IP in a World Without Scarcity

Mark A. Lemley

Things are valuable because they are scarce. The more abundant they become, the cheaper they become. But a series of technological changes is underway that promises to end scarcity as we know it for a wide variety of goods. The Internet is the most obvious example, because the change there is furthest along. The Internet has reduced the cost of production and distribution of informational content effectively to zero. More recently, new technologies promise to do for a variety of physical goods and even services what the Internet has already done for information. The role of intellectual property (IP) in such a world is both controverted and critically important. Efforts to use IP to lock down the Internet have so far failed to stem the unauthorized distribution of content. But contrary to the predictions of IP theory, the result of that failure has not been a decline in creativity. To the contrary, creativity is flourishing on the Internet as never before despite the absence of effective IP enforcement. That is a problem for IP theory, which may not be the main driver of creativity in a world where creation, reproduction, and distribution are cheap. That is increasingly the world in which we will live.

This article appears in the May 2015 Issue: Volume 90, Number 2