This is going to be another long one.
Tragedy of the Commons
I really think I'm onto something here. A deeper economic understanding of how the structure of software markets affects the public good could actually be quite useful, if for no other reason than to help inform public policy. So I'm going to continue thinking and writing about this for a little while longer.
Darius Bacon pointed out a couple of interesting things I missed in my original diary entry. First, not all economists react immediately to ToC scenarios by calling for direct government intervention. In fact, some of the trendiest economic thinking in recent years has been to create artificial "markets" for externalities. Instead of merely being allowed to pollute a certain amount but no more, you buy, sell and trade the rights to pollute. The idea is that it becomes more cost effective to clean up your factory than to buy all the pollution rights. Even more interestingly, these kinds of markets (at least in theory) allocate resources much more efficiently than heavy-handed governmental regulations.
Of course, the problem with these markets is that it's so tempting to cheat. After all, it's usually going to be cheaper to buy a politician than any of the other alternatives.
Darius goes on to point out that economists have dealt with both signs of the ToC. Underpaid artists represent one of the original ToC's considered by economic theory. Copyright law creates an artificial market, this time in "intellectual property" designed to avoid this ToC, providing direct incentives to artists. Of course, Jefferson was fathering American copyright and patent law a couple of hundred years before the ToC paper.
So what you have now is two distinct ToC scenarios playing in the same space. One is the question about how to provide incentives for creating software, ie the same scenario that motivates copyright in the first place. The other, with opposite sign, is basically analogous to pollution and environmental degradation. Software which deliberately causes incompatibilites and abuses standards ends up affecting lots of innocent bystanders. Is the fact that MSIE 5.5 still doesn't support CSS properly at root much different than a paper mill putting out a noxious stench?
What unifies, I think, these to ToC scenarios is the concept of the network effect. As I wrote in my last long diary, these network effects can create an incentive to do free software without the creation of artificial markets. These network effects are inherent in the nature of software.
Further, it's network effects that drive the "pollution" process. As in my word processor example a few weeks ago, it's one thing to buy a word processor because you like its ui, its features, etc., and another to be bludgeoned into buying one because everybody else is and if you don't, your life will be hell.
So the economic policy implications are intriguing. As network effects take a larger role in the software, intellectual property protection becomes both less needed (because people have more incentive to create free software) and less desirable (because of the economic incentives for producers of proprietary software to flout standards). A more enlightened approach to intellectual property legislation might "tune" the degree of protection based on the relative importance of the network effect. It's not hard, for example, to imagine disallowing all forms of intellectual property for basic network infrastructure, but becoming more like copyright for book- and music-like software such as games.
One last note regarding public policy. The whole antitrust concept grew up about 100 years ago to counteract "trusts," or businesses that leveraged network effects to achieve monopoly status. Railroad monopolies are some of the classic examples - if you can use your ownership of one rail line to prevent a competitor from having a good business on another, you've won. The analogies to Microsoft are pretty clear. However, railway monopolies were built over real stuff, ie land, track, etc. Microsoft's monopoly exists solely in an artifically created market. I'm not saying it's politically feasible, but it may be that the public interest would be best served simply be removing the economic petri dish for antitrust mold to grow in.
The Practice Effect
Has anyone else read "The Practice Effect", a mediocre bit of science fiction by David Brin? It's striking to me how the central "idea" of the book (an alternate universe in which objects become higher quality the more they're used, or degrade if unused) models the actual economics of scarcity in free software today.
Unfortunately, degrading through unuse is also a real issue for free software. When rtmfd and I were playing with Speakfreely the other day, we were dismayed to find that the sound drivers sucked - the default config had insane latencies, while a different option brought latencies in line but introduced unacceptable skipping. And this is from an app you'd think would be a prime candidate for real maintenance. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that it's pd rather than released under a more restrictive free software license.
Adobe released the PDF 1.4 transparency spec some time over the weekend. So far, it looks pretty cool, although as I expected there are some areas that are underspecified, ie the doc doesn't tell you everything you need to render pixel-for-pixel matched with Adobe's implementation.
This paragraph should strike a chill into the hearts of free software developers:
The information in this document is subject to the copyright permissions stated in PDF Reference, Section 1.4 [1.7]. Additionally, developers should be aware that many of the transparency extensions to the Adobe imaging model are the subject of patents and patents pending by Adobe Systems. The permission to use the copyrighted material in the PDF specification does not include the right to use any Adobe patents, except as may be permitted by an official Adobe Patent Clarification Notice (published at Adobe's web site or elsewhere).
I'm going ahead with my work implementing the PDF 1.4 imaging model, but it may turn out to be really gargantuan mistake. Let's hope not.
So when the PDF 1.4 transparency spec came to light this morning, I immediately wanted to handbind it. I had just gotten a box of archival paper from Gaylord and was eager to try it out. Well, it turns out that the grain direction was wrong, so there's a little cockling, and the pages fold and turn more stiffly than they should. I sent Gaylord a quick email note informing them of this discrepancy, and was pleasantly surprised to get a response back from them of "we're tracking down exactly why this happened, expect a response in a day or two, in the meantime please feel free to contact customer service for a full refund." They just made themselves a friend and supporter.
I've been refining my materials and practices, and feel like I'm almost there (getting precut archival paper with the right grain direction is pretty much the last piece). I'll probably put up a Webpage (or maybe even an Archival-Bookbinding-HOWTO in the LDP :) once I'm starting to feell happy with the results. I don't know if it's just me, but there's something ineffably cool about the idea of getting a digital document published over the Internet this morning, and within a day have an archival copy that can easily last 1000 years if reasonably well taken care of.