We Need More People in Government Like This

A blog reader sent a message to her congressman, Tim Walz, complaining about SOPA, the bill that aims to protect intellectual property rights online that has sent many internet folks into a tizzy.

Here is the response she got from Congressman Walz:

…SOPA approaches the problem as a criminal matter when in fact, study upon study shows that online piracy is best dealt with as an economic matter. Instead of using the Justice department as a sledgehammer amongst the delicate weeds of the internet, corporations must embrace the free market and adapt their business models to compete in a new reality. The ability to adapt and compete is the cornerstone of capitalism, we should promote this rather than rushing to insert ourselves in the market in ways that could severe disrupt internet commerce and progress.

Now, I don’t 100 percent agree with this answer, but I love the spirit of it – especially coming from a Democrat!  That last sentence sounds like the argument you would get over faculty lunch in the University of Chicago department of economics.

I almost always believe in free markets as the solution to problems, but this one is tricky.  There are not a whole lot of things that I think governments are particularly good at doing, but protecting property rights is at or near the top of that list.  As Greg Mankiw so aptly writes on his blog:

The anti-SOPA crowd argues that this is a matter of basic liberty. But it’s not. In a free society, you don’t have the freedom to steal your neighbor’s property. And that should include intellectual property. Moreover, it is the function of the state to enforce those rights. We don’t leave it up to civil litigation to protect property rights (although that is part of the solution). We give the state substantial powers to stop theft. Just as owners of tangible personal property have good cause to call for a police force and a system of criminal courts, owners of intellectual property have good cause to ask the state to stop those who would infringe on their rights.

Still, my hat goes off to Congressman Walz.  I hope that he will keep the answer he gave on SOPA in his top drawer; with just a minor reworking he could use the last sentence of his response for many other constituent inquiries.

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  1. Grey Williams says:

    But go behind both sides of the argument. is intellectual “property” really equivalent or analogous to tangible property? I’ve heard it said that IP is just the ability of someone to prevent you from doing something with your own tangible property.

    When did IP originate? Has innovation increased or decreased since?

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    • Pablo says:

      Hi Grey. I will only answer on the tangible/intangible property issue.
      The law protects both goods and things. Now, consider them as genre and species whereas goods -as a genre- can be either tangible or intangible. For instance, electricity -intangible as it is- can be considered property.

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    • Mike says:

      The original justification for granting intellectual property rights was economic: X amount of intellectual property would be created in the absence of any laws protecting intellectual property, but X+Y intellectual property would be created if laws protected intellectual property.

      So the extra amount of Y intellectual property is the social good said to be created by intellectual property laws.

      This rationale leaves no room for retrospective copyright protection and suggests we should rigorously examine constantly whether, as a society, we get good value for intellectual property laws, that is do they really create enough extra works to warrant the cost on society of the enforcement of those laws and the economic costs on works which would have be created anyway whether or not the laws existed.

      This leads to a curious position since it is so easy to circumvent IP protection, we are arugably at a point where the Y level of extra works should be reducing (because those works would not be made without strong IP protection). However, there is an explosion in new works, coupled with cries for stronger protection.

      It seems to me that IP laws tend to have unintended consequences and we should really consider whether they give a net benefit to society through extra employment and works, or whether we should focus our limited time and financial resources on other issues.

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  2. Jason P. Kaplan says:

    “The anti-SOPA crowd argues that this is a matter of basic liberty.”

    Actually, my own anti-SOPA views are that SOPA would destroy the foundation of a secure internet. A lot of engineers have explained how tampering the way SOPA would like to tamper could ruin everything that’s been built up until now. As Walz so aptly put it, it’s “a sledgehammer amongst the delicate weeds of the internet”; it’s an unsightly answer to the problem of piracy.

    The issue of piracy being illegal or unethical or freedom or liberty is moot to the argument; SOPA is a bad technical answer, and would result in potential devastation. That’s why it’s been stopped.

