From Medieval Guilds to Open Source Software: Informal Norms, Appropriability Institutions, and Innovation

Innovation and Economic Growth and Intellectual Property

Article Snapshot


Robert Merges


Conference on the Legal History of Intellectual Property, November 2004


This paper looks at how organizations like guilds fostered innovation, comparing them to law and organizations today.

Policy Relevance

Private organizations that grow from the bottom up help innovation in ways that complement more formal top-down law.

Main Points

  • Medieval guilds are institutions with rules that help technology grow. Other examples include sharing among academic researchers, standard-setting-organizations, a 20th century fashion designers’ guild, the open source software movement, and private arbitration in the entertainment industry.
  • Members of these groups follow a set of shared norms, sometimes requiring sharing and access to techniques, sometimes protecting individual’s rights to use techniques the member has himself developed exclusively.
  • Historically, guilds such as that of glassmakers in Venice in effect protected trade secrets, enforced trademarks and sometimes functioned like patent law. But guilds are bottom-up institutions, not top-down statute law.
  • Early patent law protected techniques not easily kept secret or developed by outsiders to the guilds; states wanted foreign tradesmen, such as glassmakers, to immigrate and bring their skills with them.
  • Technology sharing was also used to develop some industrial technologies.

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