The Smear Campaign Against Larry Lessig And Free Culture

from the getting-nasty dept

You may recall that I've had my run-ins in the past with the incredibly misnamed Progress & Freedom Foundation. While I tend to think that Adam Theirer does okay work for them, almost every other report that comes out of the "think tank" seems highly questionable. We haven't heard much from them lately on intellectual property rights -- perhaps since two of their most outspoken folks on that topic (Patrick Ross and James DeLong) moved on. However, it looks like they've found someone new to drum up ridiculous arguments on intellectual property issues. If you don't recall, PFF is the group that has claimed that fair use harms innovation, that net neutrality is theft, and that open spectrum harms innovation (obviously WiFi was a huge problem). The most amazing thing to me, though, is that the PFF positions itself as a "libertarian" "free markets" think tank that thinks there should be less government regulation. But... anything having to do with intellectual property or spectrum, and suddenly all those libertarian statements go out the window.

Given all of that history, it's still rather amazing to read its newly released report on how the "Free Culture" movement, as explained by Larry Lessig, is really a "quasi-socialist" movement. Reading the full paper, you get a sense of how Washington DC works. It's a pure smear job that takes Lessig quotes out of context for ultimate impact and fills the rest with ad hominem and totally unsupported attacks. I certainly don't agree with everything that Lessig has to say -- and I particularly disagree with some of his policy recommendations. But there's simply no way to read Lessig's work and come to the conclusions in this paper if you are being intellectually honest. You can disagree with his conclusions. You can disagree with his reasoning -- but to paint what he has to say as a celebration of communism or socialism is simply a smear tactic and a political hack attack.

What becomes clear as you read the attack is that the author, Tom Sydnor, simply read through Lessig's works in search of sentences that could be taken out of context in order to paint Lessig as a secret socialist/communist. It's hard to see how that's "scholarship." It's not worth refuting each and every statement here, but we'll give a few simple examples. First, Sydnor claims that Lessig "demonizes" property owners. Actually, Sydnor claims that Lessig "literally demonizes property owners." Unless Lessig is turning property owners into demons, then I'd have to say that Sydnor doesn't understand what "literally" means. But, more to the point, this is a rhetorical trick by Sydnor, which is the basis of nearly his entire paper, where he repeatedly assumes that intellectual property is no different than tangible property. This is a fabrication. There is no reason to ignore the very real differences between the two unless you're trying to unfairly and dishonestly paint someone as supporting something they have not.

While making fun of Lessig (Sydnor snidely accuses Lessig of "name calling" before referring to Lessig as a "hypocritical demagogue" -- kettle, pot, etc.), Sydnor points out that Lessig "analogizes property rights to the pesticide DDT." If you're playing along in the home game, Sydnor is pulling this from page 129 in Lessig's book Free Culture. Lessig's actual point, which is quite valid and interesting is that DDT was originally designed to serve a good purpose, but it was only later that it was realized that it had negative unintended consequences. This isn't "demonizing property rights" as Sydnor implies. It's merely pointing out that even those with the best of intentions (the makers of DDT or the creators of copyright law) may not realize the negative consequences of their actions, and how those negative consequences may outweigh the positive consequences.
"No one set out to destroy the environment. Paul Muller certainly did not aim to harm any birds. But the effort to solve one set of problems produced another set which, in the view of some, was far worse than the problems that were originally attacked. Or more accurately, the problems DDT caused were worse than the problems it solved, at least when considering the other, more environmentally friendly ways to solve the problems that DDT was meant to solve."
If someone can explain how that's somehow demonizing property rights, I've got a job for you as a paid shill in DC. Instead, it's making a valid point that isn't demonizing anything -- most certainly not property rights. You can go through the rest of Sydnor's piece, and each and every time you'll notice he does one of two things: he conflates copyright with tangible property or he takes statements out of context to prove his point. He's also not beyond ridiculous hyperbole. In pointing to a rather reasonable quote from Lessig about why we should be interested in seeing if other systems can provide better outcomes, Sydnor brushes off all other systems of copyright by claiming:
"But during the last century, humanity conducted many vast experimental investigations of the relative merits of these "different property systems and the freedoms each allowed." Those experiments were run by well-intended people who sincerely believed that replacing systems of private property with "different systems" would improve the material and spiritual well-being of humanity. During those experiments, millions were murdered and billions were impoverished and enslaved.
Hyperbole much, Tom? Sydnor, once again, is equating copyright to tangible property (missing the irony that copyright -- a government granted monopoly -- seems a lot more closely aligned with the centralized governments of the former socialist nations than a system that relies on the free market). He then cuts off any questions about looking for a more reasonable system than copyright (which is a monopoly right, not a property right) by suggesting that any other system leads to "millions murdered" and "billions impoverished and enslaved." It's quite a leap. If there was any left, this paper destroys any credibility on pretty much anything coming out of PFF these days. It's the worst kind of political smear tactic.

Filed Under: free culture, larry lessig, politics, smear campaign, think tanks, tom sydnor
Companies: progress and freedom foundation


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  1. icon
    Mike (profile), 2 May 2008 @ 11:07pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Good job Mike

    I find it very interesting which post you choses to reply to. Clearly you have no interest in defending you previous post in other articles where you cited nothing and only posted vague and useless claims. It's clear you can cite if needed be so it becomes even less defensible when you don't.

