Thursday, February 9, 2012

Public Goods As a Trend

I wrote yesterday of the importance of protecting public goods from the high costs of privatization and commercialization. Some things are simply so much less expensive to give away than to sell that selling doesn’t make sense as a financing mechanism, and these are the public goods I am looking at. As one business executive famously put it, “It’s hard to compete with free.” Or, as another said, “It’s not fair to have to compete with people who aren’t even trying to make money.” In general, when a valuable product can be produced by volunteers, the competing commercial products will tend to fall by the wayside.

While there may be a political push this year to turn public goods into private profit opportunities, that is just a brief moment of resistance in a long-term trend toward a greater number of public goods. This is a trend that will not stop with the web browser and the encyclopedia. Last year, we saw the emergence of stock photography as a public good. The English dictionary or the global street atlas could be next. While two major attempts in a row to produce an open-source database have fallen into commercial hands, it could be that the next such effort will succeed in establishing the database of record.

And these are just a few examples. The success of each new public good will inevitably require competing commercial efforts to adapt. It is a story we can expect to see repeated with regularity over the coming years.