Chapter 2

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John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 2: Summary
Discuss Introduction to Some Basic Economics of Information Production and Innovation

Chapter 2 Some Basic Economics of Information Production and Innovation


There are no noncommercial automobile manufacturers. There are no volunteer steel foundries. You would never choose to have your primary source of bread depend on voluntary contributions from others. Nevertheless, scientists working at noncommercial research institutes funded by nonprofit educational institutions and government grants produce most of our basic science. Widespread cooperative networks of volunteers write the software and standards that run most of the Internet and enable what we do with it. Many people turn to National Public Radio or the BBC as a reliable source of news. What is it about information that explains this difference? Why do we rely almost exclusively on markets and commercial firms to produce cars, steel, and wheat, but much less so for the most critical information our advanced societies depend on? Is this a historical contingency, or is there something about information as an object of production that makes nonmarket production attractive?

The technical economic answer is that certain characteristics of information and culture lead us to understand them as "public goods," rather than as "pure private goods" or standard "economic goods." When economists speak of information, they usually say that it is "nonrival." We consider a good to be nonrival when its consumption by one person does not make it any less available for consumption by another. Once such a good is produced, no more social resources need be invested in creating more of it to satisfy the next consumer. Apples are rival. If I eat this apple, you cannot eat it. If you nonetheless want to eat an apple, more resources (trees, labor) need to be diverted from, say, building chairs, to growing apples, to satisfy you. The social cost of your consuming the second apple is the cost of not using the resources needed to grow the second apple (the wood from the tree) in their next best use. In other words, it is the cost to society of not having the additional chairs that could have been made from the tree. Information is nonrival. Once a scientist has established a fact, or once Tolstoy has written War and Peace, neither the scientist nor Tolstoy need spend a single second on producing additional War and Peace manuscripts or studies for the one-hundredth, one-thousandth, or one-millionth user of what they wrote. The physical paper for the book or journal costs something, but the information itself need only be created once. Economists call such goods "public" because a market will not produce them if priced at their marginal cost - zero. In order to provide Tolstoy or the scientist with income, we regulate publishing: We pass laws that enable their publishers to prevent competitors from entering the market. Because no competitors are permitted into the market for copies of War and Peace, the publishers can price the contents of the book or journal at above their actual marginal cost of zero. They can then turn some of that excess revenue over to Tolstoy. Even if these laws are therefore necessary to create the incentives for publication, the market that develops based on them will, from the technical economic perspective, systematically be inefficient. As Kenneth Arrow put it in 1962, "precisely to the extent that [property] is effective, there is underutilization of the information."/1 Because welfare economics defines a market as producing a good efficiently only when it is pricing the good at its marginal cost, a good like information (and culture and knowledge are, for purposes of economics, forms of information), which can never be sold both at a positive (greater than zero) price and at its marginal cost, is fundamentally a candidate for substantial nonmarket production.

This widely held explanation of the economics of information production has led to an understanding that markets based on patents or copyrights involve a trade-off between static and dynamic efficiency. That is, looking at the state of the world on any given day, it is inefficient that people and firms sell the information they possess. From the perspective of a society's overall welfare, the most efficient thing would be for those who possess information to give it away for free - or rather, for the cost of communicating it and no more. On any given day, enforcing copyright law leads to inefficient underutilization of copyrighted information. However, looking at the problem of information production over time, the standard defense of exclusive rights like copyright expects firms and people not to produce if they know that their products will be available for anyone to take for free. In order to harness the efforts of individuals and firms that want to make money, we are willing to trade off some static inefficiency to achieve dynamic efficiency. That is, we are willing to have some inefficient lack of access to information every day, in exchange for getting more people involved in information production over time. Authors and inventors or, more commonly, companies that contract with musicians and filmmakers, scientists, and engineers, will invest in research and create cultural goods because they expect to sell their information products. Over time, this incentive effect will give us more innovation and creativity, which will outweigh the inefficiency at any given moment caused by selling the information at above its marginal cost. This defense of exclusive rights is limited by the extent to which it correctly describes the motivations of information producers and the business models open to them to appropriate the benefits of their investments. If some information producers do not need to capture the economic benefits of their particular information outputs, or if some businesses can capture the economic value of their information production by means other than exclusive control over their products, then the justification for regulating access by granting copyrights or patents is weakened. As I will discuss in detail, both of these limits on the standard defense are in fact the case.

