The Public Domain - Enclosing the Commons of the Mind
James Boyle (2008)

Chapter 3: The Second Enclosure Movement

The law locks up the man or woman Who steals the goose from off the common But leaves the greater villain loose Who steals the common from off the goose. The law demands that we atone When we take things we do not own But leaves the lords and ladies fine Who take things that are yours and mine. The poor and wretched don’t escape If they conspire the law to break; This must be so but they endure Those who conspire to make the law. The law locks up the man or woman Who steals the goose from off the common And geese will still a common lack Till they go and steal it back.

[Anon.] 84

In fits and starts from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, the English “commons” was “enclosed.” 85 Enclosure did not necessarily mean physical fencing, though that could happen. More likely, the previously common land was simply converted into private property, generally controlled by a single landholder.

The poem that begins this chapter is the pithiest condemnation of the process. It manages in a few lines to criticize double standards, expose the controversial nature of property rights, and take a slap at the legitimacy of state power. And it does this all with humor, without jargon, and in rhyming couplets. Academics should take note. Like most criticisms of the enclosure movement, the poem depicts a world of rapacious, state-aided “privatization,” a conversion into private property of something that had formerly been common property or perhaps had been outside the property system altogether. One kind of “stealing” is legal, says the poet, because the state changes the law of property to give the “lords and ladies” a right over an area formerly open to all. But let a commoner steal something and he is locked up.

The anonymous author was not alone in feeling indignant. Thomas More (one of only two saints to write really good political theory) made similar points, though he used sheep rather than geese in his argument. Writing in the sixteenth century, he had argued that enclosure was not merely unjust in itself but harmful in its consequences: a cause of economic inequality, crime, and social dislocation. In a wonderfully bizarre passage he argues that sheep are a principal cause of theft. Sheep? Why, yes.

[Y]our sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I hear say, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves. They consume, destroy, and devour whole fields, houses, and cities.

Who were these sheep? Bizarre Dolly-like clones? Transgenic killer rams? No. More meant only that under the economic lure of the wool trade, the “noblemen and gentlemen” were attempting their own enclosure movement.

[They] leave no ground for tillage, they enclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing, but only the church to be made a sheep-house. . . . Therefore that one covetous and insatiable cormorant and very plague of his native country may compass about and enclose many thousand acres of ground together within one pale or hedge, the husbandmen be thrust out of their own. 86

The sheep devour all. The dispossessed “husbandmen” now find themselves without land or money and turn instead to theft. In More’s vision, it is all very The Second Enclosure Movement simple. Greed leads to enclosure. Enclosure disrupts the life of the poor farmer. Disruption leads to crime and violence.

Writing 400 years later, Karl Polanyi echoes More precisely. He calls the enclosure movement “a revolution of the rich against the poor” and goes on to paint it in the most unflattering light. “The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. They were literally robbing the poor of their share in the common. . . .” 87 And turning them to “beggars and thieves.” The critics of enclosure saw other harms too, though they are harder to classify. They bemoaned the relentless power of market logic to migrate to new areas, disrupting traditional social relationships and perhaps even views of the self, or the relationship of human beings to the environment. Fundamentally, they mourned the loss of a form of life.

So much for the bad side of the enclosure movement. For many economic historians, everything I have said up to now is the worst kind of sentimental bunk, romanticizing a form of life that was neither comfortable nor noble, and certainly not very egalitarian. The big point about the enclosure movement is that it worked; this innovation in property systems allowed an unparalleled expansion of productive possibilities. 88 By transferring inefficiently managed common land into the hands of a single owner, enclosure escaped the aptly named “tragedy of the commons.” It gave incentives for large-scale investment, allowed control over exploitation, and in general ensured that resources could be put to their most efficient use. Before the enclosure movement, the feudal lord would not invest in drainage systems, sheep purchases, or crop rotation that might increase yields from the common—he knew all too well that the fruits of his labor could be appropriated by others. The strong private property rights and single-entity control that were introduced in the enclosure movement avoid the tragedies of overuse and underinvestment: more grain will be grown, more sheep raised, consumers will benefit, and fewer people will starve in the long run. 89

If the price of this social gain is a greater concentration of economic power, the introduction of market forces into areas where they previously had not been so obvious, or the disruption of a modus vivendi with the environment—then, enclosure’s defenders say, so be it! In their view, the agricultural surplus produced by enclosure helped to save a society devastated by the mass deaths of the sixteenth century. Those who weep over the terrible effects of private property should realize that it literally saves lives.

Now it is worth noting that while this view was once unchallenged, 90 recent scholarship has thrown some doubts on the effects of enclosure on agricultural production. 91 Some scholars argue that the commons was actually better run than the defenders of enclosure admit. 92 Thus, while enclosure did produce the changes in the distribution of wealth that so incensed an earlier generation of critical historians, they argue that there are significant questions about whether it led to greater efficiency or innovation. The pie was carved up differently, but did it get bigger? The debate about these issues is little known, however, outside the world of economic historians. “Everyone” knows that a commons is by definition tragic and that the logic of enclosure is as true today as it was in the fifteenth century. I will not get involved in this debate. Assume for the sake of argument that enclosure did indeed produce a surge in agriculture. Assume, in other words, that converting the commons into private property saved lives. This is the logic of enclosure. It is a powerful argument, but it is not always right.

