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Innovation and Entrepreneurship Research

Social Welfare Gains from Innovation Commons: Theory, Evidence, and Policy Implications

Potts, Jason; Torrance, Andrew W.; Harhoff, Dietmar; Hippel, Eric A. van (2021). Social Welfare Gains from Innovation Commons: Theory, Evidence, and Policy Implications.

Innovation commons – which we define as repositories of freely-accessible, "open source" innovation-related information and data - are a very significant resource for innovating and innovation-adopting firms and individuals: Availability of free data and information reduces the innovation-specific private or open investment required to make the next innovative advance. Despite the clear social welfare value of innovation commons under many conditions, academic innovation research and innovation policymaking have to date focused almost entirely on enhancing private incentives to innovate by enabling innovators to keep some types of innovation-related information at least temporarily apart from the commons, via intellectual property rights. In this paper, our focus is squarely on innovation commons theory, evidence, and policy implications. We first discuss the varying nature of and contents of innovation commons extant today. We summarize what is known about their functioning, their scale, the value they provide to innovators and to general social welfare, and the mechanisms by which this is accomplished. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, and with the important exception of major digital platform firms, we find that many who develop innovation-related information at private cost have private economic incentives to contribute their information to innovation commons for free access by free riders. We conclude with a discussion of the value of more general support for innovation commons, and how this could be provided by increased private and public investment in innovation commons “engineering”, and by specific forms of innovation policymaking to increase social welfare via enhancement of innovation commons.

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