Last week the EFF released a report criticizing the RIAA’s lawsuits against individuals accused of P2P infringement. Some commentators have criticized the EFF. Tim Lee at Tech Liberation Front summarizes their argument:
I’m ordinarily sympathetic to the EFF’s arguments, but in this case, I agree with Adam [Thierer]:
“OK Fred, then what exactly IS the answer to the P2P dilemma? Because you don’t favor individual lawsuits, you don’t favor P2P liability, or much of anything else. This is what infuriates me most about the Lessig-ites; they give lip service to the P2P problem but then lambaste each and every legal solution proposed. In my opinion, if you can’t even support the lawsuits against individual users, then you essentially don’t believe in ANY sort of copyright enforcement.”
People who don’t like the RIAA’s litigous agenda need to come up with a workable alternative. Too many people on the anti-RIAA side like to criticize every attempt to enforce current copyright laws without suggesting alternative enforcement mechanisms, and without proposing an alternative legal regime. I’m not comfortable with simply shrugging at wide-spread piracy and telling the RIAA to lower their prices and stop whining.
Arguments about the lawsuits often get bogged down in confusion over exactly which argument the lawsuit opponents are making. There are three types of anti-lawsuit arguments.
A moral argument against lawsuits says that bringing the lawsuits is morally wrong.
A pragmatic argument against lawsuits says that bringing the lawsuits isn’t the most clever strategy for a self-interested RIAA to follow.
An empirical argument against lawsuits says that the lawsuits are not reducing infringement.
You can believe any subset of these arguments (including the empty set) without logical inconsistency. For example, you can believe that filing lawsuits is wrong but that doing so will help the RIAA by reducing infringement. Or you can believe that the lawsuits are morally justified and will reduce infringement but still aren’t the cleverest thing for the RIAA to do.
It goes without saying that each of the three arguments is either justified or not, so that some subset is correct to believe. My point is merely that no subset is logically inconsistent.
The EFF report combines threads of all three arguments. They argue at times that the lawsuits are unfair, beating up on defenseless grandmothers. They argue at times that the RIAA would be better off forgoing lawsuits. And they argue at times that the lawsuits are not reducing infringment. Although they don’t make it crystal clear, my reading is that the EFF is making all three arguments.
The Thierer/Lee criticism – that lawsuit critics have an obligation to suggest an alternative course for the RIAA – applies only to pragmatic arguments. If you believe a pragmatic argument, then you must believe there is something more clever the RIAA can do; and you should tell us what that is. But if you’re making a moral argument or an empirical argument, then you have no obligation to describe a better plan, because you’re not asserting that there is a better plan.
This is a common fallacy in policy analysis: assuming that whenever there is a problem, the solution must be some kind of bold new action. Sometimes bold action is just what’s needed. But sometimes bold action doesn’t solve the problem. Sometimes it only causes new problems. Sometimes your problem has no solution and your best course is to suck it up and figure out how to live with the problem.
Breaking down the anti-lawsuit arguments this way tells us one more imporant thing about this debate: there aren’t just two sides. There are at least eight logically consistent positions one could take – one for each subset of the three arguments – and I’m quite sure that more than two of those eight positions can be backed by plausible arguments.
If people are clearer about which arguments they are making, and which they aren’t making, maybe we can make some progress in this debate.