Tragedy of the commons – or glory?

The ‘tragedy of the commons’ refers to the overuse of common land. If people can freely graze their animals on such land and have no responsibility for maintaining it, then the land will be overused and everyone will suffer. The problem is that the benefit of using the land occurs to the individual whereas the cost is collectively incurred.

There are many modern examples of the tragedy of the commons and the articles below look at some of them. Perhaps surprisingly, not all cases of the use of common resources end in tragedy; some common resources are used sustainably. A more thorough analysis must involve deeper questions of human motivation and behaviour.

IT’s tragedy of the commons Datamation (IT Management) (8/4/09)
The Tragedy of the Commons TechFlash (7/4/09)
Encarta’s failure is no tragedy Guardian (7/4/09)
How Self-Interest Destroyed The Economy The Huffington Post (23/3/09)
What does The Pirate Bay ruling mean for the web? Telegraph (17/4/09)
Tragedy of the Commons The Manila Times (23/3/09)


  1. Explain how the tragedy of the commons arises and give some examples other than common grazing land.
  2. How and why does the tragedy of the commons occur in information technology? Consider the benefits and costs of the ‘fix’ to the problem advocated in the first linked article.
  3. Does the case of Wikipedia (see the third linked article) disprove the proposition that common resources will be overused?
  4. To what extent is free access to content (music, newspapers, videos, books, etc.) a tragedy of the commons? Is the only solution to devise an effective charging model that rewards content creators?