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.

Gervase Markham

The problems with Greg's point are that:

1) they aren't asking the state to enforce the property right; they are asking for powers which bypass due process, and assume guilt until innocence can be proved. The no-SOPA crowd are not all "yay! copyright infringement!", it's about the disproportionality of the proposed response.

2) "In a free society, you don’t have the freedom to steal your neighbor’s property. And that should include intellectual property" is enormously question-begging. Is intellectual property the same in all respects as physical property? Clearly no - which is one reason "intellectual property" is a bad name for it. So one cannot say "And that should include intellectual property" without justifying the statement. If I copy someone else's copyrighted work, I have not deprived them in the same way that I have if I steal their car. You could argue I have deprived them of "lost profits" - but it's a clear fallacy to say that every copied work is a lost profit somewhere for a creator. And it's certainly not money lost to the economy as a whole; it'll just get spent on something else.




The numbers quoted on piracy are based on an entirely different market according to this article. I agree with Walz, the industries involved need to find a way to adjust to the market, instead of making the new adjust to them. When refrigerators were invented, companies that used to cut ice from lakes and delivery it via wagon could have complained the same way. Every new advance in society undermines a previous "business" opportunity. If government had stepped in to protect established business that are going extinct then nothing would have innovated. But there also needs to be a way to dovetail innovation with responsibility.

"The $200–250 billion number had originated in a 1991 sidebar in Forbes, but it was not a measurement of the cost of “piracy” to the U.S. economy. It was an unsourced estimate of the total size of the global market in counterfeit goods. Beyond the obvious fact that these numbers are decades old, counterfeiting of physical goods imported in bulk and sold by domestic retail distributors is, rather obviously, a totally different phenomenon with different policy implications from the problem of illicit individual consumer downloads of movies, music, and software. The 750,000 jobs number had originated in a 1986 speech (yes, 1986) by the secretary of commerce estimating that counterfeiting could cost the United States “anywhere from 130,000 to 750,000? jobs. Nobody in the Commerce Department was able to identify where those figures had come from."


Eric Ségui

Human language is able to put a name on non existent thing, when you name unicorns of flying pigs, you dont turn them in existing things. Is it possible than intellectual property is such a non existent thing with a name ?

The french geneticist Albert Jacquard believe so, and compare it with a rainbow: you can see it, you can name it, but if you believe in its physical existence, you will want to claim property on it, and maybe cut it in pieces and sell it to people to put in their houses.
http://www.actualitte.com/actualite/monde-edition/societe/derriere-propriete-intellectuelle-se-camoufle-un-desir-de-tromper-23098.htm (french)

But if intellectual property does not exist, from where come the economical value which attract so much majors company ? As an analogy, from where come the value of a patent ? Does it come from the idea described in the patent, or does it come from the exclusivity granted by the society ? It may be painful, but the greatest part of the value of a patent come probably from the exclusivity granted by the society, as the economical value of a patent drop to zero when the exclusivity end.

So, if the value of the intellectual property does not come from it's creator, but from the society, is it really property, and does it exist at all ?


Carl C

Make piracy illegal? Yes, absolutely.
Shut down websites without due process? No way.

The problem with SOPA & PIPA is that they attempt to achieve justice for some, while trampling on the rights of others.

john king

Cong. Walz is correct in that the industries trying to get government to help them avoid the heavy work of adapting to the reality they face is where we constantly go wrong. The auto & steel industries tried over and over to have government protect them from competition. In so doing they avoided modernizing plant & equipment so that we now have little of those industries left. Intellectual property has to be protected from theft but theives will try to use any device to rob. Blaming the tool used to steal and restricting all who use it, legitimate or not, isn't the best use of capital & assets nor does it advance the cause of those who want to protect their property. If someone is going to steal your property, he will use the best tool available. Gun control has not stopped gun violence and any law written to take away my right & ability to use the internet will do nothing to prevent thieves from copying movies or songs. A SOPA or PIPA as currently envisioned will severly restrict the internet and stifle innovation. Government is a blunderbuss that kills all in its line of fire with little evidence that its targets are hit.



Is Greg Mankiw missing the point here, or just oversimplifying the argument?

The problem with SOPA is that criminalises file sharing sites, which are used to share files illegally and, also, to share files perfectly legitimately. This means that in protecting the rights of one group of people - copyright holders - it also infringes on the rights of others - legitimate file shares. Which as far as I can see doesn't really happen with copyright laws in the real world....

Has Mankiw revealed himself as an ideological republican, rather than the rational one he puts himeslef about as?

Just asking...