Monday, August 30, 2010
The Penguin and the Cartel: Rethinking Antitrust and Innovation Policy for the Age of Commercial Open Source
Posted by D. Daniel Sokol
Steohen Maurer (Berkeley - Goldman School of Public Policy) has a new paper on The Penguin and the Cartel: Rethinking Antitrust and Innovation Policy for the Age of Commercial Open Source.
ABSTRACT: Modern open source (“OS”) software projects are increasingly funded by commercial firms that expect to earn a profit from their investment. This is usually done by bundling OS software with proprietary goods like cell phones or services like tech support. This article asks how judges and policymakers should manage this emerging business phenomenon. It begins by examining how private companies have adapted traditional OS institutions in a commercial setting. It then analyzes how OS methods change companies’ willingness to invest in software. On the one hand, OS cost-sharing often leads to increased output and benefits to consumers. On the other, these benefits tend to be limited. This is because sharing guarantees that no OS company can offer consumers better software than any other OS company. This suppresses incentives to invest much as a formal cartel would. In theory, vigorous competition from non-OS companies can mitigate this effect and dramatically increase OS output. In practice, however, de facto cartelization usually makes the OS sector so profitable that relatively few proprietary companies compete. This poses a central challenge to judges and policymakers.
Antitrust law has long recognized that the benefits of R&D sharing frequently justify the accompanying cartel effect. This article argues that most commercial OS collaborations can similarly be organized in ways that satisfy the Rule of Reason. It also identifies two safe harbors where unavoidable cartel effects should normally be tolerated. That said, many OS licenses contain so-called “viral” clauses that require users who would prefer to develop proprietary products to join OS collaborations instead. These clauses aggravate the cartel effect by further reducing the number of companies willing to adopt proprietary business models. Although viral licenses may sometimes be needed to stabilize OS collaborations against free-riding, practical experience suggests that many viral licenses (notably including the GPL) are too broad to survive a Rule of Reason analysis. The article concludes by asking how policymakers can use taxes and government spending to mitigate the cartel effect and/or increase OS software production.