    Since the ethical questions remain, they’ll keep looking for a solution, and will probably find it, but I agree with the Cognressman that an adaptive market would work far better than legislation.

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  3. Anthony Halsell says:

    If someone steals my jacket, I’m going to be cold because I no longer have a jacket. If someone makes a perfect copy of my jacket, we’re both warm.

    Artists should be compensated for their work, but using the word “theft” seems to disingenuously muddle the problem.

    When physical goods are stolen, the victim is the person who owns those particular goods. The guy who mined the diamonds on my watch isn’t too concerned if that watch gets stolen after I bought it – he’s already done his work and gotten paid.

    When digital media is “stolen,” the victim is a victim only in cases where the “thief” is pirating the material in lieu of purchasing it; if the pirate would never have bought that cd/movie/book if it weren’t freely available, then their relationship with the IP-owners doesn’t change when they pirate it. I don’t know how you’d demonstrate it, but I suspect that the proportion of pirates who would have bought the material if it weren’t available for download is relatively low.

    Historically, IP laws didn’t anticipate the ability to make infinite copies of a work for next to free. We need to re-think IP from a fundamental level – especially given that we’re on the cusp of being able to re-create physical goods with a 3d printer for a lower cost than buying them new — preferably, before the market for pirated CAD drawings for kitchen faucets blows up.

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    • Mike B says:

      The definition of a public good is one that is non-rival and non-exclusive. Ideas and creative works have almost always been non-rival, while excludibility has been patched on through government copyright and patent laws. The only reason these laws were ever feasible was that to copy works one needed significant infrastructure, like a printing press or film print duplicator, and it was easy for rights holders to solve any problems through private lawsuits.

      With the internet the ordinary person make and distribute copies which changes the law enforcement model from one that prohibits something like exotic drugs or firearms to one that prohibits alcohol or speeding. Not only that, the public receives genuine benefits not only from the infrastructure that is sometimes used to infringe rights, but also from infringing those rights themselves. Stricter laws will only bring about a replay of prohibition where a handful of moral scolds try to stop behavior that is not only tolerated, but embraced. Big Content needs to realize that technology has forever rendered its absolute monopoly null and void. Any attempt to maintain it will only lead to large amounts of collateral damage.

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    • James says:

      “Historically, IP laws didn’t anticipate the ability to make infinite copies of a work for next to free.”

      I believe it did: if not infinite copies for free, at least all the copies the market would bear for a significantly lower cost. Indeed, it seems that was the whole reason for copyright law: the invention of the printing press made it possible to produce many copies of any work at relatively low cost. If some author, say Will Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, produced a work and had it published, unscrupulous printers could easily copy that work and sell it at a lower cost.

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    • Mikko says:

      You are correct, copyright infringement is not technically theft, but free-riding. It’s also true that piracy is harmful only if done in lieu of purchasing. You suspect the proportion of such harmful piracy is low; others would suspect it to be high; no one truly knows.

      However, such argument is rarely used in other problems of free-riding nature. I cannot possibly imagine telling (with a straight face) a ticket officer that I wouldn’t have taken the ride in the first place had I had to pay for the ticket; nor telling an IRS agent that I wouldn’t have run a business in the first place had I had to pay taxes.

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      • Anthony Halsell says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • James says:

        “…taxation is much closer to theft than piracy. The government takes money out of the pocket of citizens and redistributes it among the people.”

        But at least in theory I am getting something in return for what the government takes from me through taxation: roads, bridges, a fire department (the value of which I experienced at first hand last week), even the benefit of not having to listen to the whines of hungry children. If someone pirates a copy of my hypothetical future novel, what have I gotten in return? And if pirating my novel becomes commonplace, will I ever bother to write it at all, thereby depriving the world of a great literary work?