    Not so. It's best not to make assumptions like that. I have a rather limited amount of time, so I chose which posts to respond to based on that, trying to pick out key ones specifically. I also try to focus on responding to comments that further the discussion. Too often with your comments, I feel like we are talking in circles, since we define things differently.

    Just to add insult to injury, Mike, did you ever publish in a peer reviewed journal any of your theories? Also have you ever taken a symbolic logic course. With regard to the last question, you obvious recognize rhetoric in other's writing, it's a shame you try to pass it off in some of your own.

    The answers were no and yes. I also taught logic, probability and statistics at the college level.

    Sorry for the unclear comment. It just seemed that at the time everyone knew that running a business without making a profit seem like piss poor accounting. It didn't really matter what their business model was and there were several different types.

    I think that was a different issue. At the time, companies were valued on top line only. So when that's the incentive, companies did anything to maximize the top line, even if it meant giving away $1 bills at $0.75. Yes, it was dumb, but it's quite different than what I'm talking about.

    That wasn't focused on maximizing profit. The economics I'm talking about *are* focused on that.

    As more musicians give a way music fewer will be in the business. Which is also supply and demand. It would be a shame for only a few big acts to be left. Which brings me back to the constitution and the whole promote thing.

    That's a big assumption that is not supported by what's happening in the market these days. I think (correct me if incorrect) the underpinning of your assumption is that artists giving away music make less money. But that does not appear to be the case. Those who properly structure a business model are finding they make more, because in giving away the music they increase the pie. Despite your claims that there would be fewer musicians, we're seeing more people than ever before making music and making money from music at the same time as more are simply giving away their music and monetizing it in other ways.

    So the basic assumption does not hold up.

    The 11 cents was 1 cent for distribution and 10 cents for the acts. Which is what the current rate is AFAIK. It is also a reversal of the current systems with the companies getting 90% and the acts getting 10%.

    But that doesn't answer my question. Why not 3 cents? Who's to say that 11 cents it the market clearing equillibrium? Who's to say that's the most efficient market price? I'm saying that it is not, and the basic economics shows that price is $0.

    Other then live performances, what could be sold that isn't easily copied? T shirts and coffee mugs? With low cost OLED's one could easily see a programmable T shirt which could easily copy any other? Even earlier access could be copied as could the freemium approach. All you would have to do is have a single fan copy it, and then share it, because after all it is digital. Right now some of these things may be scarce but there seem to be little in the way of real hurdles to stop them from being copied as well.

    Lots of things can be sold that are not easily copied. The ability to write a new song (look at the Artist Share model that helpd Maria Schneider make a Grammy winning album that could be downloaded free), access to the musician (look at the Jill Sobule model), access to limited edition work such as signatures (look at the Trent Reznor business model), and even other ancillary products such as a travel agency to help fans follow you on concert (the String Cheese Incident business model).

    I'm not saying that any one of these is perfect for everyone, but use them to point out that there are many different business models that aren't so easily "copied" and each of those business models pays better if you have more fans downloading and listening to your music. You expand the pie with the music, and you sell them all those scarcities.

    Mike do you understand what the word infinite actually means? There aren't even infinite atom in the universe. It's a very large number put it's not infinite

    They are effectively infinite.

    By this I assume you mean that it's a fixed cost to be in the business of copying music. If you define everything as a fixed cost then there are no marginal cost. But if you are not in the music copying business and you just want to hear a single track the the incremental cost is pretty high. We could go round and round on this but it's just seems like once again you favor rhetoric over reason.

    It's not rhetoric over reason at all. The marginal cost to copy a song (which is what we are discussing) is zero. It simply does not cost anything to copy a song.

    I believe you are defining marginal cost incorrectly. It's the cost to produce 1 more of something. Based on your definition the marginal cost to produce a car is also the cost of a factory. That's not what marginal cost is.

    Good thoughtful answer Mike. I see now where my error was. Back to your old tricks again Mike. The less you say the less you can be held to. This is just getting sad, really really sad. Although you do seem to have stopped taking the quotes out of context. I guess I should be thankful for small favors.

    There's only so much you can answer when someone makes a blatantly false answer. Marginal cost is well defined. That you choose not to follow that definition doesn't further the discussion.

    As far as the connectivity goes you could own a computer without connectivity. The first song you want to copy would trigger the need for the connectivity. Most reasonable people would amortize the cost of the connection over the number of songs for the month, assuming a monthly connection fee, and call it a marginal cost. Again it's back to the accounting thing. Which is why I said it had the feel of the bubble accounting.

    You are confusing economics with accounting. Yes, for accounting purposes you amortize costs. But you don't with economics. Again, marginal cost in economics is well defined. You are not using that definition. Again, you don't count the cost of the factory into the marginal cost of the car.

    Since the cost of storing the song on a computer actually cost more electricity for most machines then sitting idle there is a marginal cost there as well.

    That cost would be so infinitesimal to be considered zero by any reasonable person.

    Mike here is an idea, why don't you actually look up the what infinite is and quote how something that is abundant but bounded is infinite. You will excuse me if I trust my math professors at University more then you.

    Fair enough. And I will trust my economics professors more than you.

    So we are at a stalemate. It's fine with me, because history will bear out which answer is correct.

    What happened to the guy who actually reasoned and cited. I want that guy. He's much more interesting then the jerk I'm dealing with.

    Trust me. Same guy.

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