Cornucopia of the Commons

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See also Comedy of the Commons; concept arguing against the Tragedy of the Commons. Where goods are non-rival, usage does not deplete the commons, but enriches it.



On the non-problem of freeloading in filesharing and P2P processes generally, Clay Shirky:

The argument against freeloading as a problem is double: taking a file is non-problematic because it is infinitely replicable; using bandwidth is non-problematic because it is replenishable.

1. Downloading

"Two key aspects of P2P file-sharing [are responsible for this]: the economics of digital resources, which are either replicable or replenishable; and the ways the selfish nature of user participation drives the system.

Start with the nature of consumption. If your sheep takes a mouthful of grass from the common pasture, the grass exits the common pasture and enters the sheep, a net decrease in commonly accessible resources. If you take a copy of the Pink Floyd song "Sheep" from another Napster user, that song is not deleted from that user's hard drive. Furthermore, since your copy also exists within the Napster universe, this sort of consumption creates commonly accessible resources, rather than destroying them. The song is replicated; it is not consumed. Even if, in the worst scenario, you download the song and never make it available to any other Napster user, there is no net loss of available songs, so in any file-sharing system where even some small percentage of new users makes the files they download subsequently available, the system will grow in resources, which will in turn attract new users, which will in turn create new resources, whether the system has freeloaders or not." (

2. Bandwidth

“But what of bandwidth, the other resource consumed by file sharing? Here again, the idea of freeloading misconstrues digital economics. If you saturate a 1 Mb DSL line for 60 seconds while downloading a song, how much bandwidth do you have available in the 61st second? One meg, of course, just like every other second. Again, the Tragedy of the Commons is the wrong comparison, because the notion that freeloading users will somehow eat the available resources to death doesn't apply. Unlike grass, bandwidth can't be "used up," any more than CPU cycles or RAM can. Like a digital horn of plenty, most of the resources that go into networking computers together are constantly replenished; "Bandwidth over time is infinite," as the Internet saying goes. By using all the available bandwidth in any given minute, you have not reduced future bandwidth, nor have you saved anything on the cost of that bandwidth when it's priced at a flat rate.

Bandwidth can't be conserved over time either. By not using all the available bandwidth in any given minute, you have not saved any bandwidth for the future, because bandwidth is an event, not a conservable resource. Given this quality of persistently replenished resources, we would expect users to dislike sharing resources they want to use at that moment, but indifferent to sharing resources they make no claim on, such as available CPU cycles or bandwidth when they are away from their desks." (

Positive externalities, explained by Clay Shirky

“The canonical example of a positive externality is a shade tree. If you buy a tree large enough to shade your lawn, there is a good chance that for at least part of the day it will shade your neighbor's lawn as well. This free shade for your neighbor is a positive externality, a benefit to them that costs you nothing more than what you were willing to spend to shade your own lawn anyway.Napster's single economic genius is to coordinate such effects. Other than the central database of songs and user addresses, every resource within the Napster network is a positive externality. Furthermore, Napster coordinates these externalities in a way that encourages altruism. The system is resistant to negative effects of freeloading, because as long as Napster users are able to find the songs they want, they will continue to participate in the system, even if the people who download songs from them are not the same people they download songs from. As long as even a small portion of the users accept this bargain, the system will grow, bringing in more users, who bring in more songs. In such a system, trying to figure out who is freeloading and who is not isn't worth the effort of the self-interested user." (

More Information

  1. Commons