This is all very well, but what does it have to do with intellectual property? I hope the answer is obvious. The argument of this book is that we are in the middle of a second enclosure movement. While it sounds grandiloquent to call it “the enclosure of the intangible commons of the mind,” in a very real sense that is just what it is. 93 True, the new state-created property rights may be “intellectual” rather than “real,” but once again things that were formerly thought of as common property, or as “uncommodifiable,” or outside the market altogether, are being covered with new, or newly extended, property rights.

Take the human genome as an example. Again, the supporters of enclosure have argued that the state was right to step in and extend the reach of property rights; that only thus could we guarantee the kind of investment of time, ingenuity, and capital necessary to produce new drugs and gene therapies. 94 To the question, “Should there be patents over human genes?” the supporters of enclosure would answer that private property saves lives. 95 The opponents of enclosure have claimed that the human genome belongs to everyone, that it is literally the common heritage of humankind, that it should not and perhaps in some sense cannot be owned, and that the consequences of turning over the human genome to private property rights will be dreadful, as market logic invades areas which should be the farthest from the market. In stories about stem cell and gene sequence patents, critics have mused darkly about the way in which the state is handing over monopoly power to a few individuals and corporations, potentially introducing bottlenecks and coordination costs that slow down innovation. 96

Alongside these accounts of the beneficiaries of the new property scheme run news stories about those who were not so fortunate, the commoners of the genetic enclosure. Law students across America read Moore v. Regents of University of California, a California Supreme Court case deciding that Mr. Moore had no property interest in the cells derived from his spleen. 97 The court tells us that giving private property rights to “sources” would slow the freewheeling practice researchers have of sharing their cell lines with all and sundry. 98 The doctors whose inventive genius created a billion-dollar cell line from Mr. Moore’s “naturally occurring raw material,” by contrast, are granted a patent. Private property rights here, by contrast, are a necessary incentive to research. 99 Economists on both sides of the enclosure debate concentrate on the efficient allocation of rights. Popular discussion, on the other hand, doubtless demonstrating a reprehensible lack of rigor, returns again and again to more naturalistic assumptions such as the essentially “common” quality of the property involved or the idea that one owns one’s own body. 100

The genome is not the only area to be partially “enclosed” during this second enclosure movement. The expansion of intellectual property rights has been remarkable—from business method patents, to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to trademark “anti-dilution” rulings, to the European Database Protection Directive. 101 The old limits to intellectual property rights—the antierosion walls around the public domain—are also under attack. The annual process of updating my syllabus for a basic intellectual property course provides a nice snapshot of what is going on. I can wax nostalgic looking back to a five-year-old text, with its confident list of subject matter that intellectual property rights could not cover, the privileges that circumscribed the rights that did exist, and the length of time before a work falls into the public domain. In each case, the limits have been eaten away.

How Much of the Intangible Commons Should We Enclose?

So far I have argued that there are profound similarities between the first enclosure movement and our contemporary expansion of intellectual property, which I call the second enclosure movement. Once again, the critics and proponents of enclosure are locked in battle, hurling at each other incommensurable claims about innovation, efficiency, traditional values, the boundaries of the market, the saving of lives, the loss of familiar liberties. Once again, opposition to enclosure is portrayed as economically illiterate: the beneficiaries of enclosure telling us that an expansion of property rights is needed in order to fuel progress. Indeed, the post-Cold War “Washington consensus” is invoked to claim that the lesson of history itself is that the only way to get growth and efficiency is through markets; property rights, surely, are the sine qua non of markets. 102

This faith in enclosure is rooted in a correspondingly deep pessimism about the possibility of managing resources that are either commonly owned or owned by no one. If all have the right to graze their herds on common land, what incentive does anyone have to hold back? My attempt to safeguard the future of the pasture will simply be undercut by others anxious to get theirs while the getting is good. Soon the pasture will be overgrazed and all our flocks will go hungry. In a 1968 article, Garrett Hardin came up with the phrase that would become shorthand for the idea that there were inherent problems with collectively managed resources: “the tragedy of the commons.” 103 The phrase, more so than the actual arguments in his article, has come to exercise considerable power over our policies today. Private property—enclosure—is portrayed as the happy ending for the tragedy of the commons: when policy makers see a resource that is unowned, they tend to reach reflexively for “the solving idea of property.” According to this view, enclosure is not a “revolution of the rich against the poor,” it is a revolution to save the waste of socially vital resources. To say that some social resource is not owned by an individual, that it is free as the air to common use, is automatically to conjure up the idea that it is being wasted.

But if there are similarities between our two enclosures, there are also profound dissimilarities; the networked commons of the mind has many different characteristics from the grassy commons of Old England. 104 I want to concentrate here on two key differences between the intellectual commons and the commons of the first enclosure movement, differences that should lead us to question whether this commons is truly tragic and to ask whether stronger intellectual property rights really are the solution to our problems. These differences are well known, indeed they are the starting point for most intellectual property law, a starting point that Jefferson and Macaulay have already laid out for us. Nevertheless, reflection on them might help to explain both the problems and the stakes in the current wave of expansion.

