Congratulations to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson for winning the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.
When we discussed Wikipedia in class, one of the mysteries was how and why it worked in the first place. The contributors are not paid and don't have the kinds of property rights that economists and lawyers often argue are essential to provide incentives for the creation of content. And yet, it is one of the top sites on the Internet.
Elinor Ostrom's work can help provide an explanation. Far before Wikipedia or even the World Web Web were developed, she showed how natural resource commons like fisheries, forests and water rights have been successfully managed for decades and even centuries without either central control or private ownership. She identified a set of principles that were important to successful commons, including clearly defined boundaries around the commons, group monitoring of how the commons were used, and a system of increasingly severe penalties for free riders or vandals.
In the coming days and weeks, I suspect many pundits will point out how relevant Ostrom's work is for environmental issues like global climate change. However, her insights also can help unlock the paradox of Wikipedia, open source and some of the other burgeoning successes of the information economy. In many ways, knowledge and information are the ultimate commons.