Let’s continue our discussion about copyright enforcement against online infringers. I wrote last time about how targeted enforcement can deter many possible violators even if the enforcer can only punish a few violators. Clever targeting of enforcement can destroy the safety-in-numbers effect that might otherwise shelter a crowd of would-be violators.
In the online copyright context, the implication is that large copyright owners might be able to use lawsuit threats to deter a huge population of would-be infringers, even if they can only manage to sue a few infringers at a time. In my previous post, I floated some ideas for how they might do this.
Today I want to talk about the implications of this. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that copyright owners have better deterrence strategies available — strategies that can deter more users, more effectively, than they have managed so far. What would this imply for copyright policy?
The main implication, I think, is to shed doubt on the big copyright owners’ current arguments in favor or broader, less accurate enforcement. These proposed enforcement strategies go by various names, such as “three strikes” and “graduated response”. What defines them is that they reduce the cost of each enforcement action, while at the same time reducing the assurance that the party being punished is actually guilty.
Typically the main source of cost reduction is the elimination of due process for the accused. For example, “three strikes” policies typically cut off someone’s Internet connection if they are accused of infringement three times — the theory being that making three accusations is much cheaper than proving one.
There’s a hidden assumption underlying the case for cheap, inaccurate enforcement: that the only way to deter infringement is to launch a huge number of enforcement actions, so that most of the would-be violators will expect to face enforcement. The main point of my previous post is that this assumption is not necessarily true — that it’s possible, at least in principle, to deter many people with a moderate number of enforcement actions.
Indeed, one of the benefits of an accurate enforcement strategy — a strategy that enforces only against actual violators — is that the better it works, the cheaper it gets. If there are few violators, then few enforcement actions will be needed. A high-compliance, low-enforcement equilibrium is the best outcome for everybody.
Cheap, inaccurate enforcement can’t reach this happy state.
Let’s say there are 100 million users, and you’re using an enforcement strategy that punishes 50% of violators, and 1% of non-violators. If half of the people are violators, you’ll punish 25 million violators, and you’ll punish 500,000 non-violators. That might seem acceptable to you, if the punishments are small. (If you’re disconnecting 500,000 people from modern communications technology, that would be a different story.)
But now suppose that user behavior shifts, so that only 1% of users are violating. Then you’ll be punishing 500,000 violators (50% of the 1,000,000 violators) along with 990,000 non-violators (1% of the 99,000,000 non-violators). Most of the people you’ll be punishing are innocent, which is clearly unacceptable.
Any cheap, inaccurate enforcement scheme will face this dilemma: it can be accurate, or it can be fair, but it can’t be both. The better is works, the more unfair it gets. It can never reach the high-compliance, low-enforcement equilibrium that should be the goal of every enforcement strategy.