Is copying bad for you?

Cory Doctorow is up in arms about MPAA VP Fritz Attaway’s assertion that it is “against consumers’ interests to permit devices that make backup copies.”

Meanwhile, over at Educated Guesswork, they’re arguing that limiting consumers’ rights can be in their interest:

However, the general principle adduced by Mr. Attaway isn’t necessarily wrong: widespread copying of content potentiallly dramatically reduces the revenues received by the content provider. Any reduction in their potential revenus reduces their incentive to produce new content, which is bad for consumers as well. Now, it may well be that the ability to make backup copies and get cheap copies of the content that’s still available more than offsets the foregone value of content but that’s not something we know to be true by any means.

In other words, we don’t know that Mr. Attaway is right, but we don’t know he’s wrong, either, and what he said certainly isn’t crazy. Yes, it’s counterintuitive that you can improve your situation by restricting your choices but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

In other words, since we can envision a situation in which consumers might benefit from limiting their ability to backup data, then we know for certain that Attaway might be right. I call foul. On the contrary, if I can come up with one example that shows that backing up data is in a consumer’s interest, then I can say for certain that Attaway is wrong. And I can:

“The worst thing is, one little scratch is enough to make the movie skip forward a chapter,” says Martin, who estimates his collection at more than $3,000. “That’s become really annoying with a few of mine.”

DVDs are easily damaged. Being able to make a backup copy preserves my investment. Therefore, it’s not in my interest to prevent me from making backup copies. I realize Attaway is making an economic argument here, but the argument assumes that the only way to prevent piracy is by restricting backup devices. Imagine if the same logic was applied to automobiles: the only way to prevent car theft is to ban paint — after all, by painting stolen cars, thieves can cover their tracks!

Surely it’s not in the consumers’ interest to restrict their rights simply to prevent miscreants from breaking the law. Wouldn’t the MPAA be better served by devoting its resources to going after the true criminals, rather than restricting its customers’ rights?

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9 Responses to Is copying bad for you?

  1. EKR says:

    I never said that Attaway was right. In fact, I said he might well be wrong, but that what he said wasn’t crazy. Sure, it’s to your private benefit to be able to make backup copies of DVDs. But if the widespread availability of backup devices means that there’s dramatically less new content, you might be better off replacing the occasional scratched DVD than foregoing all that new content. Which effect is more important is an empirical question that can’t be resolved by thought experiments or scoffing.

  2. Dave says:

    Obviously I don’t have a problem with your comment indicating that Attaway might be wrong. My point is that it is not true that he might be right. Saying that restricting backup devices is bad for consumers of movies is like saying that restricting automobiles is bad for consumers of horse carriages. If automobiles are easily available, who in their right mind would build horse carriages?

    Certainly the availability of backup devices might impact the variety of movies that are produced, but who’s to say that “movies” are more important than “backup devices”? I don’t think anyone imagines that the movie industry would be completely destroyed by the ability to copy a DVD, but even supposing it was, why should we prefer the movie industry to the DVD-copying industry?

    Limiting consumers’ ability to purchase the products they want harms consumers. Of course new products are going to make older products obsolete. My point is you shouldn’t legislate the impact of new technology.

  3. EKR says:

    “Certainly the availability of backup devices might impact the variety of movies that are produced, but who’s to say that “movies” are more important than “backup devices”? I don’t think anyone imagines that the movie industry would be completely destroyed by the ability to copy a DVD, but even supposing it was, why should we prefer the movie industry to the DVD-copying industry?”

    Well, if you don’t have any movies on DVDs, then a DVD copier isn’t of much value. Now, it’s true that there are other kinds of data that can be on DVD, but that’s frankly something of a nit. It would be easy to have a system where DVD movies were illegal to copy (and it was illegal to make copying devices) but it would be legal to copy non-movie DVDs. This might very well be a better world.

    “Limiting consumers’ ability to purchase the products they want harms consumers. Of course new products are going to make older products obsolete. My point is you shouldn’t legislate the impact of new technology.”

