3.3 Rivalrous and non-rivalrous

The ‘commons’ is dealt with in Chapter 2, along with a crash course in economics – ‘rivalrous’ and ‘non-rivalrous’ resources and incentives to produce. The following diagram should help you to separate out the various issues.

Figure 3: rivalrous and non-rivalrous resources and incentives to produce

Economists see resources as ‘rivalrous’, which means they can run out, or ‘non-rivalrous’, which means that they cannot run out. If someone eats an apple, the apple is not available for someone else to eat. That makes it rivalrous. A poem cannot be worn out or used up, even if someone reads (consumes) it a thousand times. That makes the poem non-rivalrous.

Economists are also concerned with who is going to produce useful resources like apples or oil or poetry books. They believe that people must have economic incentives before they will produce anything. The economists' traditional solution to the problem is to grant property (ownership) rights. If people can own the (rivalrous) oil that they pump out of the ground, they have an incentive to produce that oil. Likewise, if people can have intellectual property rights over (non-rivalrous) poetry, they will have an incentive to write poetry. ‘Copyright’ is the relevant intellectual property right in the case of a poetry book. Other types of intellectual property rights include patents, trademarks and designs.

It takes thirty leaves to make the apple.

(Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese monk))

3.4 An introduction to intellectual property