The economic approach offered by Benkler (2006) in The Wealth of Networks is especially interesting for me, given my background in the same field of economics, and I would not mind to spend a whole term discussing his ideas because there is enough content to do so. From the previous readings we are already aware of the economic implications of intellectual property rights, so the presence of this book is more than justified. The chapters we have gone through are prolific in many interesting ideas about the topic at hand, although I have my doubts that Benkler wrote for a general audience. This is why I would try to elaborate my comments keeping in mind those who might not have enjoyed that much his approach. To that end, I will comment on a connection with the previous authors, followed by a couple of ideas about the inefficiency of exclusive rights and the importance of non-monetary rewards, and conclude with a brief mention to an element that hardly could have been foreseen when this book was published.
There is common ground between Benkler and the other authors we have already revised in the sense that all of them reject piracy and illegal distribution of copyrighted materials. Benkler believes that “free” does not mean “anything goes” (Chapter 5, p.143) even though the strongest point of his analysis, in my opinion, is to prove the inefficient consequences of establishing exclusive rights. He also shares several points of view with them individually. For instance, he agrees with Lessig (2008) on the economic potential of the social sharing and exchange model as a mode of production (Chapter 5, pp. 92, 121 and Chapter 10, p. 355) as well as on the cultural tax that intellectual property rights bring to society (Chapter 2, p. 39 and Chapter 12, p. 462); with Boyle (2008) on the misconception about intellectual property goods being treated as a common private goods, when their non-rivalry characteristic brings them much closer in essence to public goods (Chapter 2, pp. 36-37); and with Levine (2011), on the concern about the new near-monopolies that appeared with the Internet era, although Benkler discusses specifically the concentration in the sector that controls end-user equipment and physical networks, like Cisco Systems (Chapter 5, p.148) whereas Levine fixes his attention on companies that provide the software to access to information and social media networks, like Google.
As an economist, my favorite paragraphs from Benkler can be found in “The Effects of Exclusive Rights” section (Chapter 2, p. 49) where he sums up an outstanding argument about the double inefficiency that appears when strong exclusive rights are enforced in intellectual property. The first lesson of every Introduction to Economics class, usually explains economics is a social science that studies how to deal with scarcity. My students usually get the concept easily and, during the following lessons, there are recurrent calls to ways to reduce waste (or, using an economic concept, reduce inefficiency) in different stages of the value chain, environment, and at home. This is why those highly engaged students would find fascinating to discover that a decision like applying exclusive rights would bring the “double” inefficiency Benkler mentions. The first source of inefficiency resides on the fact that information (or culture) is an input and an output (Chapter 2, p. 37), therefore when information, as an input, is more expensive to obtain due to copyright costs, less new information will be produced as an output. In sum, property rights act like a tax that discourages production (this can be also explained by the law of supply and I have already commented it on my first post about Lessig.) The second source of inefficiency can be found when the purpose of copyright to reward the holders is not fulfilled (Chapter 2, p. 37); or in other words, what is the justification to restrict access to culture when the holder of exclusive rights is not benefiting from those rights anymore (e.g. insignificant revenues from a novel after 20 years on the market.)? I find these two arguments very well anchored.
And last but not least, as an educator I cannot help my admiration for another excellent point from Benkler in his analysis of the roots of motivation. We are all living in market economies, and there are many things we do to obtain money in order to survive. However, there are also other things that we do not for money but for social recognition (Chapter 4, p. 96.) and this might be a great starting point to understand why the networked information economy based on shared and non-market relations is so successful. It turns out that, as human beings, we need to satisfy certain needs that do not involve monetary payments or rewards, and social involvement and recognition is one of them. My personal opinion is that, as societies evolve and the basic needs are covered (nutrition, shelter, health, etc.) people try to satisfy what economists call secondary needs, and those are what can bring the best of ourselves out. For another class assignment in this term, I had to research about motivational factors in online learning, and the reading from Benkler was a great supplement. I will not bore you with articles about motivation, but let me share a very good YouTube video from The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce uploaded in April 1, 2010, where they narrate beautifully the recent discoveries about what motivates us.
I would like to conclude commenting an idea from the author about the power of the Internet providers. Benkler offers an example of the Cisco’s policy router for cable broadband and a similar case that happened in Canada (Chapter 5, p. 147) to demonstrate the power that Internet providers have to speed up and slow down packets of data based on their preferences and ads. In Spain, the fastest provider of Internet access by optic fiber, ONO, has also been accused since 2007 of filtering p2p traffic. If this is already a huge threat to the desired autonomy and democratized access to information (Chapter 1, p. 13), today we have to add an issue that was not present in 2006, when this book was published: “the filter bubble”. For those not familiar with the term, the filter bubble is “the unique universe of information” generated by search engines and social media networks for each individual, which is made of personalized content close to this individual’s interests (Pariser, 2011, p. 9.) This could be seen for many as the ultimate personalized effort to access to information, but the truth is it reduces our access to content outside our comfort zone, which is de facto a constriction of the principle of free information in which Benkler based part of his argument.
Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Boyle, J. (2008). The Public Domain. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Lessig, L (2008). Remix. New York: The Penguin Press.
Levine, R. (2011). Free Ride. New York: Anchor Books.
Pariser, E. (2011). The Filter Bubble. New York: Penguin Books.
Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (Apr 1, 2010). RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc