From Medieval Guilds to Open Source Software: Informal Norms, Appropriability Institutions, and Innovation
Author(s): Robert P. Merges
Abstract: This essay draws on recent scholarship concerning the nature and function of medieval guilds. I argue that certain features of these guilds appear in modern institutions that further collective invention (“appropriability institutions”): patent pools, industry-wide standard-setting organizations, informal knowledge exchange among academic scientists, and (in a more limited way) open source software development. In particular, guilds and modern institutions share three features: (1) an “appropriability structure” that makes it profitable for individual entities to develop new technologies and sometimes share them; (2) reliance on group norms, as opposed to formal legal enactments, as an enforcement mechanism; and (3) a balance of competition and cooperation which determines what information is to be shared with the group, and what (if any) individual-proprietary information is not. The current trend toward greater dispersal and atomization of economic activity may increase the importance of such interfirm appropriability institutions.
Keywords: patent pools