Unlike the earthy commons, the commons of the mind is generally “nonrival.” Many uses of land are mutually exclusive: if I am using the field for grazing, it may interfere with your plans to use it for growing crops. By contrast, a gene sequence, an MP3 file, or an image may be used by multiple parties; my The Second Enclosure Movement use does not interfere with yours. To simplify a complicated analysis, this means that the threat of overuse of fields and fisheries is generally not a problem with the informational or innovational commons. 105 Thus, one type of tragedy of the commons is avoided.

The concerns in the informational commons have to do with a different kind of collective action problem: the problem of incentives to create the resource in the first place. The difficulty comes from the assumption that information goods are not only nonrival (uses do not interfere with each other), but also nonexcludable (it is impossible, or at least hard, to stop one unit of the good from satisfying an infinite number of users at zero marginal cost). Pirates will copy the song, the mousetrap, the drug formula, the brand. The rest of the argument is well known. Lacking an ability to exclude, creators will be unable to charge for their creations; there will be inadequate incentives to create. Thus, the law must step in and create a limited monopoly called an intellectual property right.

How about the argument that the increasing importance of information-intensive products to the world economy means that protection must increase? Must the information commons be enclosed because it is now a more important sector of economic activity? 106 This was certainly one of the arguments for the first enclosure movement. For example, during the Napoleonic Wars enclosure was defended as a necessary method of increasing the efficiency of agricultural production, now a vital sector of a wartime economy.

Here we come to another big difference between the commons of the mind and the earthy commons. As has frequently been pointed out, information products are often made up of fragments of other information products; your information output is someone else’s information input. 107 These inputs may be snippets of code, discoveries, prior research, images, genres of work, cultural references, or databases of single nucleotide polymorphisms—each is raw material for future innovation. Every increase in protection raises the cost of, or reduces access to, the raw material from which you might have built those future products. The balance is a delicate one; one Nobel Prize-winning economist has claimed that it is actually impossible to strike that balance so as to produce an informationally efficient market. 108

Whether or not it is impossible in theory, it is surely a difficult problem in practice. In other words, even if enclosure of the arable commons always produced gains (itself a subject of debate), enclosure of the information commons clearly has the potential to harm innovation as well as to support it. 109 More property rights, even though they supposedly offer greater incentives, do not necessarily make for more and better production and innovation—sometimes just the opposite is true. It may be that intellectual property rights slow down innovation, by putting multiple roadblocks in the way of subsequent innovation. 110 Using a nice inversion of the idea of the tragedy of the commons, Heller and Eisenberg referred to these effects—the transaction costs caused by myriad property rights over the necessary components of some subsequent innovation—as “the tragedy of the anticommons.” 111

In short, even if the enclosure movement was a complete success, there are important reasons to believe that the intangible world is less clearly a candidate for enclosure, that we should pause, study the balance between the world of the owned and the world of the free, gather evidence. After all, even in physical space, “common” property such as roads increases the value of the surrounding private tracts. If there are limits to the virtues of enclosure even there, how much more so in a world of intangible and nonrival goods, which develop by drawing on prior creations? Yet the second enclosure movement proceeds confidently nevertheless—with little argument and less evidence.

To be sure, there is a danger of overstatement. The very fact that the changes have been so one-sided makes it hard to resist exaggerating their impact. In 1918, Justice Brandeis confidently claimed that “[t]he general rule of law is, that the noblest of human productions—knowledge, truths ascertained, conceptions, and ideas—become, after voluntary communication to others, free as the air to common use.” 112 That baseline—intellectual property rights are the exception rather than the norm; ideas and facts must always remain in the public domain—is still supposed to be our starting point. 113 It is, however, under attack.

Both overtly and covertly, the commons of facts and ideas is being enclosed. Patents are increasingly stretched to cover “ideas” that twenty years ago all scholars would have agreed were unpatentable. 114 Most troubling of all are the attempts to introduce intellectual property rights over mere compilations of facts. 115 If U.S. intellectual property law had an article of faith, it was that unoriginal compilations of facts would remain in the public domain, that this availability of the raw material of science and speech was as important to the next generation of innovation as the intellectual property rights themselves. 116 The system would hand out monopolies in inventions and in original expression, while the facts below (and ideas above) would remain free for all to build upon. But this premise is being undermined. Some of the challenges are subtle: in patent law, stretched interpretations of novelty and nonobviousness allow intellectual property rights to move closer and closer to the underlying data layer; gene sequence patents come very close to being rights over a particular discovered arrangement of data—C’s, G’s, A’s, and T’s. 117 Other challenges are overt: the European Database Protection Directive did (and various proposed bills in the United States would) create proprietary rights over compilations of facts, often without even the carefully framed exceptions of the copyright scheme, such as the usefully protean category of fair use.

The older strategy of intellectual property law was a “braided” one: thread a thin layer of intellectual property rights around a commons of material from which future creators would draw. 118 Even that thin layer of intellectual property rights was limited so as to allow access to the material when that was necessary to further the goals of the system. Fair use allows for parody, commentary, and criticism, and also for “decompilation” of computer programs so that Microsoft’s competitors can reverse engineer Word’s features in order to make sure their program can convert Word files. It may sound paradoxical, but in a very real sense protection of the commons was one of the fundamental goals of intellectual property law.

