Open Source Celebration

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December 31, 2005
OnTheCommons.org

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I’ve never been one for revelry, and I have a dislike of journalistic clichés to begin with. (Does anyone besides a journalist say “revelry”?) But I did go out on First Night in Boston once or twice, and if you’ll forgive me for saying so, it was neat. The strange part is, the whole thing is illegal. Not according to the laws of Boston; the mayor started it. Rather it is against the laws of economics, as conventionally propounded at least.

Those so-called laws say that what belongs to everyone belongs to no one, and therefore is sentenced to neglect and decay. No one will invest in that which they do not own. Hence the extension of “intellectual property” rights to practically any notion that passes through the pecuniarily disposed mind. Well, no one owns New Years Eve.  Yet hotels, restaurants, places of entertainment – whole cities – are investing like crazy. Back in 1997, Rudolph Giuliani, then-mayor of New York City, proclaimed that New Year’s Eve brought an extra $57 million in economic benefits to the Times Square area alone.

If that’s decay, most cities would like more of it. The story is repeated across the land. I’m sitting in the lobby of a hotel in San Francisco that offers a New Years Eve special – room plus grand dinner – at two hundred and twenty five dollars a head. Compare this to an event that is falls under the protection of the intellectual property regime – the Super Bowl for example. The Super Bowl is a bonanza mainly for the city that hosts it and the network that broadcasts it. New Years Eve, by contrast, is an opportunity for any city or business that wants to partake.

Another bromide of the economics cabal is that innovation stagnates without intellectual property claims to guarantee the innovator a monopoly return. Well maybe, sometimes. Yet Boston came up with First Night, and now there are First Nights all over the country. Each city works its own variation on an idea that went directly into the public domain. Everyone is richer and no one is poorer. It’s a little like Linux, and like the English language with which I am writing this.

It’s almost enough to make me want to revel. Instead I’m going to shift setting if not theme, and mention a visit to the library of a Catholic college last week. I was doing research on Thomas Aquinas, and on the natural law tradition of which he is part. Aquinas’s writings are in the public domain, and therefore, according to economic logic, also should be subject to neglect and decay. What belongs to everyone belongs to no one.

Yet there is a profusion of writing on Aquinas: commentaries, summaries, annotated editions, selections from the opus on such topics as philosophy, morals, justice, the church, and so on. They just keep coming. What belongs to everyone really does belong to everyone, in this case at least.

It’s another example of the curious thing about economic law: when people break it, things get better. When they charge not what the market will bear but what their neighbors can pay, and when they think about their communities as well as about themselves, life gets better not worse. Nobody will get royalties from Auld Lang Syne tonite, and so more will sing. Cheers to that.

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