From Medieval Guilds to Open Source Software: Informal Norms, Appropriability Institutions, and Innovation

25 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2005

See all articles by Robert P. Merges

Robert P. Merges

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Date Written: November 13, 2004

Abstract

This essay draws on recent scholarship concerning the nature and function of medieval guilds. I argue that certain features of these guilds appear in modern institutions that further collective invention ("appropriability institutions"): patent pools, industry-wide standard-setting organizations, informal knowledge exchange among academic scientists, and (in a more limited way) open source software development. In particular, guilds and modern institutions share three features: (1) an "appropriability structure" that makes it profitable for individual entities to develop new technologies and sometimes share them; (2) reliance on group norms, as opposed to formal legal enactments, as an enforcement mechanism; and (3) a balance of competition and cooperation which determines what information is to be shared with the group, and what (if any) individual-proprietary information is not. The current trend toward greater dispersal and atomization of economic activity may increase the importance of such interfirm appropriability institutions.

Suggested Citation

Merges, Robert P., From Medieval Guilds to Open Source Software: Informal Norms, Appropriability Institutions, and Innovation (November 13, 2004). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=661543 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.661543

Robert P. Merges (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States
510-643-6199 (Phone)
510-643-6171 (Fax)

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