Elinor Ostrom recently became the first woman to win the prestigious “fake” Nobel prize for Economics, for her research on how self-governing groups successfully share resources. She spent years refuting the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons—a thought experiment dating from 1968 that basically said anything shared would get spoiled because people would only value something they owned. The man who authored the idea, Garrett Hardin, presumably observed very unruly preschoolers.
Ostrom actually looked at how people share finite resources like forests and grazing land, and found that with the right ground rules people not only did fine, they did better than companies and governments. Yipee for her and all, but why am I telling you about it in a column about digital rights and IP?
Turns out Ostrom laid the groundwork for thinking about the commons, including our very own digital commons. Her work also shows in economically solid terms how and why total monopoly rights, like copyright and patent, might not always be the best for society. Ostrom showed that, when a commons can manage itself, the proximity of the users and the governance, i.e., the two being the same thing, makes the system work more efficiently than either centralized government or strong property rights.
This may seem odd, but I’d like to recommend a movie this time. It’s called Sita Sings the Blues. It’s an animated retelling of the Hindu Ramayana interwoven with commentary about the story and the creator’s real life troubles, set to the 1920s-era songs of Annette Hanshaw. I know, not what you were expecting, but trust me. It’s in turns hilarious, lush, sad, and beautiful. It’s worth your time, and it’s free at Sitasingstheblues.com. Go ahead. The rest of the column will still be here when you’re done.
See, wasn’t that great?
Most talk of whether copyright is restricting free expression is theoretical, but for film makers like Sita’s Nina Paley it’s a real and common problem. Paley read the Ramayana and discovered Hanshaw’s jazz singing around the same time that she lost her relationship, and got inspired. It’s often a bit of music or a shot with something in the background that gets indie filmmakers in trouble, but Paley was particularly stuck.