Nonrivalry, moreover, is not the only quirky characteristic of information production as an economic phenomenon. The other crucial quirkiness is that information is both input and output of its own production process. In order to write today's academic or news article, I need access to yesterday's articles and reports. In order to write today's novel, movie, or song, I need to use and rework existing cultural forms, such as story lines and twists. This characteristic is known to economists as the "on the shoulders of giants" effect, recalling a statement attributed to Isaac Newton: "If I have seen farther it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants."/2 This second quirkiness of information as a production good makes property-like exclusive rights less appealing as the dominant institutional arrangement for information and cultural production than it would have been had the sole quirky characteristic of information been its nonrivalry. The reason is that if any new information good or innovation builds on existing information, then strengthening intellectual property rights increases the prices that those who invest in producing information today must pay to those who did so yesterday, in addition to increasing the rewards an information producer can get tomorrow. Given the nonrivalry, those payments made today for yesterday's information are all inefficiently too high, from today's perspective. They are all above the marginal cost - zero. Today's users of information are not only today's readers and consumers. They are also today's producers and tomorrow's innovators. Their net benefit from a strengthened patent or copyright regime, given not only increased potential revenues but also the increased costs, may be negative. If we pass a law that regulates information production too strictly, allowing its beneficiaries to impose prices that are too high on today's innovators, then we will have not only too little consumption of information today, but also too little production of new information for tomorrow.

Perhaps the most amazing document of the consensus among economists today that, because of the combination of nonrivalry and the "on the shoulders of giants" effect, excessive expansion of "intellectual property" protection is economically detrimental, was the economists' brief filed in the Supreme Court case of Eldred v. Ashcroft./3 The case challenged a law that extended the term of copyright protection from lasting for the life of the author plus fifty years, to life of the author plus seventy years, or from seventy-five years to ninety-five years for copyrights owned by corporations. If information were like land or iron, the ideal length of property rights would be infinite from the economists' perspective. In this case, however, where the "property right" was copyright, more than two dozen leading economists volunteered to sign a brief opposing the law, counting among their number five Nobel laureates, including that well-known market skeptic, Milton Friedman.

The efficiency of regulating information, knowledge, and cultural production through strong copyright and patent is not only theoretically ambiguous, it also lacks empirical basis. The empirical work trying to assess the impact of intellectual property on innovation has focused to date on patents. The evidence provides little basis to support stronger and increasing exclusive rights of the type we saw in the last two and a half decades of the twentieth century. Practically no studies show a clear-cut benefit to stronger or longer patents./4 In perhaps one of the most startling papers on the economics of innovation published in the past few years, Josh Lerner looked at changes in intellectual property law in sixty countries over a period of 150 years. He studied close to three hundred policy changes, and found that, both in developing countries and in economically advanced countries that already have patent law, patenting both at home and abroad by domestic firms of the country that made the policy change, a proxy for their investment in research and development, decreases slightly when patent law is strengthened!/5 The implication is that when a country - either one that already has a significant patent system, or a developing nation - increases its patent protection, it slightly decreases the level of investment in innovation by local firms. Going on intuitions alone, without understanding the background theory, this seems implausible - why would inventors or companies innovate less when they get more protection? Once you understand the interaction of nonrivalry and the "on the shoulders of giants" effect, the findings are entirely consistent with theory. Increasing patent protection, both in developing nations that are net importers of existing technology and science, and in developed nations that already have a degree of patent protection, and therefore some nontrivial protection for inventors, increases the costs that current innovators have to pay on existing knowledge more than it increases their ability to appropriate the value of their own contributions. When one cuts through the rent-seeking politics of intellectual property lobbies like the pharmaceutical companies or Hollywood and the recording industry; when one overcomes the honestly erroneous, but nonetheless conscience-soothing beliefs of lawyers who defend the copyright and patent-dependent industries and the judges they later become, the reality of both theory and empirics in the economics of intellectual property is that both in theory and as far as empirical evidence shows, there is remarkably little support in economics for regulating information, knowledge, and cultural production through the tools of intellectual property law.

Where does innovation and information production come from, then, if it does not come as much from intellectual-property-based market actors, as many generally believe?

The answer is that it comes mostly from a mixture of

  1. nonmarket sources - both state and nonstate - and
  2. market actors whose business models do not depend on the regulatory framework of intellectual property.

The former type of producer is the expected answer, within mainstream economics, for a public goods problem like information production. The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Department are major sources of funding for research in the United States, as are government agencies in Europe, at the national and European level, Japan, and other major industrialized nations. The latter type - that is, the presence and importance of market-based producers whose business models do not require and do not depend on intellectual property protection - is not theoretically predicted by that model, but is entirely obvious once you begin to think about it.

