Chapter 2, section 1

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John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 2: Summary
Discuss The Diversity of Strategies in our Current Information Production System

Chapter 2 Some Basic Economics of Information Production and Innovation


Chapter 2

The Diversity of Strategies in our Current Information Production System

The actual universe of information production in the economy then, is not as dependent on property rights and markets in information goods as the last quarter century's increasing obsession with "intellectual property" might suggest. Instead, what we see both from empirical work and theoretical work is that individuals and firms in the economy produce information using a wide range of strategies. Some of these strategies indeed rely on exclusive rights like patents or copyrights, and aim at selling information as a good into an information market. Many, however, do not. In order to provide some texture to what these models look like, we can outline a series of ideal-type "business" strategies for producing information. The point here is not to provide an exhaustive map of the empirical business literature. It is, instead, to offer a simple analytic framework within which to understand the mix of strategies available for firms and individuals to appropriate the benefits of their investments - of time, money, or both, in activities that result in the production of information, knowledge, and culture. The differentiating parameters are simple: cost minimization and benefit maximization. Any of these strategies could use inputs that are already owned - such as existing lyrics for a song or a patented invention to improve on - by buying a license from the owner of the exclusive rights for the existing information. Cost minimization here refers purely to ideal-type strategies for obtaining as many of the information inputs as possible at their marginal cost of zero, instead of buying licenses to inputs at a positive market price. It can be pursued by using materials from the public domain, by using materials the producer itself owns, or by sharing/bartering for information inputs owned by others in exchange for one's own information inputs. Benefits can be obtained either in reliance on asserting one's exclusive rights, or by following a non-exclusive strategy, using some other mechanism that improves the position of the information producer because they invested in producing the information. Nonexclusive strategies for benefit maximization can be pursued both by market actors and by nonmarket actors. Table 2.1 maps nine ideal-type strategies characterized by these components.

Table 2.1: Ideal-Type Information Production Strategies

Cost Minimization/ Benefit Acquisition

Public Domain



Rights-based exclusion (make money by exercising exclusive rights-licensing or blocking competition)

Romantic Maximizers (authors, composers; sell to publishers; sometimes sell to Mickeys)

Mickey (Disney reuses inventory for derivative works; buy outputs of Romantic Maximizers)

RCA (small number of companies hold blocking patents; they create patent pools to build valuable goods)

Nonexclusion-Market (make money from information production but not by exercising the exclusive rights)

Scholarly Lawyers (write articles to get clients; other examples include bands that give music out for free as advertisements for touring and charge money for performance; software developers who develop software and make money from customizing it to a particular client, on-site management, advice and training, not from licensing)

Know-How (firms that have cheaper or better production processes because of their research, lower their costs or improve the quality of other goods or services; lawyer offices that build on existing forms)

Learning Networks (share information with similar organizations - make money from early access to information. For example, newspapers join together to create a wire service; firms where engineers and scientists from different firms attend professional societies to diffuse knowledge)


Joe Einstein (give away information for free in return for status, benefits to reputation, value of the innovation to themselves; wide range of motivations. Includes members of amateur choirs who perform for free, academics who write articles for fame, people who write op-eds, contribute to mailing lists; many free software developers and free software generally for most uses)

Los Alamos (share in-house information, rely on in-house inputs to produce valuable public goods used to secure additional government funding and status)

Limited sharing networks (release paper to small number of colleagues to get comments so you can improve it before publication. Make use of time delay to gain relative advantage later on using Joe Einstein strategy. Share one's information on formal condition of reciprocity: like "copyleft" conditions on derivative works for distribution)

The ideal-type strategy that underlies patents and copyrights can be thought of as the "Romantic Maximizer." It conceives of the information producer as a single author or inventor laboring creatively - hence romantic - but in expectation of royalties, rather than immortality, beauty, or truth. An individual or small start-up firm that sells software it developed to a larger firm, or an author selling rights to a book or a film typify this model. The second ideal type that arises within exclusive-rights based industries, "Mickey," is a larger firm that already owns an inventory of exclusive rights, some through in-house development, some by buying from Romantic Maximizers. A defining cost-reduction mechanism for Mickey is that it applies creative people to work on its own inventory, for which it need not pay above marginal cost prices in the market. This strategy is the most advantageous in an environment of very strong exclusive rights protection for a number of reasons. First, the ability to extract higher rents from the existing inventory of information goods is greatest for firms that (a) have an inventory and (b) rely on asserting exclusive rights as their mode of extracting value. Second, the increased costs of production associated with strong exclusive rights are cushioned by the ability of such firms to rework their existing inventory, rather than trying to work with materials from an ever-shrinking public domain or paying for every source of inspiration and element of a new composition. The coarsest version of this strategy might be found if Disney were to produce a "winter sports" thirty-minute television program by tying together scenes from existing cartoons, say, one in which Goofy plays hockey followed by a snippet of Donald Duck ice skating, and so on. More subtle, and representative of the type of reuse relevant to the analysis here, would be the case where Disney buys the rights to Winnie-the-Pooh, and, after producing an animated version of stories from the original books, then continues to work with the same characters and relationships to create a new film, say, Winnie-the-Pooh-Frankenpooh (or Beauty and the Beast-Enchanted Christmas; or The Little Mermaid-Stormy the Wild Seahorse). The third exclusive-rights-based strategy, which I call "RCA," is barter among the owners of inventories. Patent pools, cross-licensing, and market-sharing agreements among the radio patents holders in 1920-1921, which I describe in chapter 6, are a perfect example. RCA, GE, AT&T, and Westinghouse held blocking patents that prevented each other and anyone else from manufacturing the best radios possible given technology at that time. The four companies entered an agreement to combine their patents and divide the radio equipment and services markets, which they used throughout the 1920s to exclude competitors and to capture precisely the postinnovation monopoly rents sought to be created by patents.