In the new vision of intellectual property, however, property should be extended everywhere; more is better. Expanding patentable and copyrightable subject matter, lengthening the copyright term, giving legal protection to “digital barbed wire,” even if it is used to prevent fair use: each of these can be understood as a vote of no confidence in the productive powers of the commons. We seem to be shifting from Brandeis’s assumption that the “noblest of human productions are free as the air to common use” to the assumption that any commons is inefficient, if not tragic.

The expansion is more than a formal one. It used to be relatively hard to violate an intellectual property right. The technologies of reproduction or the activities necessary to infringe were largely, though not entirely, industrial. Imagine someone walking up to you in 1950, handing you a book or a record or a movie reel, and saying “Quick! Do something the law of intellectual property might forbid.” (This, I admit, is a scenario only likely to come to the mind of a person in my line of work.) You would have been hard-pressed to do so. Perhaps you could find a balky mimeograph machine, or press a reel-to-reel tape recorder into use. You might manage a single unauthorized showing of the movie—though to how many people? But triggering the law of intellectual property would be genuinely difficult. Like an antitank mine, it would not be triggered by the footsteps of individuals. It was reserved for bigger game.

This was no accident. The law of intellectual property placed its triggers at the point where commercial activity by competitors could undercut the exploitation of markets by the rights holder. Copying, performance, distribution—these were things done by other industrial entities who were in competition with the owner of the rights: other publishers, movie theaters, distributors, manufacturers. In practice, if not theory, the law was ptal industry regulation of unfair competition—made by the people in the affected industries for the people in the affected industries. The latter point is worth stressing. Congress would, and still does, literally hand over the lawmaking process to the industries involved, telling them to draft their intra-industry contract in the form of a law, and then to return to Congress to have it enacted. The public was not at the table, needless to say, and the assumption was that to the extent there was a public interest involved in intellectual property law, it was in making sure that the industries involved got their act together, so that the flow of new books and drugs and movies would continue. Members of the public, in other words, were generally thought of as passive consumers of finished products produced under a form of intra-industry regulation that rarely implicated any act that an ordinary person would want, or be able, to engage in.

In the world of the 1950s, these assumptions make some sense—though we might still disagree with the definition of the public interest. It was assumed by many that copyright need not and probably should not regulate private, noncommercial acts. The person who lends a book to a friend or takes a chapter into class is very different from the company with a printing press that chooses to reproduce ten thousand copies and sell them. The photocopier and the VCR make that distinction fuzzier, and the networked computer threatens to erase it altogether.

So how are things different today? If you are a person who routinely uses computers, the Internet, or digital media, imagine a day when you do not create—intentionally and unintentionally—hundreds of temporary, evanescent copies. (If you doubt this, look in the cache of your browser.) Is there a day when you do not “distribute” or retransmit fragments of articles you have read, when you do not seek to share with friends some image or tune? Is there a day when you do not rework for your job, for your class work, or simply for pastiche or fun, some of the digital material around you? In a networked society, copying is not only easy, it is a necessary part of transmission, storage, caching, and, some would claim, even reading. 119

As bioinformatics blurs the line between computer modeling and biological research, digital production techniques blur the lines between listening, editing, and remaking. “Rip, mix, and burn,” says the Apple advertisement. It marks a world in which the old regime of intellectual property, operating upstream as a form of industrial competition policy, has been replaced. Intellectual property is now in and on the desktop and is implicated in routine creative, communicative, and just plain consumptive acts that each of us performs every day. Suddenly, the triggers of copyright—reproduction, distribution—can be activated by individual footsteps.

Of course, we would hope that in your daily actions you scrupulously observed the rights—all the rights—of the companies that have interests in the texts, tunes, images of celebrities, trademarks, business method patents, and fragments of computer code you dealt with. Did you? Can you be sure? I teach intellectual property, but I admit to some uncertainty. I would not have imagined that a temporary image of a Web page captured in the cache of my browser counted as a “copy” for the purposes of copyright law. 120 I would have thought that it was fair use for a company to photocopy articles in journals it subscribed to, and paid for, in order to circulate them to its researchers. 121 If a conservative Web site reposted news articles from liberal newspapers with critical commentary, that, too, would have seemed like fair use. 122 I would have thought that it was beneficial competition, and not a trespass, for an electronic “aggregator” to gather together auction prices or airline fares, so as to give consumers more choice. 123 I would not have thought that a search engine that catalogued and displayed in framed format the digital graphics found on the Internet would be sued for infringing the copyrights of the owners of those images. 124 I would not have thought that I might be sued for violating intellectual property law if I tried to compete with a printer company by making toner cartridges that were compatible with its printers. 125

The examples go on. I know that the “research exemption” in U.S. patent law is very tightly limited, but I would have laughed if you had told me that even a research university was forbidden from doing research unless that research had no conceivable practical or academic worth—in other words that even in academia, in a project with no commercial goal, the research exemption only covered research that was completely pointless. 126 Why have an exemption at all, in that case? I would have told an academic cryptography researcher that he need not fear legal threats from copyright owners simply for researching and publishing work on the vulnerabilities of copy protection schemes. 127 I would not have thought that one could patent the idea of having an electronic Dutch auction on the Internet, working out the daily prices of a bundle of mutual funds through simple arithmetic, or buying something online with one click. 128 I would have assumed that celebrities’ rights to control their images should end with their deaths, and that courts would agree that those rights were tightly limited by the First Amendment. Yet, in each of these cases, I would have been wrong, or at least I might be wrong—enough that a sane person would worry. Not all of the expansive claims eventually triumphed, of course, but some did. Guessing which would and which would not was hard even for me, though, as I said, I teach intellectual property law. You, probably, do not.

