Over at Slate, there’s a thoughtful and entertaining back-and-forth between Caleb Cain and Matt Yglesias over the social, economic, and moral nature of copyright infringement. The debate spans at least four articles, with some digressions and jokey hypotheticals; by the end, each writer’s main point boils down to one of the essential (and essentially true) arguments about copyright.
Yglesias, who argues that we shouldn’t work too hard to end copyright infringement, writes that we tend to undervalue the benefit to consumers of pirated entertainment:
…when the powers that be decide that the profit-maximizing strategy is to charge more than $100 to download all four seasons of Breaking Bad from iTunes, they’re creating a situation in which lots of people who’d gain $15 or $85 worth of enjoyment from watching the show can’t watch it. This is “deadweight loss,” and to the extent that copyright infringement reduces it, infringement is a boon to society.
…nearly all companies try to maximize profits when they set prices, and every price higher than zero excludes somebody. Suppose that Savor of the Savior tomato sauce sells for $4.99 a jar and I feel that eating it is only worth two bucks. Theft would help me get my hands on it. Would theft therefore be socially beneficial? Am I justified in stealing the goods of any company whose prices don’t suit my budget?
Both of these points strike me as basically legitimate: consumers of pirated material (who constitute a large and broadly distributed chunk of society) gain a lot of happiness. The idea that utility-below-price-point is enough to justify consumption without payment, though, seems to pretty much rationalize any sort of theft for consumption (and probably theft for resale at lower costs, too). And Cain wins me over on the subsidiary argument that while digital copies of a product like a movie or song do not decrease anyone else’s ability to enjoy that movie or song, pirating in general means less money going to creators and therefore fewer quality movies and songs created. Piracy, in other words, is not victimless in the long run.
What’s lost in the arguing, though, is a point that Yglesias makes early on in his first column: “Online piracy is like fouling in basketball. You want to penalize it to prevent it from getting out of control, but any effort to actually eliminate it would be a cure much worse than the disease.” And while Yglesias never elaborates on this point, it strikes me as a good defense of a mixed system wherein a constant background level of freeloading doesn’t rise so high that the entertainment industries cease to bring forth enough quality consumable material. One major advantage of such a mixed system is that it allows consumers to try before they buy: songs and movies are goods whose quality you can only guess at or hear about secondhand before actually consuming them, and sampling an artist or TV series allows you to make a more informed decision about whether to purchase or not. It also, of course, allows you to circumvent purchasing entirely. But one of the lessons of the last decade is that the iTunes store can thrive even in an atmosphere of pirates. And personally, I know that I would never buy one or more season of a TV show without having already seen several episodes – and watching free episodes has introduced me to several series that I have purchased entire runs of.
That’s not to say that piracy doesn’t do real economic damage to content producers. Book and album advances have dropped significantly as publishing and recording houses can no longer afford to take risks that they could have in the past. Cain’s right to point out the silliness of Yglesias’s argument that hobbyist writers and artists can produce enough quality content to replace entire paid industries. But before the digital era of unbundling, everyone who bought a book or CD subsidized books and CDs that not very many people wanted. And the creative types who peddle their wares for free online do add quite a bit of value, albeit value that is somewhat unrelated to the copyright debate. So it’s not quite enough to point to piracy and declining revenues and say that consumers of creative content are on net worse off than before disruptive technologies enabled wide scale infringement.
So, Cain wins the argument that copyright infringement is meaningfully like theft, but Yglesias may be right to warn that certain kinds of enforcement could do more harm than good. And Mr. Yglesias, if you would like to nominate my hobbyist writing as a stand-in for any of your various paid columns, feel free to get in touch.