Tragedy of the Anti-Commons

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"In contrast to the tragedy of the commons, when a public resource is overused because there is no one owner to regulate it, a tragedy of the anticommons occurs when a resource is underused because it has been divided up by a number of owners who may not be willing to agree or cooperate with one another." (

See also the related entry on the Tragedy of the Non-Commons


From the Wikipedia, about the history of the concept:

"The term "tragedy of the anticommons" was originally coined in a 1998 Harvard Law Review article by Michael Heller, a professor at Columbia Law School. In a 1998 article in Science, Heller, along with Rebecca Eisenberg, pointed to biomedical research as one of the key areas where competing patent rights could actually prevent useful and affordable products from reaching the marketplace. Too many property rights can lead to too little innovation. The countereffect of the tragedy of the anticommons, the increased usefulness of a resource as the result of many individuals using it, has been dubbed the "Comedy of the Commons" by Carol M. Rose in a 1987 article that appeared in the University of Chicago Law Review. (


Steve Webber on the "the tragedy of the anti-commons.

" Let's say I'm a researcher working at a small biotech firm here in the Bay Area. And I think there's something interesting I would like to do with a particular molecule and its interaction with a particular gene. Much of this stuff is now patented, and there are so many competing patent claims on so many different parts of the things I would need to work on, that the cost of actually figuring out what permissions I need are astronomical. So lots of small companies simply can't work on it.

They call it the tragedy of the anti-commons in the sense that in order to work on this, they've got to get a permission to use this molecule and a license to play with this gene. That's just too expensive, so they walk away from it. I don't have a quantitative model that can describe for you how much wasted effort or dead weight results from this problem. But I can tell you, there's a lot of anecdotal evidence. There are companies that patent gene sequences, knowing full well that these patents would never be upheld in court, because they haven't added any value. They also know full well that if a pharmaceutical company decides it wants to do something with that gene, it's more likely just to pay the company $150,000 or $200,000, rather than spend a year or 18 months fighting the patent in court. It's kind of tragic."

Janet Hope on the issues in Open Source Biotechnology:

"These mounting transaction costs can retard, and in some cases completely undermine, their scientific projects. Even if they are not prevented from pursuing research itself, institutions may find that the rights of other IP holders prevent them from commercializing the fruits of their labor.

In biomedicine, there are considerable social costs associated with working within this expensive proprietary system. These stem from the fact that such costs are beyond the resources of the smallest participants, or would-be participants, in the industry. Market forces will naturally tend to direct efforts by big private sector players to where there is the most substantial return on investment. This means research goals are inevitably being narrowed to those that will be most profitable, though not necessarily most useful. Thus, it is often not commercially worthwhile for the biomedical industry to devote significant resources to addressing medical or social needs, such as drugs for very common diseases like tuberculosis or malaria.

Similarly, in agriculture, breeding strategies will be oriented towards major crops in developed country markets, not towards finding genetic traits with characteristics that are useful to poor farmers. The last few years have also seen a series of mergers and acquisitions that have dramatically consolidated the industry, with a huge portion of fundamental research tools ending up in the hands of a tiny number of big multinationals. This level of industry concentration has inevitably led to the overpricing of technologies and the exclusion of innovative start-ups and public sector institutions. This, in turn, means that smaller firms can’t get a foot in the door." (

More Information

Wiki entries

  1. See also the Tragedy of the Commons and the Tragedy of the Non-Commons
  2. Wikipedia article at

Print references

  1. Rose, Carol M. (1986) The Comedy of the Commons: Commerce, Custom and Inherently Public Property, 53 Univ. of Chi. L. Rev. 711 , reprinted as chapter 5 in: Rose, Carol M., Property and persuasion: Essays on the history, theory and rhetoric of ownership, Westview Press 1994
  2. Heller, M. A. (1998): "The Tragedy of the Anticommons" Harvard Law Review, January 1998.
  3. Heller, M. A. and Eisenberg, R.: Can Patents Deter Innovation? The Anticommons in Biomedical Research, Science 280, 5364 (1 May 1998)

Online material

  1. Essay: Michael Heller. The Tragedy of the Anticommons
  2. Video: Lawrence Lessig on the Comedy of the Commons