Consider a daily newspaper. Normally, we think of newspapers as dependent on copyrights. In fact, however, that would be a mistake. No daily newspaper would survive if it depended for its business on waiting until a competitor came out with an edition, then copied the stories, and reproduced them in a competing edition. Daily newspapers earn their revenue from a combination of low-priced newsstand sales or subscriptions together with advertising revenues. Neither of those is copyright dependent once we understand that consumers will not wait half a day until the competitor's paper comes out to save a nickel or a quarter on the price of the newspaper. If all copyright on newspapers were abolished, the revenues of newspapers would be little affected./6 Take, for example, the 2003 annual reports of a few of the leading newspaper companies in the United States. The New York Times Company receives a little more than $3 billion a year from advertising and circulation revenues, and a little more than $200 million a year in revenues from all other sources. Even if the entire amount of "other sources" were from syndication of stories and photos - which likely overstates the role of these copyright-dependent sources - it would account for little more than 6 percent of total revenues. The net operating revenues for the Gannett Company were more than $5.6 billion in newspaper advertising and circulation revenue, relative to about $380 million in all other revenues. As with the New York Times, at most a little more than 6 percent of revenues could be attributed to copyright-dependent activities. For Knight Ridder, the 2003 numbers were $2.8 billion and $100 million, respectively, or a maximum of about 3.5 percent from copyrights. Given these numbers, it is safe to say that daily newspapers are not a copyright-dependent industry, although they are clearly a market-based information production industry.

As it turns out, repeated survey studies since 1981 have shown that in all industrial sectors except for very few - most notably pharmaceuticals - firm managers do not see patents as the most important way they capture the benefits of their research and developments./7 They rank the advantages that strong research and development gives them in lowering the cost or improving the quality of manufacture, being the first in the market, or developing strong marketing relationships as more important than patents. The term "intellectual property" has high cultural visibility today. Hollywood, the recording industry, and pharmaceuticals occupy center stage on the national and international policy agenda for information policy. However, in the overall mix of our information, knowledge, and cultural production system, the total weight of these exclusivity-based market actors is surprisingly small relative to the combination of nonmarket sectors, government and nonprofit, and market-based actors whose business models do not depend on proprietary exclusion from their information outputs.

The upshot of the mainstream economic analysis of information production today is that the widely held intuition that markets are more or less the best way to produce goods, that property rights and contracts are efficient ways of organizing production decisions, and that subsidies distort production decisions, is only very ambiguously applicable to information. While exclusive rights-based production can partially solve the problem of how information will be produced in our society, a comprehensive regulatory system that tries to mimic property in this area - such as both the United States and the European Union have tried to implement internally and through international agreements - simply cannot work perfectly, even in an ideal market posited by the most abstract economics models. Instead, we find the majority of businesses in most sectors reporting that they do not rely on intellectual property as a primary mechanism for appropriating the benefits of their research and development investments. In addition, we find mainstream economists believing that there is a substantial role for government funding; that nonprofit research can be more efficient than for-profit research; and, otherwise, that nonproprietary production can play an important role in our information production system.

The Diversity of Strategies in our Current Information Production System

Chapter 2, section 1

The Effects of Exclusive Rights

Chapter 2, section 2

When Information Production Meets the Computer Network

Chapter 2, section 3

Strong Exclusive Rights in the Digital Environment

Chapter 2, section 4


1. The full statement was: "[A]ny information obtained, say a new method of production, should, from the welfare point of view, be available free of charge (apart from the costs of transmitting information). This insures optimal utilization of the information but of course provides no incentive for investment in research. In a free enterprise economy, inventive activity is supported by using the invention to create property rights; precisely to the extent that it is successful, there is an underutilization of information." Kenneth Arrow, "Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Invention," in Rate and Direction of Inventive Activity: Economic and Social Factors, ed. Richard R. Nelson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962), 616-617.

2. Suzanne Scotchmer, "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Cumulative Research and the Patent Law," Journal of Economic Perspectives 5 (1991): 29-41.

3. Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003).

4. Adam Jaffe, "The U.S. Patent System in Transition: Policy Innovation and the Innovation Process," Research Policy 29 (2000): 531.

5. Josh Lerner, "Patent Protection and Innovation Over 150 Years" (working paper no. 8977, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, 2002).

6. At most, a "hot news" exception on the model of International News Service v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215 (1918), might be required. Even that, however, would only be applicable to online editions that are for pay. In paper, habits of reading, accreditation of the original paper, and first-to-market advantages of even a few hours would be enough. Online, where the first-to-market advantage could shrink to seconds, "hot news" protection may be worthwhile. However, almost all papers are available for free and rely solely on advertising. The benefits of reading a copied version are, at that point, practically insignificant to the reader.

7. Wesley Cohen, R. Nelson, and J. Walsh, "Protecting Their Intellectual Assets: Appropriability Conditions and Why U.S. Manufacturing Firms Patent (or Not)" (working paper no. 7552, National Bureau Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, 2000); Richard Levin et al., "Appropriating the Returns from Industrial Research and Development"Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 3 (1987): 783; Mansfield et al., "Imitation Costs and Patents: An Empirical Study," The Economic Journal 91 (1981): 907.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 2: Summary
Discuss Introduction to Some Basic Economics of Information Production and Innovation