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.


"The anti-SOPA crowd argues that this is a matter of basic liberty. But it’s not."

There's absolutely an element of basic liberty. Most of the anti-SOPA crowd isn't against the bill because it would hurt their ability to pirate IP. We're against it because it would hurt our ability to do legitimate things on the internet.

Our tolerance for taking out innocent people to catch the guilty should be very low.

john king

We already have laws against theft and laws that define copywrite protections etc. This new law does nothing to advance the conceptof private property, it merely lightens the burden of self protection from the movie & music crowd. It also throws in protections for them not granted under current law that would stifle innovation and even criminalize innocent behavior. While it does not constitute strict prior restraint, it creates an atmosphere that will mimic it for the benefit of these industries.


"In a free society, you don’t have the freedom to steal your neighbor’s property. And that should include intellectual property." - I am going to pick on the word SHOULD here. That word implies an opinion that Mr. Mankiw has rather than a fact.

Eric M. Jones

"...but I love the spirit of it – especially coming from a Democrat!.."

So you freely admit your bias?....That pretty much disqualifies you from having an objective view.

You should be ashamed, but I expected it...coming from a Republican.


Here is a translation of Mr. Walz's response:
It is now the 21st century and it is time to move on. The copyright law in its current form served its purpose but today's reality is different. With or without SOPA people will continue to copy proiducts of art and science simply because they can. If a businesses want to survive in this reality, they'd better adapt istead of pushing for band aid laws that will simply prolong the agony.

Rishi Arora

Greg Mankiw is equating intellectual property with physical property. That doesn't seem reasonable, given that its much easier to prove, for example who a house belongs to, than to prove who came up with the idea of a plot for a movie first. So, for the latter, we should resort to a court trial where evidence can be produced and fairly examined to determine the property rights. SOPA advocates bypassing the litigation. Also, anti-SOPA folks aren't against the spirit of the law. They are against the way the law is written, which would give broad authority to the state to block specific internet traffic based solely on a complaint. That's what threatens freedom.

Neil (SM)

There's nothing apt about Mankiw's excerpt. The intellectual property SOPA attempts to protect has a fundamental difference from tangible property: it is an infinite good. The theft analogy breaks down in comparison.

Also, it misses another important point: due process. We protect our tangible property with courts and police that investigate alleged crimes, and place the burden on the prosecutors to prove that the accused committed the crime in question. The current and proposed laws are written in such a way that they allow the accusers to completely bypass all of that.

Falling Rock

"One for the blackbird, one for the crow, One for the cut-worm, and two to grow"

The problem of piracy is an old one, and people have found ways of dealing with it.

If I felt like the effected creators weren't making a living, then I guess I'd be more sympathetic. I'm often told that people aren't owed a living, I don't know how I feel about that, but I do know that no one is owed a killing.


Intellectual "property" rather obviously is not a property at all. For starters, it prevents others from realizing their property rights. It's (at least in US) government granted monopoly, which should be regulated properly


Piracy is a headache. SOPA/PIPA is a guillotine. A guillotine does indeed fix a headache, but in an unacceptable way.

Thus, the question before us is whether we can find a way to fight the headache on completely different principles than head-chopping. If we can, great. If we cannot, we have to learn to live with the headache. If this means that the entertainment industry has to shrink, so be it – governments should protect property, but it is up to the individual to decide just how much unprotectable property (IF AND ONLY IF we find there are no fundamentally different approaches) to produce.


The Mankiw quote really misses the point. I don't know any SOPA opponents who think that there should be a right to steal IP. He makes the profoundly mistaken assumption that SOPA would do a lot to curb piracy, and very little to interfere with legitimate Internet use. The reality is very much the opposite, so far as I can tell. http://t.co/Er7w3ryg

Lori Cereteg

We should have similar enforcement for online digital piracy as for similar offline theft (such as bootlegging DVDs).

If I'm bootlegging DVDs and selling them from my store, the owner will make a complaint, there will be an investigation and if it's a serious offense a grand jury will indict me, the police will arrest me, and I'll get a (presumably fair) trial.

You don't sieze the entire office building that my business uses, and force the phone company to de-list the phone numbers of my neighbors and the post office to stop delivering mail to the whole building, and especially not on the rightsholder's sole say-so and without any independent investigation, indictment, or trial. That's what's wrong with SOPA.

Mike in sjc

It seems laws are often made in the streets before they are formally enacted in the halls of Congress. Witness the repeal of prohibition, and the probable eventual legalization of certain drugs. I am not saying mass violation of a law is grounds for repealing it, but it is certainly justification for re-examining it. If ninety percent of drivers exceed the speed limit, perhaps the limit is actually low for that location.
I don't know anyone that buys a cd or dvd anymore. Period. I don't know anyone who uses a typewriter either. It just seems evolving technology has left the concept of intellectual property rights in the dust. Dropping the legal hammer on file-sharing operations seems somewhat futile. As the guy in Jurassic Park said, nature finds a way.
My grandfather was a union carpenter. The union limited the weight of his hammer and the length of the handle to artificially keep his production low. SOPA reminds me of that same mentality.