Exclusive-rights-based business models, however, represent only a fraction of our information production system. There are both market-based and nonmarket models to sustain and organize information production. Together, these account for a substantial portion of our information output. Indeed, industry surveys concerned with patents have shown that the vast majority of industrial R&D is pursued with strategies that do not rely primarily on patents. This does not mean that most or any of the firms that pursue these strategies possess or seek no exclusive rights in their information products. It simply means that their production strategy does not depend on asserting these rights through exclusion. One such cluster of strategies, which I call "Scholarly Lawyers," relies on demand-side effects of access to the information the producer distributes. It relies on the fact that sometimes using an information good that one has produced makes its users seek out a relationship with the author. The author then charges for the relationship, not for the information. Doctors or lawyers who publish in trade journals, become known, and get business as a result are an instance of this strategy. An enormously creative industry, much of which operates on this model, is software. About two-thirds of industry revenues in software development come from activities that the Economic Census describes as: (1) writing, modifying, testing, and supporting software to meet the needs of a particular customer; (2) planning and designing computer systems that integrate computer hardware, software, and communication technologies; (3) on-site management and operation of clients' computer systems and/or data processing facilities; and (4) other professional and technical computer-related advice and services, systems consultants, and computer training. "Software publishing," by contrast, the business model that relies on sales based on copyright, accounts for a little more than one-third of the industry's revenues./8 Interestingly, this is the model of appropriation that more than a decade ago, Esther Dyson and John Perry Barlow heralded as the future of music and musicians. They argued in the early 1990s for more or less free access to copies of recordings distributed online, which would lead to greater attendance at live gigs. Revenue from performances, rather than recording, would pay artists.

The most common models of industrial R&D outside of pharmaceuticals, however, depend on supply-side effects of information production. One central reason to pursue research is its effects on firm-specific advantages, like production know-how, which permit the firm to produce more efficiently than competitors and sell better or cheaper competing products. Daily newspapers collectively fund news agencies, and individually fund reporters, because their ability to find information and report it is a necessary input into their product-timely news. As I have already suggested, they do not need copyright to protect their revenues. Those are protected by the short half-life of dailies. The investments come in order to be able to play in the market for daily newspapers. Similarly, the learning curve and know-how effects in semiconductors are such that early entry into the market for a new chip will give the first mover significant advantages over competitors. Investment is then made to capture that position, and the investment is captured by the quasi-rents available from the first-mover advantage. In some cases, innovation is necessary in order to be able to produce at the state of the art. Firms participate in "Learning Networks" to gain the benefits of being at the state of the art, and sharing their respective improvements. However, they can only participate if they innovate. If they do not innovate, they lack the in-house capacity to understand the state of the art and play at it. Their investments are then recouped not from asserting their exclusive rights, but from the fact that they sell into one of a set of markets, access into which is protected by the relatively small number of firms with such absorption capacity, or the ability to function at the edge of the state of the art. Firms of this sort might barter their information for access, or simply be part of a small group of organizations with enough knowledge to exploit the information generated and informally shared by all participants in these learning networks. They obtain rents from the concentrated market structure, not from assertion of property rights./9

An excellent example of a business strategy based on nonexclusivity is IBM's. The firm has obtained the largest number of patents every year from 1993 to 2004, amassing in total more than 29,000 patents. IBM has also, however, been one of the firms most aggressively engaged in adapting its business model to the emergence of free software.