In 1950 none of this would have mattered. Unless you were in some related business—as a publisher, broadcaster, film distributor, or what have you—it would have been hard for you to trigger the rules of intellectual property law. If you were in such a business, you were probably very familiar with the rules that governed your activities and well represented by corporate counsel who knew them even better. What’s more, the rules were neither as complex nor as counterintuitive as they are now. They also did not reach as far. The reach of the rights has been expanded, and their content made more difficult to understand, at the exact moment that their practical effect has been transformed. It is not merely that the triggers of intellectual property law can easily be set off by individual footsteps. There are now many more triggers and their trip wires are harder to see.

From the point of view of the content industries, of course, all this is foolishness. It is not some undesirable accident that intellectual property has come to regulate personal, noncommercial activity. It is absolutely necessary. Think of Napster. When individuals engaging in noncommercial activity have the ability to threaten the music or film industry’s business plan by engaging in the very acts that copyright law always regulated—namely reproduction and distribution—of course it is appropriate for them, and the networks they “share” on, to be subject to liability. What’s more, to the extent that copying becomes cheaper and easier, it is necessary for us to strengthen intellectual property rights. We must meet the greater danger of copying with more expansive rights, harsher penalties, and expanded protections, some of which may indeed have the practical effect of reducing rights that citizens thought they had, such as fair use, low-level noncommercial sharing among personal friends, resale, and so on. Without an increase in private property rights, in other words, cheaper copying will eat the heart out of our creative and cultural industries. I call this claim the Internet Threat.

Chapter 3: Further Reading

The endnotes to this chapter supply copious particular references; this page provides the overview. Those seeking to understand the various methods by which different aspects of common land were enclosed over a 400 year history in England should start with J. A. Yelling, Common Field and Enclosure in England, 1450–1850 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1977). Thomas More, Utopia (New York: W. J. Black, 1947), provides a harsh criticism of the enclosure movement, one that is echoed hundreds of years later by Polanyi: Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957). Economic historians have generally believed that the enclosure movement yielded considerable efficiency gains—bringing under centralized control and management, property that had previously been inefficiently managed under a regime of common access. When efficiency gains mean higher productivity so that fewer people starve, this is no small thing. Donald N. McCloskey, “The Enclosure of Open Fields: Preface to a Study of Its Impact on the Efficiency of English Agriculture in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 15–35; “The Prudent Peasant: New Findings on Open Fields,” Journal of Economic History 51 (1991): 343–355. This argument seems plausible, but it has recently received powerful challenges, for example, that by Robert C. Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

In the twentieth century, the negative effects of open access or common ownership received an environmental gloss thanks to the work of Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1243–1248. However, work by scholars such as Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Carol Rose, “The Comedy of the Commons: Custom, Commerce, and Inherently Public Property,” University of Chicago Law Review 53 (1986): 711–781, have introduced considerable nuance to this idea. Some resources may be more efficiently used if they are held in common. In addition, nonlegal, customary, and norm-based forms of “regulation” often act to mitigate the theoretical dangers of overuse or under-investment.

Beyond the theoretical and historical arguments about the effects of enclosure on real property lie the question of how well those arguments translate to the world of the intangible and intellectual. It is that question which this chapter raises. Christopher May, A Global Political Economy of Intellectual Property Rights: The New Enclosures? (London: Routledge, 2000) offers a similar analogy—as do several other articles cited in the text. The key differences obviously lie in the features of intellectual property identified in the earlier chapters—its nonrivalrousness and nonexcludability—and on the ways in which a commons of cultural, scientific, and technical information has been central to the operation of both liberal democracy and capitalist economy. I owe the latter point particularly to Richard Nelson, whose work on the economics of innovation amply repays further study: Richard Nelson, Technology, Institutions, and Economic Growth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005).

