For those of you who remember the launch of Encarta in the early 1990's, it was widely heralded as spelling the death knell of the printed encyclopedia, first by the easy search and rich text capabilities of the PC software, and later by the added contents available to it via the Internet. (In fact, the original contents of Encarta were licensed from the mass-sale Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia.) This largely happened in 1996, when the "gold standard" of the encyclopedia world, the Britannica, was forced to sell its rights at less than book value, the victim of the Encarta product.
So what happened? In a statement, Microsoft noted that "Encarta has been a popular product around the world for many years. However, the category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed. People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past." In more simple terms, it has been replaced by Wikipedia.
I have two related observations in connection with the demise of Encarta. The first is that Clayton Christensen's famous "The Innovator's Dilemma," as described in his landmark book of that name, is at least partially germane. As Christensen noted recently in a Harvard Business School podcast, his notion is based on a product that is blind-sided by a cheaper and more efficient alternative, for which the incumbent is unwilling, or unable, to match, given the nature of is product and the corporate culture in which the incumbent's product is embedded. Here, the decline in cost and increased efficiency came about by the rise of the Wikipedia movement, where royalty payments for contents became a thing of the past due to the royalty-free, collaborative nature of the content providers as well as the sheer scope and ease of both search and content update, all of which left Encarta far back in its wake.
Second, the Wikipedia movement has put paid the issue of the "tragedy of the anti-commons", which at one time threatened content-gathering exercises such as Encarta. Based on the well-known notion of the "tragedy of the commons" first articulated in the early 1960's (you know, the notion that there are circumstances which are characterized by overuse of an asset when no one person has an interest in preserving the asset, while everyone has a short-term interest in exploiting of the asset, much like the over-grazing of the village commons in pre-modern times), the "tragedy of the anti-commons" turned this notion on its head.
In this situation, developed by Michael Heller in the late 1990's, too many discrete property rights may have the result that a desired project will never get off the ground. Copyright is a great example, where rights clearance may lead to a situation where obtaining rights in the aggregate collection of such proprietary contents may not be achievable. I seem to remember that at the outset of the Encarta project, there was discussion of whether Microsoft could obtain all of the necessary contents if it wished to provide a genuinely broad and diverse array of rich contents, and not simply a digital version of a print encyclopedia. Maybe yes, maybe no, at the time, but certainly irrelevant now, when the issue of proprietary rights in contents is subsumed within a critical mass of content creators, all of whom are willing to part with their individual copyright in favor of the collaborative efforts of the greater community.
So for those of you who keep a scorecard on this kind of thing, it seems that the result of the demise of Encarta is "one to one": the "innovator's dilemma" is alive and well, but "the tragedy of the anti-commons", at least in this context, is a a thing of the past.