November 20, 2017

Story Time

In a speech today, John Fictitious, president of the Hospital Association of America, expressed his industry’s disappointment at the continuing prevalence of cancer in America. “Our industry stands ready to deploy a cure, but the doctors and drug companies have been unwilling to sit down at the bargaining table to work out a mutually agreeable cure,” he said. Spokesmen for the doctors and drug companies said they were always open to discussion, and asked for more details about the proposed cures and their side effects. But Mr. Fictitious accused them of foot-dragging: “The time for research and discussion is past. Cancer is widespread today. The simple fact is that the doctors and drug companies profit from cancer and would rather not make a deal.”

Congressional leaders expressed sympathy for the Hospital Association’s position. “We are very disturbed by the continued failure of the affected industries to reach an agreement,” said one senator. “If the industries cannot negotiate a solution to the cancer problem, we may have to step in and impose one.”

This is ridiculous, of course. Everybody knows that cancer is a scientific problem – it is an aspect of reality that cannot be negotiated out of existence and cannot be cured by government decree.

But substitute “copyright infringement” for “cancer”, “solution” for “cure”, “motion picture” for “hospital”, “Jack Valenti” for “John Fictitious”, and “software consumer electronics companies” for “doctors and drug companies”, and you get this story, which might have come from a recent newspaper:

In a speech today, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, expressed his industry’s disappointment at the continuing prevalence of copyright infringement in America. “Our industry stands ready to deploy a solution, but the software and consumer electronics companies have been unwilling to sit down at the bargaining table to work out a mutually agreeable solution,” he said. Spokesmen for the software and consumer electronics companies said they were always open to discussion, and asked for more details about the proposed solutions and their side effects. But Mr. Valenti accused them of foot-dragging: “The time for research and discussion is past. Copyright infringement is widespread today. The simple fact is that the software and consumer electronics companies profit from copyright infringement and would rather not make a deal.”

Congressional leaders expressed sympathy for the Motion Picture Association’s position. “We are very disturbed by the continued failure of the affected industries to reach an agreement,” said one senator. “If the industries cannot negotiate a solution to the copyright infringement problem, we may have to step in and impose one.”

Somehow, people who would see the fallacy clearly in the cancer story, seem to miss the same fallacy when the topic is copyright infringement. Technical problems cannot be solved by negotiation or by government decree; and trying to do so will only hold back the progress that might one day lead to a solution.

Why do so many people miss this point? That’s a topic for a later posting.

Comments

  1. In the second copy, one of the two “Mr. Fictitious” still appears. Maybe they were both intended to be changed to Jack Valenti ?

    [Fixed. Thanks! — Ed Felten]

  2. So, is it cool if I just start taking all the posts on this blog and publish them in a book I’m working on? It’ll just be posts from the blog, none of the comments.

    I read the Creative Commons License, but I didn’t agree with it, and I want to publish it commercially anyway.

  3. Dennis Dollin says:

    And yes, of course, I’m kidding. It’s ridiculous to assume that people that own creative works have no right to profit them, or to dictate how they should be used. If you don’t like the terms, don’t use it. Stealing is stealing.

  4. Assuming the last two posts are both by you, Dennis, I’m not sure what kind of point you’re trying to make. Felten isn’t encouraging people to infringe copyrights, nor to say that folks have no right to profit. (And none of this has anything to do with the obvious fact that stealing is stealing.) All he’s trying to say is that there’s no easy way for tech companies to stop piracy, just as there’s no cure for Cancer.

  5. Assuming the last two posts are both by you, Dennis, I’m not sure what kind of point you’re trying to make. Felten isn’t encouraging people to infringe copyrights, nor to say that folks have no right to profit. (And none of this has anything to do with the obvious fact that stealing is stealing.) All he’s trying to say is that there’s no easy way for tech companies to stop piracy, just as there’s no cure for Cancer.

  6. Aaron’s right. The point of my original post was that skepticism about technological quick-fixes does not imply support for infringers, just as skepticism about iffy cancer “cures” does not imply a wish to see people die.

  7. Foolish Jordan says:

    Isn’t the key difference between the two examples that cancer is outside of human control, but “copyright infringement” is only a problem because humans are doing the infringing. Since humans infringe, it is a reasonable point of view to say that human laws can therefore stop the infringing. You may well disagree with this point of view (I do), but you must admit that many many people hold it.

  8. In a speech today, Nikki Hemming, chief executive of Sharman Networks, owner and operator of Kazaa, expressed the P2P industry’s disappointment at the continuing prevalence of copyright enforcement in America. “Our industry stands ready to deploy a solution, but the software and content companies have been unwilling to sit down at the bargaining table to work out a mutually agreeable solution,” she said. Spokesmen for the software and content companies said they were always open to discussion, and asked for more details about the proposed solutions and their side effects. But Ms. Hemming accused them of foot-dragging: “The time for research and discussion is past. Copyright enforcement is widespread today. The simple fact is that the software and content companies profit from enforcement of copyright and would rather not make a deal.”

    Congressional leaders expressed sympathy for Kazaa’s position. “We are very disturbed by the continued failure of the affected industries to reach an agreement,” said one senator. “If the industries cannot negotiate a solution to the copyright enforcement problem, we may have to step in and impose one.”

  9. Fallacies all around. The current problem is a mixed one, involving technical issues, legal issues, economic issues, and social norms. Government can, and certainly has imposed certain technical solutions on many industries (particularly with regards to safety). Moreover, even if a law doesn’t explicitly regulate technology, frequently it will regulate technology implicitly. Witness how finding Napster illegal meant the development of the so-far legal Kazaa.

    I am a strong believer that imposing a government mandated solution along the lines of DRM is a very bad idea, for a huge list of reasons. However, I do not think you can simply say that government should not impose a technical solution.

    The only fallacy in your statement is that a solution should be imposed without details about the solution and its side effects. I don’t care whether the solution is technical, economic, legal or all of the above. Before a solution should be adopted, we must consider the details and unintended consequences. This applies whether it is MPAA sponsored DRM or copyright reformer sponsored compulsory license.

  10. I’m sorry, but Felten’s analogy was terrible, as Miller’s neat reversal illustrates. Cancer is nothing like file sharing. You could just as well make another parody involving bank robbery or any other crime. Would that imply that we shouldn’t legislate against these practices?

    There may be good arguments against legislation to crack down on copyright violators, but comparing it to cancer is the height of absurdity.

  11. Thanks for your comments so far. I’ll respond with a blog posting tomorrow morning.

  12. Interesting enough, the claim that drug companies don’t work on cures for diseases but rather on threatments is actually levelled fairly frequently by their opponents. This claim is more usually made about HIV (why isn’t there a vaccine) than cancer, but still….

  13. Ed Felton nails it

    Go read: Freedom to Tinker: Story Time Very, very true. Another example of the bad side effects of using police power too much – it becomes a crutch for everything that one does….