Figure 2.1: Selected IBM Revenues, 2000-2003

Figure 2.1 shows what happened to the relative weight of patent royalties, licenses, and sales in IBM's revenues and revenues that the firm described as coming from "Linux-related services." Within a span of four years, the Linux-related services category moved from accounting for practically no revenues, to providing double the revenues from all patent-related sources, of the firm that has been the most patent-productive in the United States. IBM has described itself as investing more than a billion dollars in free software developers, hired programmers to help develop the Linux kernel and other free software; and donated patents to the Free Software Foundation. What this does for the firm is provide it with a better operating system for its server business - making the servers better, faster, more reliable, and therefore more valuable to consumers. Participating in free software development has also allowed IBM to develop service relationships with its customers, building on free software to offer customer-specific solutions. In other words, IBM has combined both supply-side and demand-side strategies to adopt a nonproprietary business model that has generated more than $2 billion yearly of business for the firm. Its strategy is, if not symbiotic, certainly complementary to free software.

I began this chapter with a puzzle - advanced economies rely on nonmarket organizations for information production much more than they do in other sectors. The puzzle reflects the fact that alongside the diversity of market-oriented business models for information production there is a wide diversity of nonmarket models as well. At a broad level of abstraction, I designate this diversity of motivations and organizational forms as "Joe Einstein" - to underscore the breadth of the range of social practices and practitioners of nonmarket production. These include universities and other research institutes; government research labs that publicize their work, or government information agencies like the Census Bureau. They also include individuals, like academics; authors and artists who play to "immortality" rather than seek to maximize the revenue from their creation. Eric von Hippel has for many years documented user innovation in areas ranging from surfboard design to new mechanisms for pushing electric wiring through insulation tiles./10 The Oratorio Society of New York, whose chorus members are all volunteers, has filled Carnegie Hall every December with a performance of Handel's Messiah since the theatre's first season in 1891. Political parties, advocacy groups, and churches are but few of the stable social organizations that fill our information environment with news and views. For symmetry purposes in table 2.1, we also see reliance on internal inventories by some nonmarket organizations, like secret government labs that do not release their information outputs, but use it to continue to obtain public funding. This is what I call "Los Alamos." Sharing in limited networks also occurs in nonmarket relationships, as when academic colleagues circulate a draft to get comments. In the nonmarket, nonproprietary domain, however, these strategies were in the past relatively smaller in scope and significance than the simple act of taking from the public domain and contributing back to it that typifies most Joe Einstein behaviors. Only since the mid-1980s have we begun to see a shift from releasing into the public domain to adoption of commons-binding licensing, like the "copyleft" strategies I describe in chapter 3. What makes these strategies distinct from Joe Einstein is that they formalize the requirement of reciprocity, at least for some set of rights shared.

My point is not to provide an exhaustive list of all the ways we produce information. It is simply to offer some texture to the statement that information, knowledge, and culture are produced in diverse ways in contemporary society. Doing so allows us to understand the comparatively limited role that production based purely on exclusive rights-like patents, copyrights, and similar regulatory constraints on the use and exchange of information - has played in our information production system to this day. It is not new or mysterious to suggest that nonmarket production is important to information production. It is not new or mysterious to suggest that efficiency increases whenever it is possible to produce information in a way that allows the producer - whether market actor or not - to appropriate the benefits of production without actually charging a price for use of the information itself. Such strategies are legion among both market and nonmarket actors. Recognizing this raises two distinct questions: First, how does the cluster of mechanisms that make up intellectual property law affect this mix? Second, how do we account for the mix of strategies at any given time? Why, for example, did proprietary, market-based production become so salient in music and movies in the twentieth century, and what is it about the digitally networked environment that could change this mix?

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


8. In the 2002 Economic Census, compare NAICS categories 5415 (computer systems and related services) to NAICS 5112 (software publishing). Between the 1997 Economic Census and the 2002 census, this ratio remained stable, at about 36 percent in 1997 and 37 percent in 2002. See 2002 Economic Census, "Industry Series, Information, Software Publishers, and Computer Systems, Design and Related Services" (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).

9. Levin et al., "Appropriating the Returns," 794-796 (secrecy, lead time, and learning-curve advantages regarded as more effective than patents by most firms). See also F. M. Scherer, "Learning by Doing and International Trade in Semiconductors" (faculty research working paper series R94-13, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1994), an empirical study of semiconductor industry suggesting that for industries with steep learning curves, investment in information production is driven by advantages of being first down the learning curve rather than the expectation of legal rights of exclusion. The absorption effect is described in Wesley M. Cohen and Daniel A. Leventhal, "Innovation and Learning: The Two Faces of R&D," The Economic Journal 99 (1989): 569-596. The collaboration effect was initially described in Richard R. Nelson, "The Simple Economics of Basic Scientific Research," Journal of Political Economy 67 (June 1959): 297-306. The most extensive work over the past fifteen years, and the source of the term of learning networks, has been from Woody Powell on knowledge and learning networks. Identifying the role of markets made concentrated by the limited ability to use information, rather than through exclusive rights, was made in F. M. Scherer, "Nordhaus's Theory of Optimal Patent Life: A Geometric Reinterpretation," American Economic Review 62 (1972): 422-427.

10. Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 2: Summary
Discuss The Diversity of Strategies in our Current Information Production System