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Issue 49 - 02 | Gridlock Economy: The Tragedy of the Anticommons

By Michael Heller
Published Aug. 6, 2008 10:54 p.m.
"Private ownership usually creates wealth. But too much ownership has the opposite effect—it creates gridlock. When too many people own pieces of one thing, cooperation breaks down, wealth disappears . . . everybody loses. Gridlock is a free market paradox.

There has been an unnoticed revolution in how we create wealth. In the old economy, ten or twenty years ago, you invented a product and got a patent; you wrote a song and got a copyright; you subdivided land and built houses. Today, the leading edge of wealth creation requires assembly. From drugs to telecom, software to semiconductors, anything high-tech demands the assembly of innumerable patents. And it’s not just high tech that’s changed—today, cutting edge art and music is about mashing up and remixing many separately-owned bits of culture. Even with land, the most socially-important projects, like new runways, require assembling multiple gridlocked parcels. Innovation has moved on, but we are stuck with old-style ownership that’s easy to fragment and hard to put together."

About Michael Heller | Michael Heller is Vice Dean for Research and Lawrence A Wein Professor of Real Estate Law at Columbia Law School. Since is original article on the topic in a998, his articles and presentations on the anticommons have described its implications on patent law, copyright, property rights, environmental law, cyberspace, African- American history, Native American politics, and the transition to a market economy in formerly socialist states. He has advised the governments of Russia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and Armenia on property rights, and also written on property conflicts in Israel, China, Honduras, and other countries. He lives in New York City and Los Angeles.

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