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Hi, Bob

June 17th, 2009 · 2 Comments

I’m flattered to learn, via Techdirt, that Rep. Robert Wexler—by which I mean, in all likelihood, a 20-something staffer in his office—is among the readers of this humble blog. I’m slightly chagrined to see the idea of the “one-way hash argument” invoked on behalf of copyright maximalism:

Julian Sanchez from CATO has discussed this exact problem, which he calls a “one-way hash” where “for every confused or muddled claim, it would take about a dozen paragraphs of explication to make clear to someone not intimately familiar with [the subject] what’s wrong with it.”

So, what a blogger in Sweden writes in a few minutes would take hours or days for the copyright community to answer in an appropriate factual response. It takes much longer to argue using facts and precedent than it does to say anything you want because it sounds plausible — just like it takes far longer to make a movie than it does to steal it.

So, minor quibble: CATO is not an acronym, and I was last “of” that august institution about 6 years ago, when I was a junior staffer there. More serious point: This is actually almost totally backwards as applied to IP. As Mike Masnick observes, I’ve done a fair amount of writing on how it’s the content industry that rather shamelessly makes common use of utterly fabricated “facts” to overhype the economic costs of piracy. And as the rather laborious process of reporting out that piece made quite clear to me, it takes a hell of a lot more time and effort to debunk those spurious statistics than it does to baldly assert them. At this point, I think the claims that piracy costs the U.S. 750,000 jobs per year, or $250bn have really been shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be wholly unsupported fictions. But there they still are on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce antipiracy site, including the attribution of the jobs number to the Customs Bureau, which has explicitly disavowed it.  And they can get away with that precisely because hey, how many people are going to go to the trouble to check whether the claim is bogus?

More generally, it’s the IP maximalists who offer up facile non-sequiturs like: “You wouldn’t shoplift a CD from a store, and copying music is exactly the same.” Hell, the valid argument for copyright—an argument I accept, and which most reformers accept within reasonable limits—can be clearly stated in a single sentence: Producing goods like albums and quality films and new pharmaceuticals requires capital, and if creators can’t get a reasonable return on investment, these goods will be undersupplied. It is significantly more difficult to explain the Benklerian argument that in a technological context that supports peer-production models, excessive copyright can actually significantly stifle innovation, on top of the deadweight static loss that comes from pricing goods above their marginal cost of (re)production.

So, yeah, I appreciate the shout-out, but I very much doubt that the debate over copyright policy is a good illustration of the concept of the “one-way hash argument.” Or rather, it’s an excellent illustration of the concept—on the other side.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Tech and Tech Policy



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug // Jun 17, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Still, that was a smart observation and I can think of worse things than to have the “one-way hash” argument become Sanchez’ Law.

    What’s kind of funny to me is that Sanchez’ Law is what new media is made of. What portion of blog posts are lengthy disassemblages of one assertion in someone else’s lengthy rebuttal to a previous glibness?

  • 2 JustinOpinion // Jun 18, 2009 at 9:42 am

    I’m on the copyright-reformist side of that particular argument, but I don’t see what’s wrong with copyright maximalists invoking the one-way hash argument where appropriate.

    There are claims made by copyright reformists (or abolitionists) that are silly but can take time to defeat. Thus they qualify for “one-way hash” status. (E.g. claims like “It’s just a particular bit-string! You can’t make numbers illegal!” resonate with some members of the community.)

    I would agree that in the copyright debate, on the balance, the pro-copyright side makes these ridiculous over-reaching single-sentence arguments more often than the pro-reform side. But just because one side commits the fallacy more, on average, doesn’t mean the other side doesn’t commit it on occasion. And both sides should be free to point out the fallacies of the other camp (including occurrences of one-way hash arguments).

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