    This is just a simple assertion, and as I indicated in my original message is not obviously correct. To take less controversial example, most people are in favor of restricting consumers ability to purchase plutonium.

  4. Dave says:

    “most people are in favor of restricting consumers ability to purchase plutonium”

    Restrictions on plutonium purchasing are there for public safety. By contrast, restrictions on purchasing of DVD copying devices are there to placate the movie industry, so the analogy is not appropriate.

    A more appropriate analogy would be restricting the purchase of lead containers. Lead containers can be used to transport plutonium, therefore we should ban all lead containers so they are not used for criminal purposes. You see why this is wrong?

  5. Dave says:

    “It would be easy to have a system where DVD movies were illegal to copy (and it was illegal to make copying devices) but it would be legal to copy non-movie DVDs”

    Well, it turns out it’s not so easy. That’s the world the MPAA wants, but those pesky hackers keep figuring out ways to get around it.

    But let’s suppose it was trivially easy to do just that. I’d still say it was wrong, because the MPAA doesn’t have any right to tell me what to do with my personal DVD. I can understand the balance implicit in copyright laws: if my copying causes economic damage to a rightsholder, then I can be sued by the rightsholder. But rightsholders are now demanding to control my activities that do *not* result in economic damage to them, namely making personal backup copies.

    In fact, the current law only increases the economic incentive for them to deliver faulty products. If making a backup copy is illegal, and if my only recourse when a DVD is damaged is to buy a new DVD, then the more fragile the DVD, the more money the movie distributor makes!

  6. EKR says:

    I think we’re talking past each other, since I’m not talking about “right” versus “wrong” but rather about the economic implications. Right and wrong turns out to be a lot more complicated than it sounds (mandatory reading: Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons”). Accordingly, I’m not very interested in questions of your rights in your personal property. That said, nearly every moral theory buys into the claim that Pareto-dominant outcomes are to be preferred. As I observed, there are situations in which Pareto-dominant outcomes can be achieved by having restrictions on your behavior. As far as I can tell, you’re simply ignoring this in your analysis.

  7. Cypherpunk says:

    An interesting corollary to Eric’s analysis is that you (and society!) gain the economic benefits even if the restrictions are completely voluntary, with no need for mandated restrictions. That is, if you can credibly commit to honoring a promise not to backup your DVDs, then you can have a world where some people will make such commitments and some people won’t; and some people will sell the DVDs they have created absent such commitments, and some people won’t.

    In Eric’s example, the artist would refuse to sell his DVD to people who won’t make the commitment, at least until he has recouped his costs and made a satisfactory profit. That way he makes his money, his customers get their disks, everyone is happy, and no one has been forced to do anything they don’t want to. In every trade, both parties improved their position. And as Eric said, without the ability to make these commitments, the DVD would never have been made, the trades would not have occured, and everyone would have been unhappier. Ironically, most people wouldn’t even know what they were missing. They wouldn’t realize that the absence of the ability to commit was depriving them of gains they might have received.

  8. Dave says:

    Eric, I concede that if the conditions of the analysis are sufficiently limited, then one can argue that there are situations where limiting consumer choice is “good” for the consumer. My point is that this analysis is naive, because in the real world, conditions are in fact never that limited. The most significant flaw in the analysis is the assumption that “variety” of motion pictures produced is the single most important criterion for determining whether or not to regulate DVD copying devices. Another important flaw is the assumption that easy ability to backup DVDs necessarily results in reduction of sales. Perhaps *more* DVDs would be sold if consumers knew it was easy to make backups–after all, this increases the utility of the DVD.

  9. Cypherpunk says:

    The ideal solution then would be to allow DVD backup but not redistribution. They could do something similar to consumer CD recorders. These allow you to back up your CDs (and remix them to a limited extent), but only to special “music” recordable CDs. And these special CDs can’t be further backed up, preventing exponential growth of copies. Would you accept a solution like this for DVD backup?

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