 84. Apart from being anonymous, this poem is extremely hard to date. It probably originates in the enclosure controversies of the eighteenth century. However, the earliest reference to it that I have been able to discover is from 1821. Edward Birch was moved to compose some (fairly poor) verses in response when he reported “seeing the following jeu d’esprit in a Handbill posted up in Plaistow, as a ‘CAUTION’ to prevent persons from supporting the intended inclosure of Hainault or Waltham Forest.” He then quotes a version of the poem. Edward Birch, Tickler Magazine 3 (February 1821), 45. In 1860, “Exon,” a staff writer for the journal Notes and Queries, declares that “the animosity excited against the Inclosure Acts and their authors . . . was almost without precedent: though fifty years and more have passed, the subject is still a sore one in many parishes. . . . I remember some years ago, in hunting over an old library discovering a box full of printed squibs, satires and ballads of the time against the acts and those who were supposed to favor them,—the library having belonged to a gentleman who played an active part on the opposition side.” “Exon,” “Ballads Against Inclosures,” Notes and Queries 9, 2nd series (February 1860): 130–131. He reports finding the poem in that box, and quotes a verse from it. The context of the article makes it appear that the poem itself must date from the late eighteenth century. In other sources, the poem is sometimes dated at 1764, and said to be in response to Sir Charles Pratt’s fencing of common land. See, e.g., Dana A. Freiburger, “John Thompson, English Philomath—A Question of Land Surveying and Astronomy,” n. 15, available at http://www.nd.edu/~histast4/exhibits/papers/Freiburger/. This attribution is widespread and may well be true, but I have been able to discover no contemporary source material that sustains it. By the end of the nineteenth century, the poem was being quoted, sometimes with amusement and sometimes with agreement, on both sides of the Atlantic. See Ezra S. Carr, “Aids and Obstacles to Agriculture on the Pacific-Coast,” in The Patrons of Husbandry on the Pacific Coast (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft and Co., 1875), 290–291; Edward P. Cheyney, An Introduction to the Industrial and Social History of England (New York: Macmillan, 1901), 219.

 85. Although we refer to it as the enclosure movement, it was actually a series of enclosures that started in the fifteenth century and went on, with differing means, ends, and varieties of state involvement, until the nineteenth. See, e.g., J. A. Yelling, Common Field and Enclosure in England, 1450–1850 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1977).

 86. Thomas More, Utopia (New York: W. J. Black, 1947), 32.

 87. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), 35. Polanyi continues in the same vein. “The fabric of society was being disrupted. Desolate villages and the ruins of human dwellings testified to the fierceness with which the revolution raged, endangering the defenses of the country, wasting its towns, decimating its population, turning its overburdened soil into dust, harassing its people and turning them from decent husbandmen into a mob of beggars and thieves.” Ibid. See also E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: V. Gollancz, 1963), 218.

 88. See generally Lord Ernle, English Farming Past and Present, 6th ed. (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961).

 89. For an excellent summary of the views of Hobbes, Locke, and Blackstone on these points, see Hannibal Travis, “Pirates of the Information Infrastructure: Blackstonian Copyright and the First Amendment,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal 15 (2000): 789–803.

 90. More recent accounts which argue that enclosure led to productivity gains tend to be more qualified in their praise. Compare the more positive account given in Ernle, English Farming, with Michael Turner, “English Open Fields and Enclosures: Retardation or Productivity Improvements,” Journal of Economic History 46 (1986): 688: “Enclosure cannot be seen as the automatic open door to this cycle of agricultural improvement, but the foregoing estimates do suggest that perhaps it was a door which opened frequently, and with profit.”

 91. Most notably work by Robert C. Allen: “The Efficiency and Distributional Consequences of Eighteenth Century Enclosures,” The Economic Journal 92 (1982): 937–953; Enclosure and The Yeoman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). Allen argues that the enclosure movement produced major distributional consequences, but little observable efficiency gain. The pie was carved up differently, to the advantage of the landlords, but made no larger. In contrast, Turner sees enclosure as one possible, though not a necessary, route to productivity gains (“English Open Fields,” 688). Donald McCloskey’s work also argues for efficiency gains from enclosure, largely from the evidence provided by rent increases. Donald N. McCloskey, “The Enclosure of Open Fields: Preface to a Study of Its Impact on the Efficiency of English Agriculture in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 15–35; “The Prudent Peasant: New Findings on Open Fields,” Journal of Economic History 51 (1991): 343–355. In Allen’s view, however, the increase in rents was largely a measure of the way that changes in legal rights altered the bargaining power of the parties and the cultural context of rent negotiations; enclosure allowed landlords to capture more of the existing surplus produced by the land, rather than dramatically expanding it. “[T]he enclosure movement itself might be regarded as the first state sponsored land reform. Like so many since, it was justified with efficiency arguments, while its main effect (according to the data analysed here) was to redistribute income to already rich landowners.” Allen, “Eighteenth Century Enclosures,” 950–951.

 92. The possibility of producing “order without law” and thus sometimes governing the commons without tragedy has also fascinated scholars of contemporary land use. Robert C. Ellickson, Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991); Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

 93. The analogy to the enclosure movement has been too succulent to resist. To my knowledge, Ben Kaplan, Pamela Samuelson, Yochai Benkler, David Lange, Christopher May, David Bollier, and Keith Aoki have all employed the trope, as I myself have on previous occasions. For a particularly thoughtful and careful development of the parallel between the two enclosure movements, see Travis, “Pirates of the Information Infrastructure.”

 94. See, e.g., William A. Haseltine, “The Case for Gene Patents,” Technology Review (September 2000): 59, available at http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/haseltine0900.asp; cf. Alexander K. Haas, “The Wellcome Trust’s Disclosures of Gene Sequence Data into the Public Domain & the Potential for Proprietary Rights in the Human Genome,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal 16 (2001): 145–164.

