Michael Heller has just released an ebook Gridlock Economy: The Tragedy of the Anticommons, which provides a short overview of the thinking encapsulated in his new book by the same name.

It provides an interesting counter-point to the growing trend of co-creation and  co-ownership of various assets, from (physical) property through to software, knowledge and IP.

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.

Heller argues that current wealth creation strategies – particularly knowledge-related (e.g. patents and copyright) – are highly dependent on the ‘assembly’ model: taking bits and pieces of previously created knowledge and assembling them in new ways. A case in point is modern drug research. New discoveries are almost entirely reliant on earlier research activities, some of which may be covered by patents. Similarly, when researchers find new applications for existing drugs, they will almost certainly need to secure permission from the drug’s owner.

Successful ‘assembly’ business models can be tough, but not impossible, when assets are concentrated in the hands of a few. However, when ownership is heavily fragmented and where, as is often the case, a single hold-out can scuttle a deal, then ‘assembly’ business models become highly problematic (hence the term ‘gridlock’).

The ‘tragedy of the anticommons’ arises when ownership of a specific resource is divided among too many entities, with the result that it is under-utilised or lay unused. One example from Heller:

Consider the example of a brother and sister who jointly inherit the family home. “All of us as parents want to believe our children will be friendly when we’re gone,” says an estate planning expert, but leaving the house to the kids is “a sure recipe for disaster.” One wants to rent the house out; the other, tear it down. If they can’t strike a deal, neither can move forward. The house sits empty. That’s gridlock…Now imagine twenty or two hundred owners. If any one blocks the others, the resource is wasted. That’s gridlock writ large—a hidden tragedy of the anticommons. I say “hidden” because underuse is often hard to spot. For example, who can tell when dozens of patent owners are blocking a promising line of drug research? Innovators don’t advertise the projects they abandon. Lifesaving cures may be lost, invisibly, in a tragedy of the anticommons.