July 14, 2024

Story Time (Cont.)

Several readers took issue with my previous post relating anti-infringement technology to anti-cancer technology. So let me clarify what I was and wasn’t trying to say.

First, I wasn’t saying that infringement is okay. It’s not. And I wasn’t trying to draw a moral equivalence between infringers and copyright owners. Remember: I analogized infringement to cancer.

Second, I wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t do anything about infringement. Certainly, some anti-infringement measures are worth trying.

Third, I wasn’t saying that it would be wrong to deploy an effective, side-effect-free anti-infringement technology, if such a thing actually existed.

What I was trying to do was to draw an analogy between anti-infringement technologies and anti-cancer technologies, and to point out that people think about these two technology problems very differently, and without good reason. Here are four examples of the difference:

(1) Many people in the policy debate just assume that there must be a technology available that can prevent infringement. Nobody makes such an assumption about cancer.

(2) Doctors who say “I don’t know how to cure cancer” are not accused of being pro-cancer. But software companies that say “I don’t know how to stop infringement” are accused of being pro-infringement.

(3) When a company claims to have a foolproof anti-infringement technology, their claim is often taken seriously, even if no evidence is presented to support it. But nobody would believe a claim that a drug can cure cancer, based only on unsupported assertions by a drug company vice president. Actual scientific evidence is required.

(4) Congress or the FDA wouldn’t dream of mandating the use of a particular cancer treatment (thereby banning other treatments), without independent testing of the proposed treatment and a lengthy and open discussion of how and whether it worked. Yet when it comes to infringement, mandating secret or poorly tested technologies is taken seriously as a policy option.

For some reason, the development of anti-infringment technology is treated as a political problem that can be solved by dealmaking or by decree.


  1. Cancer is a behavior. It is a state that some cells enter into as a malfunction.

    Simply because cancers don’t have a legal or public champion doesn’t mean their cause is not just or valid. There are some who argue that cancer is an indication that it is time for the body to take a particular action (remove itself from the population). They don’t phrase it quite that way, though.

  2. Check out the current New Yorker cover… this is hitting the eyes of many people.

  3. I heard a comment (cannot say where) that the record company executives are quite perturbed that “kids” will pay real money to have a portion of a song downloaded onto a phone as a ring tone, yet will share that same song for free over the net.

    Obviously, if computers could just be locked down like a cell phone generally is, this sharing-for-free problem could be eliminated. I think they regard this as an existence proof for a technical solution.

  4. I couldn’t agree with your post more, Prof. Felten. I just thought your previous post didn’t make the point nearly as clearly as it might have and was subject to misinterpretation.

    Seth’s line is pretty funny. Makes me think that Jack Valenti might steal one of Sylvester Stallone’s old lines: “Copyright infringement is a cancer, and I’m the cure.”

  5. Moreover, the analogy isn’t good in another way, because nobody ever argues:
    (inserting tongue in cheek)

    “What you call “cancer”, we call fair use in copying cells.”

  6. “Infringement” is a behavior, while “cancer” is a physical object. There is a whole pop-industry which proclaims that you can wish away behavior. But people tend to more clearly understand that you can’t wish away physical objects. Moreover, many top corporate executives have an extensive background in the gains FOR THEM which can be obtained by changing behaviors of subordinates via bullying and heaping abuse on them. Their actions are thus extremely well-grounded in their perspective of what works.