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.

Grey Williams

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?

Jason P. Kaplan

"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.

Anthony Halsell

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.


Mike B

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.



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.

Allen Cook

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



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.

Scott Templeman (@tallbonez)

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.


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

Not a Democrat


Online piracy (in any form), in an economic sense, seems like a perfect example of a free-riding problem. If tax-evasion was as widespread as copyright infringement, would anyone seriously suggest that "government just needs to adapt" and that "public services need to reinvent their business model"?

Mike B

Show me that this free riding has in any way reduced the supply of creative ideas and maybe you have a point.

I say that the better argument is that these sorts of creative works have become a public good (they are non-rival and defacto non-exclusive). If production of said goods were to decline, the solution would be to use the tax system to subsudize their creation.


This one actually isn't all that tricky.

Someone who suffers legitimate harm shouldn't be allowed to buy a law outlining whatever enforcement methods they deem appropriate.

Make your case with reasoned argument instead of lobbying dollars and maybe the rest of country will take you more seriously (you the industry groups, not you Freakonomics folks).

Trying to buy a draconian law just makes you creepy.

alex in chicago

Isn't the biggest problem with these anti-piracy suits, litigation, and prosecution that they amount to a witch hunt? I would say less than 1% of violators get caught, but when they do, they get massive fines, maybe even jailtime. In other words, 1 persons life is ruined once a year to "make an example of them". Wouldn't a traffic-ticket-like system work much better? Everyone violates the speed limit at some point, but we don't bankrupt them for doing it.

martin tetaz

Actually there are two different kinds of property rights, depending on whether goods rivalize in consumption or not
Unless someone come up with novel experimental evidence showing that sites such as megaupload or the like reduces the production of intelectual goods, the efficient rule of princing should be to equalize price and marginal cost. Since the later is roughly zero, its agains efficiency to block or penalize on line sharing


Mike B

In response to Greg Mankiw, first of all "Intellectual Property" have about as much standing as property as Corporations have standing as people. It's a term like "Death Tax" that's meant to re-frame the debate in favor of private ownership of thoughts and ideas that were previously held to belong to society at large. How about I entertain your plans to update copyright enforcement for the 21st century when you entertain updating the concept of copyright itself for the same.

Second even if it is the government's duty to enforce property rights, I don't think many people would support censorship of information about committing crime, tools that could potentially be used to commit crime and depictions of of the commission of crime. People have made arguments for all three in the past, and they have been soundly rejected as not only an infringement of our freedoms, but also being largely ineffective.



Neil Gaiman gave a great interview where he discussed how people pirating his work has actually increased his sales. The analogy he makes is this: think of your favorite author. You own all his (or her) books. Often in hardback. You pre-order their books. You watch the movies made from their books, if they exist, to see if it lives up to the written work. Now, how were you introduced to that author? Did you walk into a bookstore and buy a book, sight unseen? Unlikely (not impossible).

The argument that piracy hurts the entertainment industry is a common one, and it seems to make logical sense on the surface. But the reality is, someone pirating music or books or movies was not likely to purchase those things anyway. Study after study has shown that there is a lack of correlation between online piracy and revenues. In fact, many of the most pirated artists are also the most successful, and many independent artists release their music for free online to generate interest in the real money-making endeavor, the concert.

Finally, even if you agree that internet piracy is bad, and that it needs to be stopped...SOPA is just about the worst way to go about it. If you have a link to Google on your website, you can be shutdown by SOPA, because I can use Google to find pirated materials. Worse, the way they shut down your site leaves the internet muddled and unworkable. Redirecting the DNS system is what hackers do in order to spoof websites. It shouldn't be the way the government deals with piracy.



I find your amazement that a Democrat would talk about free markets interesting. Republican bloviation aside, most of us liberals are believers in capitalism and free markets, we merely believe the benefits of capitalistic enterprise should accrue to society as well as to capitalists. We generally tend to believe in the benefits of exploratory capitalism, finding new ways of doing things, innovating, competing, rather than exploitative capitalism. Put another way, liberal capitalists love Steve Jobs and hate Mitt Romney: Both made shareholders rich; one benefited society.


What about the way that IP protection policy has been conducted in the last generation makes you believe that this is still a core strength of the government? Given the absurd heights that patent portfolios and lawsuits are getting to, along with the manner in which the justice department has gone after people on the RIAA's behalf I don't see this as something the government has been doing very well recently. If there were reasonable incentives and a higher level of confidence I think it could become good at it again, but that seems unlikely.


Question: Instead of looking at all of this as theft, why can't we look at it as marketing?
A friend gave me a song that he bought. I had never heard this band before. I liked it so, I looked them up on You Tube. I love the band so much I then went to amazon and bought the album. Had the friend not given me the song I would have never known they even existed. That is minimally one less album they would have sold. Since I love the band I will continue to buy their other albums and, I have already been to one of their concerts. They are back in town in March for which I will be attending.
I also have a similar example with software. I wanted some photo editing software. It is ridiculously expensive. I got on line to find out how the thing worked. I managed to find a free copy of it to try it out. Now that I see it is software I will use, I am saving my money to buy the thing. There is NO WAY I would have plunked down $900 + on something I wasn't sure would even work for me.
Why do we have to be so petty and greedy these days?