 95. See, e.g., Haseltine, “The Case for Gene Patents”; Biotechnology Industry Association, “Genentech, Incyte Genomics Tell House Subcommittee Gene Patents Essential for Medical Progress,” available at http://www.bio.org/news/newsitem.asp?id=2000_0713_01.

 96. See, e.g., Howard Markel, “Patents Could Block the Way to a Cure,” New York Times (August 24, 2001), A19. For the general background to these arguments, see Rebecca S. Eisenberg, “Patenting the Human Genome,” Emory Law Journal 39 (1990): 740–744.

 97. 793 P.2d 479, 488–497 (Cal. 1990).

 98. Ibid., 493–494. One imagines Styrofoam coolers criss-crossing the country by FedEx in an orgy of communistic flesh-swapping.

 99. Ibid., 493.

 100. I might be suspected of anti-economist irony here. In truth, neither side’s arguments are fully satisfying. It is easy to agree with Richard Posner that the language of economics offers a “thin and unsatisfactory epistemology” through which to understand the world. Richard Posner, The Problems of Jurisprudence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990): xiv (quoting Paul Bator, “The Judicial Universe of Judge Richard Posner,” University of Chicago Law Review 52 (1985): 1161). On the other hand, explaining what it means to “own one’s own body,” or specifying the noncommodifiable limits on the market, turns out to be a remarkably tricky business, as Margaret Jane Radin has shown with great elegance in Contested Commodities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996).

 101. Directive 96/9/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 March 1996 on the Legal Protection of Databases, 1996 Official Journal of the European Union (L 77) 20, available at http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:31996L0009:EN:HTML [Ed. note: originally published as http://europa.eu.int/ISPO/infosoc/legreg/docs/969ec.html, the link has been changed].

 102. The phrase “Washington consensus” originated in John Williamson, “What Washington Means by Policy Reform,” in Latin American Adjustment: How Much Has Happened? ed. John Williamson (Washington, D.C.: Institute for International Economics, 1990). Over time it has come to be used as shorthand for a neoliberal view of economic policy that puts its faith in deregulation, privatization, and the creation and defense of secure property rights as the cure for all ills. (See Joseph Stiglitz, “The World Bank at the Millennium,” Economic Journal 109 [1999]: 577–597.) It has thus become linked to the triumphalist neoliberal account of the end of history and the victory of unregulated markets: see Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992). Neither of these two results are, to be fair, what its creator intended. See John Williamson, “What Should the Bank Think about the Washington Consensus?” Institute for International Economics (July 1999), available at http://www.iie.com/publications/papers/paper.cfm?ResearchID=351.

 103. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1243–1248.

 104. The differences are particularly strong in the arguments over “desert”—are these property rights deserved or are they simply violations of the public trust, privatizations of the commons? For example, some would say that we never had the same traditional claims over the genetic commons that the victims of the first enclosure movement had over theirs; this is more like newly discovered frontier land, or perhaps even privately drained marshland, than it is like well-known common land that all have traditionally used. In this case, the enclosers can claim (though their claims are disputed) that they discovered or perhaps simply made usable the territory they seek to own. The opponents of gene patenting, on the other hand, turn more frequently than the farmers of the eighteenth century to religious and ethical arguments about the sanctity of life and the incompatibility of property with living systems. These arguments, or the appeals to free speech that dominate debates over digital intellectual property, have no precise analogue in debates over hunting or pasturage, though again there are common themes. For example, we are already seeing nostalgic laments of the loss of the immemorial rights of Internet users. At the same time, the old language of property law is turned to this more evanescent subject matter; a favorite title of mine is I. Trotter Hardy, “The Ancient Doctrine of Trespass to Web Sites,” 1996, art. 7, Journal of Online Law art. 7, available at http://www.wm.edu/law/publications/jol/95_96/hardy.html.

 105. The exceptions to this statement turn out to be fascinating. In the interest of brevity, however, I will ignore them entirely.

 106. Remember, I am talking here about increases in the level of rights: protecting new subject matter for longer periods of time, criminalizing certain technologies, making it illegal to cut through digital fences even if they have the effect of foreclosing previously lawful uses, and so on. Each of these has the effect of diminishing the public domain in the name of national economic policy.

 107. James Boyle, Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 29; William M. Landes and Richard A. Posner, “Economic Analysis of Copyright Law,” Journal of Legal Studies 18 (1989): 325; Pamela Samuelson and Suzanne Scotchmer, “The Law & Economics of Reverse Engineering,” Yale Law Journal 111 (2002): 1575–1664; Jessica Litman, “The Public Domain,” Emory Law Journal 39 (1990): 1010–1011.

 108. Sanford J. Grossman and Joseph E. Stiglitz, “On the Impossibility of Informationally Efficient Markets,” American Economic Review 70 (1980): 404.

 109. For a more technical account, see James Boyle, “Cruel, Mean, or Lavish? Economic Analysis, Price Discrimination and Digital Intellectual Property,” Vanderbilt Law Review 53 (2000): 2007–2039.

