Semicommon Property Rights and Scattering in the Open Fields

Posted: 13 Jul 2000


This article models the problems of and solutions to what is termed here a "semicommons." A semicommon exists where property rights are not only a mix of common and private rights but both are significant and can interact. The major example of a semicommons is the medieval open-field system in which peasants owned strips of land for grain growing but used the land collectively for grazing. The ownership structure allowed operation on a large scale for grazing and harnessed private incentives for grain growing. But a semicommons potentially leads to problems of strategic behavior that go beyond the familiar incentives to overuse a commons. Individuals have additional incentives to overuse and to engage in wasteful efforts at favoring and disfavoring parts of the commons depending on who owns them. In order to raise the costs of such behavior and thus to secure the benefits of a semicommons, devices may be used to mix up entitlements. The article claims that scattering of strips in the medieval open fields was one such device: excess favoring of or damage to private property would not be worth the cost when a moving herd of animals would occupy strips belonging to many peasants at any time. Generally, boundary placement and norms are substitute methods of addressing strategic behavior in a semicommons. Among these solutions, scattering functions as a sanction for activities associated with strategic behavior.

Suggested Citation

Smith, Henry E., Semicommon Property Rights and Scattering in the Open Fields. Available at SSRN:

Henry E. Smith (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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