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    • Aaron says:

      Maybe one way of testing the argument that few people would buy something if there was no way of obtaining it for free is by the use of software being turned into ‘abandonware’. If a game retails at $40 say, and sells 100K copies, then is released as abandonware and has 1M downloads, then this implies that 900K people weren’t prepared to pay for it. It’s not a perfect way because things aren’t released as abandonware for years after they get written, but it might tell you something.

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  4. Sam says:

    In general, the anti-SOPA crowd doesn’t have an issue with protecting intellectual property. Imagine if the government was able to lock you out of your house indefinitely or permanently solely because your neighbor claims you stole something of his and are keeping it in your house, or because he claims someone else stole something of his and is keeping it in your house without your knowledge. And all of that without any warrant or due process. This is in effect what SOPA allows the government to do in the online world, and is why there are so many people against the bill.

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  5. Allen Cook says:

    The idea that this is only about “stealing your neighbors property” is the heart of the basic liberty / free speech debate. The fact that Greg Makinaw completely sidesteps this by pretending it’s not even worth discussing just shows the growing gap of understanding here.

    “Are the speech aspects of remix/derivative works more important than the property aspects?” is the big question in the internet era. Before, it was fairly expensive to make a remix or derivative work so someone usually had to front some major cash to make one. So it made sense to prohibit this to an explicit permission model, similar to property.

    Now however, I am creating a derivative work simply by posting this comment. Not only of this website, but the layers and layers of software it takes for me to post this using a web browser (and for you to serve it to us). The idea that all uses of copyrighted work (which encompasses everything with a computer at this point) require explicit permission from the author (which in reality is several hundred people acting under a corporation) is not very plausible. Blanket licenses like EULAs kind of solve the problem but are piecemeal and prone to abuse. There’s also no enforcement mechanism available except for civil suits, which are slow and expensive. Which is what DRM tries to solve, but implementations being imperfect it can always be subverted.

    I think the offhand dismissal of the free speech issue is a pretty thoughtless thing to do, honestly. All speech we make to each other using a computer is a derivative work. Should Microsoft be able to sue you for criticizing them using Internet Explorer? Apple sue you for saying something bad about them using an iPhone? It is their derivative intellectual property, legally. Yet the speech implications of this are wide and extremely damaging

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  6. Raz says:

    Great post! Hats off to Rep Walz.

    It’s hard to describe in a few sentences the motivations and rationales of all the SOPA opponents but I recognize that it’s necessary to some degree for writing purposes. That said, I think the concern over loss of a “basic liberty” from the majority of SOPA opponents (At least this one *points thumbs at self*) is over the unintended consequences which the specific legislation is likely to incur, not an opposition to govt protection of property rights.

    It seems likely that there is a solution to property rights violations which involves a heavy reliance on free market evolutionary adaptation while also leaving our first amendment liberties unimpeded.

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  7. Scott Templeman (@tallbonez) says:

    When you steal something you are taking something of value away from someone else by either force or deceit. They lose the possession and it’s value during a theft.

    Copying does not equal stealing, and a pirated copy is not equivalent to a lost sale.

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    • natasha says:

      production of a product is a 2 stage process, research & design (cost $xyz) and manufacturing (cost $xyz). R&D is usually more costly then the actual manufacturing cost. I believe that the people who were involved in R&D should be rewarded for their hard work and creativity and everything that goes into it.
      I think copying is not theft in material sense because there is nothing real being stolen (ie. a jacket) but morally you are stealing someone’s hard work, ideas, energy and creativity they put into creating that product. Production is the easy part, it’s the ideas that change the world

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      • brazzy says:

        The point is that for most “intellectual property”, production costs are now effectively zero and anyone can do it, but they’re still supposed to pay the same price, most of which goes not to the person(s) with the “hard work, ideas, energy and creativity”, but to middlemen who used to control production.

        What we’re seeing is those middlemen fighting for their lives to prevent a development that would lead to lower prices for the consumer AND higher compensation for the actual creators at the same time.

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  8. Abe says:

    That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard a politician say in ages… Good for Congressman Walz.

    Signed,
    Not a Democrat

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