How Not to Argue Against SOPA
I’m still utterly horrified by the SOPA hysteria I mentioned earlier, especially since it’s coming from people who know better. Today’s post on GigaOm about Tim O’Reilly is a good case in point. (And before I go any further, let me state this clearly so it can’t be misconstrued, I’m not arguing in favor of SOPA and PIPA. I think they’re idiotic. I’m arguing in favor of combatting them with rationality rather than hysteria and bad logic.)
O’Reilly makes two points, both of which are simply wrong. The first is…
“Piracy is not a significant problem… Once the market matures, the pirates go away. They always do. Legitimate markets work better than pirate markets.”
This is a common fallacy I see over and over. “The movie companies fought VHS,” you’ll hear, “and it ended up being an enormous source of wealth for them.” True. But that doesn’t mean digital content distribution will.
There’s a standard disclaimer in every mutual fund prospectus that says “past performance is not indicative of future results”. It’s entirely possible (and in fact I believe it to be true) that digital distribution is such a fundamental shift in the nature of piracy that you can’t assume it will simply all pan out OK the way it always has in the past.
In the VHS days to pirate a movie I had to have someone who had two VCRs rent a movie, buy a blank VHS tape, and spend 2 hours copying it for me. The barrier to getting that done is not insubstantial when you consider that every single instance of piracy requires that. It’s not scalable.
Via digital distribution I just have to have someone not delete the torrent. It’s effortlessly scalable to millions of people. It’s not significantly less work to pirate it for anyone involved than it is to purchase it legally, and it is significantly less cost.
Sure, if you’re making books that teach people programming languages, they might be willing to pay. I think its fair to say that the music industry’s results have shown that it just doesn’t work the same way for music.
The second is the notion that SOPA/PIPA will somehow be bad for US-based startups. That would seem to be the case if you didn’t actually read them. The laws clearly apply only to foreign companies. If anything, it will be an unfair advantage for startups here. Rhapsody can perhaps simply get Spotify shut down for infringement (remember, there’s no burden of proof).
O’Reilly says that “If SOPA goes through, it could very well force certain innovative companies to go offshore.” I think the exact opposite is true. Foreign companies will come here to be protected by the DMCA.
And the worst argument of all (and O’Reilly didn’t pull this card) is the slippery slope. This is one of the most insidious logical fallacies around, because at least ad hominems don’t even attempt to masquerade as rational thought. This is the same as saying “if we allow gay people to marry pretty soon it’ll be legal to marry your dog”. It’s been used since time immemorial to argue against every single advance in civil liberties.
A government can’t simply not pass a law just because future laws might overreach. We didn’t need to slide down any slopes to get the PATRIOT Act, and whether or not SOPA passes will have no bearing whatsoever on censorship of legitimate free speech in the future.
So there you have it. If you want to argue against SOPA, there are plenty of good reasons. For one, it won’t stop digital piracy at all. I think it will severely curtail illegal sales of counterfeit goods and prescription medicines, but getting illegal music will just involve editing your hosts file or, more likely, getting a program that does it for you.
Argue that the lack of any burden of proof makes it absurd in any scenario. Argue that it’s a violation of trade treaties, since it’s clearly showing preferential treatment to U.S.-based businesses. Argue that it was written word-for-word by lobbyists and endorsed by the politicians they pay.
There are so many reasons to dislike these acts that we don’t need to make up more.