Smashing The Scales: Not Everything Needs 'Balance'

from the zero-sum-game dept

For many years I've argued against those (who I often agree with otherwise) who claim that we need "more balance" in copyright laws. As I've said, thinking of it as balance is the wrong frame of reference. It assumes that there is a necessary conflict between what's good for content creators and what's good for content consumers -- that improving the situation for one necessarily hurts the situation for the other. Yet, we've seen over and over again that this is not the situation in reality. You can improve the situation for both at once, and if you're thinking about "balancing" the two, you're already starting with the wrong framework.

Julian Sanchez has noticed something similar, though in other areas of the policy debate, such as the claim that we need to "balance privacy and security," and suggests that the whole balance metaphor is a serious problem in many such debates in part because it assumes a zero sum game (if you're better off, then I must be worse off):
Perhaps the most obvious problem with balancing metaphors is that they suggest a relationship that is always, by necessity, zero sum: If one side rises, the other must fall in exact proportion. Also implicit in balancing talk is the idea that equilibrium is the ideal, and anything that upsets that balance is a change for the worse. That's probably true if you're walking a tightrope, but it clearly doesn't hold in other cases. If you have a perfectly balanced investment portfolio and somebody gives you some shares of stock, the balance is upset (until you can shift some assets around), but you're plainly better off--and would be better off even if for some reason you couldn't trade off some of the stock to restore the optimal mix.
And when it comes to privacy and security:
In my own area of study, the familiar trope of "balancing privacy and security" is a source of constant frustration to privacy advocates, because while there are clearly sometimes tradeoffs between the two, it often seems that the zero-sum rhetoric of "balancing" leads people to view them as always in conflict. This is, I suspect, the source of much of the psychological appeal of "security theater": If we implicitly think of privacy and security as balanced on a scale, a loss of privacy is ipso facto a gain in security. It sounds silly when stated explicitly, but the power of frames is precisely that they shape our thinking without being stated explicitly.
Julian is reasonably worried that this type of "balance" thinking drives people to make very bad policy decisions, relying on what feels like a useful metric that is really quite misleading at times. It's definitely a worthwhile read, and let's hope we can start to get past the claim of "balance" where it is not appropriate.

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  1. icon
    Steve R. (profile), 9 Feb 2011 @ 5:30am


    The concept of "balance" neglects the role of time. Copyright, over time, has become more onerous; it was meant to provide a limited monopoly for a limited period of time. To achieve "balance" the copyright has been extended in scope and time.

    Furthermore, we see copyright holders extending their reach to assert ownership on content placed on new forms of media. There is no attempt by the content holders to even offer "balance".

    Balance may be a wonderful concept, but the fulcrum point is movable by those defining "balance". Unfortunately, we don't have balance in setting the fulcrum point. Seems that the content holders have that power, unfortunately.

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