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Property rights

I've just spent the morning reading badly-written arguments on the internet. But I won't hold this against anyone. I, too, am going to indulge my ability, made possible by this blog, to start writing on impulse without waiting to refine my thoughts into something coherent. So let this serve as a disclaimer for what follows:

In Property class, we've read an article by Harold Demsetz. He argues that a system of private property rights will tend to supplant a system of common ownership when it becomes really profitable. (This is a gloss. But listen to Demsetz's jargon: "...the emergence of new property rights takes place in response to the desires of the interacting persons for adjustment to new benefit-cost possibilities." Eew.) Demsetz uses as an example the supposed emergence of property rights among the native peoples of Labrador after the fur trade began to heat up with the arrival of Europeans. He contrasts this with the continuing reliance on common ownership among the native peoples of the American Southwest, who weren't entertaining offers from Europeans to buy their buffalo hides. Apparently, his anthropological knowledge is woefully inadequate, but Demsetz's ideas may not be.

If Demsetz were writing today, he might have chosen the Digital Millenium Copyright Act as his most powerful example. He might have said, "now that information is so much more in demand, and capable of being inexpensively exchanged, the chances to profit from its ownership are greatly increased. Hence, we are moving from an old system of modest intellectual property islands in the vast intellectual commons, to a system where people are claiming private ownership over great swathes of ideas, speech, performance, and art. We are privatizing the intellectual commons "in response to the desires of the interacting persons for adjustment to new benefit-cost possibilities." Eew.

Demsetz no longer has to be an anthropologist, he just has to read the news. Perhaps he could use his free time to write more about who "the interacting persons" whose desires are being responded to really are. The RIAA? Disney?


We discussed this in our property class at length--specifically, how property acts when it can be shared. Demsetz's criticism with common property--overuse--just doesn't apply to, say, an MP3 file. Your use doesn't deprive anyone else's use. The only problem remains with incentivizing creation in the first place.

And I submit that with no overuse problems, you can do that in a much more elegant way.

My friends and I always talk about the tragedy of the commons when we are at the lunchtime pizza binges of the various law school organizations.