in information and communications, by critically examining the metaphors and parallels to old-line communism. The second goal is identify and call attention to a deep-seated tension within the information left that contributes mightily to this framing. In some cases the movement pushes shared or nonexclusive rights on practical, voluntaristic grounds, and presents it to the public as a choice they can exercise freely, based on their own desires or self- interest. In other instances non-exclusivity is urged upon people as an ethical or moral imperative, and considerable effort is expended to use various forms of leverage to push people into that alternative. The information left needs to reflect more deeply on the implications of relying on either type of appeal. In making this argument, the paper notes that the need to motivate and sustain collective action plays an important role in shaping responses to this problem. Ethical and spiritual appeals to communal property provide stronger glue for holding together a social movement. But in this case they are also more prone to legitimate charges that the movement is “communist” and hostile to private property in any form. My third goal is to take sides regarding the dichotomy described above. I will argue that it is impossible for moral/ethical arguments alone to justify either common or private property in all cases and that a free, contractually based economy offers the best hope of finding the right mix. Drawing on property rights theory, I argue that there is an important place for both models (commons and private property) in the present and future economy, and that there is often a dynamic interaction between the two that is superior to any attempt to push the economy into one of the two extremes. The movement should view information commons as a vital and constructive part of a free and open market economy, not as its enemy. As Merges (2004) has argued, contractual arrangements to build commons and nonexclusive access to informational resources can be seen as a rational market response to the legal and political overreaching of rent-seeking copyright and patent holders.
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