Give Us Back Our Tragedy: Nonrivalry in Intellectual Property Law and Policy

Oren Bracha


Information goods form the most distinct category of nonrival resources in regard to which one person’s ability to use the resource is not lessened by another person’s use. Nonrival goods are not subject to the tragedy of the commons and as a result the most common modern justification for property rights is absent in regard to them. Therefore intellectual property rights, unlike many other property rights, may perform a beneficial function only with respect to the dynamic incentive to produce information goods. With respect to static use of existing information, intellectual property rights serve no beneficial function and always have a negative effect. This fundamental and ostensibly well-understood element of intellectual property theory has important implications for the policy analysis of intellectual property rights compared to other institutional alternatives (including a commons) and for the design of such rights. Because it poses a fundamental challenge to the idea of a uniform theory of property, the assumption of nonrivalry of information has been subjected to attacks by scholars who sought to introduce the tragedy of the commons to this realm and reintegrate intellectual property rights into standard property analysis. Other scholarship rejects the attacks on nonrivalry but often obscures the full implications of this feature of information goods. This article explains the centrality of nonrivalry in the policy analysis of information goods and the challenge it poses to a unified theory built on the concept of the tragedy of the commons. It explains the unfortunate tendency to obscure the full implications of nonrivalry, explores the various attempts to restore a tragedy of the commons framework to the analysis of information goods, and exposes the flaws of these arguments. The article concludes by explaining the implications of the nonrivalry of information goods for a properly understood general theory of property built around the salient positive and normative features of resources.

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