July 14, 2024

Costs vs. Benefits

Yesterday, the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference had a session on the copy protection wars. Louis Trager reports, in a story headlined “Hollywood Survival Isn’t Worth Sacrificing Tech Freedom, Activists Say”, in today’s Washington Internet Daily:

Legal restrictions on technology and content copying pose a far greater risk to society than the extinction of the established entertainment industry for failure to adjust to a digital economy, activist speakers said Wed. at an O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

Movie and music industry lobbyists portray copyright infringment as a disease whose cure is technology regulation. One way to respond is to argue that the cure is worse than the disease. That is probably a correct judgment, though it is a hard argument to win.

More to the point, it’s an argument that should be irrelevant to the real policy debate. Framing the question as a comparison between the costs of the disease and the costs of the treatment buys into an analytical mistake that the content lobbyists have injected into this debate.

The right question to ask is not whether the treatment is worse than the disease, but whether the treatment does more harm than good.

Imagine a medieval doctor who treats a gravely ill patient by bleeding out a quart of the patient’s blood. The doctor argues that this is the correct treatment, because the blood loss does less damage to the patient than the disease is already doing. We rightly reject the doctor’s argument, because we know the treatment is harming the patient without doing anything to cure the disease.

By this standard, it’s clear that the content industries’ regulatory prescription is bad medicine. We have taken the medicine of technology regulation, but the patient’s health hasn’t improved. The disease is as bad as ever, and all Dr. Valenti has to offer is a bigger dose of the same odd-smelling exilir.

Maybe it’s time to get a second opinion.

[Text modified at 10:45 AM: The original version of this entry had implied that the speakers at the O’Reilly conference had made the analytical mistake at issue. Louis Trager, the author of the quoted article, told me that I had misinterpreted his article in reaching that conclusion, so I revised the entry so as not to pass on the misinterpretation.]