Wed, 20 Apr 2005

Open Source as a public good

A public good is something which is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. The first critera, non-rivalrous, implies that users of the good are not rivals. Your use of the good does not interfere with my use of the good. The second criteria, non-excludable, means that if the good is provided for one, it is provided for all. Radio stations are a public good. Your reception of the signal does not interfere with my reception of it, and if you get to receive it, so do I. Lighthouses are also a public good. We can all see the beacon, and if I'm able to see it, I can't stop you from seeing it. All information in digital form is a public good; whether in the form of music, movies, books, or software.

Public goods can be underproduced relative to other forms of goods because of the difficulty of deriving revenue from public goods. In order to prevent that from happening, creative works receive a monopoly for a limited amount of time. It used to be the case that a copyright had to be claimed and secured. Under the Berne Convention, however, all works are born copyrighted even if the author is anonymous and makes no effort to restrict distribution.

Buried in Innovation, Information Technology And The Culture Of Freedom: The Political Economy Of Open Source, I noticed the term "anti-rival[rous]". They make the excellent point that software is not merely non-rivalrous. It is anti-rivalrous. That is, your use of it not only does not compete with mine, your use of it helps mine. Thus, I have an interest in promoting the software that I have written. I also should promote software that I have not written, but instead merely use. If you use it too, the author will be compensated by more fame, and more people will contribute to the project. It will have greater vitality as more people use it.

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