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
    vivaelamor (profile), 9 Feb 2011 @ 8:20am

    Re: Re: True story

    "Monopoly would mean nobody else could write a book, a song, or make a movie. That isn't the case. There is no monopoly in copyright."

    A monopoly does not imply absolute exclusion. You seem to have made a straw man.

    "Copyright doesn't stop people from making new movies."

    No one is suggesting that it does, you seem to be lining up the straw men.

    "It does stop (legally anyway) people from making copies of existing things without permission. It puts that control in the hands of the owner."

    You seem to use the word owner to imply that being a creator naturally infers the right to control. I wrote this comment, it is my comment, therefore I own it. I don't, however, have the right to control it. Ownership as conferred by creating something only acknowledges the identity of the creator.

    "Copyright isn't really any different from rules that let you rent an apartment, or lease a car, or fly on an airplane. Each of those in an agreement between owner and consumer, a limited set of rights for an agreed price."

    You mean apart from those agreements being between two equal parties. I don't recall a law requiring me to lease a car rather than build a new one, which would be more analogous.

    "When you take products that sold for billions and put it online and sell it for millions, you haven't really accomplished anything positive. Yes, if you look only at the interrnet, it is selling millions. What was lost outside isn't relevant, apparently."

    Leaving aside the fact that your whole example seems to be baseless, if your products cost more to sell offline than online then you may be making more profit by selling less.

    "With the arrival of the internet, overall consumer spending hasn't shot up dramatically. The internet didn't really add much, it moved it. Think of it as the Wal-Mart effect. People use to go to local stores, they open a big walmart, and suddenly the local stores go out of business. The consumers aren't spending more, they are just spending it somewhere else."

    I guess you agree that unlawful file sharing doesn't harm the economy then, as you acknowledge the fact that money doesn't disappear down a black hole. Would you support legislation banning Wal-Mart?

    "Music being a good example: Net everything, all of the studies that have been pushed on TD show that consumers aren't spending any more on music entertainment. Overall sales (music sales and concert) are flat for the last 10 years, even as concert tickets have doubled and tripled in price. Fewer total consumers for the product is never a good thing!"

    I have to wonder what you are reading, considering even the chairman of Warner Music acknowledged the growth of the music industry, three years ago. The economist did another piece which was posted on Techdirt discussing the growth of the music industry.

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