Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In which Kevin Drum walks in wearing clown shoes, a clown nose, and a floppy wig, and is taken seriously

So Kevin Drum wrote something ridiculous about copy protection, and Tim Lee and others (see the comment thread) have tried to write thoughtful responses. But this is superfluous. Drum's original post is ignorant, arrogant, and insulting. Drum lazily handwaves away the multi-decades-long failed boondoggle of technological copyright enforcement, and the combined opinions of practically all subject matter experts who are not directly employed by the publishing oligopolies. He does not attempt to refute the evidence; in fact he does not even engage with it. Along the way he manages to sneak in some snide insults for the people who made general-purpose computers (like the one he is typing on) the incredible instruments of human creativity that they are today. What makes anyone think that a mere presentation of further evidence and argument are going to sway him?

Scientifically, the proposition that technological copyright enforcement can dramatically reduce infringement without severe and costly restrictions on liberty is in the same ballpark as climate change denial and cures for homosexuality. I could explain the implications of the Church-Turing thesis very patiently, in very small words, but frankly it strikes me as rather like reading aloud to a student who's not only too lazy to read the book, but too lazy to crack open the Cliffs Notes.

And I would add that this whole business looks very different when (as is the case for many in Silicon Valley) people in your extended social network have had startups or products crushed by errant IP law. Furthermore consider that countless engineer-years have been wasted dreaming up and implementing fruitless schemes like DVD CSS; however they were financially compensated, those are real and concrete wasted human lives. (Counting that production as economic output is rather like a broken windows fallacy in which the window never gets fixed, but the guy who broke the window gets paid.) The publishing oligopolies demand the satisfaction of their fantasies, and engineers pay the price in sweat and tears. Against all this, consider the extremely weak empirical evidence for large-scale harms from digital copyright infringement.

Drum strikes me as the moral equivalent of a priest reassuring his lord that the farmers ought to be all-too-happy to be taxed a few more bushels of grain to burn to the sky gods. Of course it costs him nothing to utter those words, so he can afford to be unbelievably cavalier. But this type of behavior should not command our respect.

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