There’s a fascinating new book out, “The Gridlock Economy,” by Michael Heller. Heller published a paper in Science in 1998 that lays out some of the core ideas, but the book expands and updates these ideas very well. And the underlying notion is relevant for scholars, publishers, and researchers.

Heller’s main concepts are “the anticommons” and the gridlock of fragmented ownership. In the tragedy of the commons (in a nice coincidence, this term was also coined in an article in Science), “multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.” In the tragedy of the anticommons, fragmented ownership thwarts realization of a desirable social outcome.

Heller’s examples of this are many (airport gridlock, the US deficit in cell phones and broadband, why the DVDs of “Married . . . with Children” don’t use the theme song “Love and Marriage”). The book goes into many more nuances than the article, and is more current. Some examples jump out for publishers and scientists in general.

Heller briefly talks about Google Books, and shows how stalling this initiative is a tragedy of the anticommons. Negotiation with multiple rights holders takes too long and costs too much, and the fragile logic these rights holders use to thwart indexing is likely costing society more than is justified, even in total.

He also talks about the recent stalling of drug discoveries and new medicines, and how “probabilistic” patents around genetic sequences and other basic science findings have thwarted the drug pipeline, a true tragedy.

However, it’s not so simple, as you’ll find out if you read the book. After all, patents create awareness of inventions and discoveries. Without patents, secrecy would prevail, and that would truly hamper innovation and advancements.

Overall, the book is well-written, and the topic is timely. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the macro trends affecting us today.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.