 110. The most recent example of this phenomenon is multiple legal roadblocks in bringing GoldenRice™ to market. For a fascinating study of the various issues involved and the strategies for working around them, see R. David Kryder, Stanley P. Kowalski, and Anatole F. Krattiger, “The Intellectual and Technical Property Components of Pro-Vitamin A Rice (GoldenRice™): A Preliminary Freedom-to-Operate Review,” ISAAA Briefs No. 20 (2000), available at http://www.isaaa.org/Briefs/20/briefs.htm. In assessing the economic effects of patents, one has to balance the delays and increased costs caused by the web of property rights against the benefits to society of the incentives to innovation, the requirement of disclosure, and the eventual access to the patented subject matter. When the qualification levels for patents are set too low, the benefits are minuscule and the costs very high—the web of property rights is particularly tangled, complicating follow-on innovation, the monopoly goes to “buy” a very low level of inventiveness, and the disclosure is of little value.

 111. Michael A. Heller and Rebecca S. Eisenberg, “Can Patents Deter Innovation? The Anticommons in Biomedical Research,” Science 280 (1998): 698–701.

 112. Int’l News Serv. v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215, 250 (1918) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).

 113. Yochai Benkler, “Free as the Air to Common Use: First Amendment Constraints on Enclosure of the Public Domain,” New York University Law Review 74 (1999): 354, 361, 424.

 114. The so-called “business method” patents, which cover such “inventions” as auctions or accounting methods, are an obvious example. See, e.g., State St. Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Fin. Group, Inc. , 149 F.3d 1368, 1373 (Fed. Cir. 1998).

 115. Database Investment and Intellectual Property Antipiracy Act of 1996, HR 3531, 104th Cong. (1996); Collections of Information Antipiracy Act, S 2291, 105th Cong. (1998).

 116. See, e.g., Feist Publications v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co. , 499 U.S. 340, 350 (1991): “Copyright treats facts and factual compilations in a wholly consistent manner. Facts, whether alone or as part of a compilation, are not original and therefore may not be copyrighted.” To hold otherwise “distorts basic copyright principles in that it creates a monopoly in public domain materials without the necessary justification of protecting and encouraging the creation of ‘writings’ by ‘authors.’ ” Ibid., at 354.

 117. See Eisenberg, “Patenting the Human Genome”; Haas, “Wellcome Trust’s Disclosures.”

 118. Those who prefer topographical metaphors might imagine a quilted pattern of public and private land, with legal rules specifying that certain areas, beaches say, can never be privately owned, and accompanying rules giving public rights of way through private land if there is a danger that access to the commons might otherwise be blocked.

 119. See Jessica Litman, Digital Copyright: Protecting Intellectual Property on the Internet (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2001).

 120. See James Boyle, “Intellectual Property Policy Online: A Young Person’s Guide,” Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 10 (1996): 47–112.

 121. American Geophysical Union v. Texaco, 37 F.3d 882 (2nd Cir. 1994).

 122. Los Angeles Times v. Free Republic, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5669, 54 U.S.P.Q.2D 1453 (C.D. Cal. 2000).

 123. eBay, Inc. v. Bidder’s Edge, Inc. , 100 F. Supp. 2d 1058 (N.D. Cal. 2000).

 124. Kelly v. Arriba Soft, 336 F.3d 811 (9th Cir. 2003). After initially holding that while thumbnails were fair use, inline links that displayed pictures were not fair use, the court reversed itself and found fair use in both instances.

 125. After a District Court issued a temporary injunction telling Static Controls that it must cease manufacturing generic toner cartridges that operated in Lexmark printers—indicating it was likely to be found to be violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “anti-circumvention” provisions—the Appeals Court held that such cartridges did not in fact violate the DMCA. Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc. , 387 F.3d 522 (6th Cir. 2004).

 126. Madey v. Duke Univ. , 307 F.3d 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 539 U.S. 958 (2003).

 127. “When scientists from Princeton University and Rice University tried to publish their findings [on the vulnerabilities in a copy protection scheme] in April 2001, the recording industry claimed that the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it illegal to discuss or provide technology that might be used to bypass industry controls limiting how consumers can use music they have purchased. ‘Studying digital access technologies and publishing the research for our colleagues are both fundamental to the progress of science and academic freedom,’ stated Princeton scientist Edward Felten. ‘The recording industry’s interpretation of the DMCA would make scientific progress on this important topic illegal.’ . . .
“SDMI sponsored the ‘SDMI Public Challenge’ in September 2000, asking Netizens to try to break their favored watermark schemes, designed to control consumer access to digital music. When the scientists’ paper about their successful defeat of the watermarks, including one developed by a company called Verance, was accepted for publication, Matt Oppenheim, an officer of both RIAA and SDMI, sent the Princeton professor a letter threatening legal liability if the scientist published his results.” “EFF Media Release: Princeton Scientists Sue Over Squelched Research,” available at http://w2.eff.org/IP/DMCA/Felten_v_RIAA/20010606_eff_felten_pr.html. After a First Amendment challenge to the relevant provisions of the DMCA, the threats were withdrawn.

 128. See, e.g., Robert P. Merges, “As Many as Six Impossible Patents before Breakfast: Property Rights for Business Concepts and Patent System Reform,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal 14 (1999): 615.

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