Some thoughts on copyright, entitlement, and zero opportunity cost

One of our neighbors keeps trying to steal cable television.

We know this because our neighbor isn’t terribly good at electronics or even the most basic principles of electrical cabling. Our cable modem service keeps going out; last week, while I was visiting figmentj, it went out for three days (leaving my roommate David, whose car still hasn’t been replaced since it was totaled a couple months back by an unlicensed driver, without transportation or World of Warcraft).

The technical guy sent out by Comcast discovered that the main cable junction box feeding our apartment complex had been pried open, and the miscreant, in his clumsy and ham-handed efforts to steal cable, had made a right proper mess of the cable connections. Our cable connection had been cut entirely, and a much of the rest of the junction box had been screwed up as well.

Last night, just at the start of a boss fight in Heroic Pinnacle (that doesn’t mean much to you if you don’t play World of Warcraft, so substitute “a difficult situation where other players were counting on me”), it went out again. David ran outside to try to catch the miscreant, and discovered that the junction box had been pried open again and cables were strewn all over the place.

That’s not what this post is about. That’s just the back story.

This post is actually about intellectual property and opportunity cost. Now, before I get into a full-on rant here, I want to disclose something up front: I have a horse in this race. This is an issue that matters to me because I am a creator of work that is often taken without my permission, something I’ll get into in a bit. This is not an abstract thing for me; it’s something that affects me personally. If it sounds like I’m taking the issue of intellectual property personally, it’s because I am.

We live in a society that is very hostile to the idea of intellectual property. People tend, by and large, to think very little of stealing content; in fact, entire social systems have grown up around it. We are, by and large, okay with bootleg software, illegally downloaded music, and all manner of disregard for the intellectual property of others, in ways that would horrify us if they were applied to physical property.

This stems, I think, in no small part from the fact that we are as a society hostile to intellectual pursuits in general. It’s pretty tough not to notice that US culture today is steeped in anti-intellectualism; an anti-intellectualism so virulent that many folks won’t vote for a political candidate if he’s perceived to be too intelligent or too well-spoken. It’s not surprising that a society that thinks so little of intellectual endeavor should think so little of the products of that endeavor.

In fact, I’ve even heard people argue that intellectual property as a concept should not exist at all. In a strange throwback to Communist ideals, I’ve heard it argued that if a person dedicates twenty years of his life and his entire fortune to the development of a new idea or the invention of a new gadget, his knowledge and the fruits of his labor should be available freely to all, so that anyone who wants to make knockoffs of his invention or who wants to sell the results of his idea should be free to do so without giving anything back to the person who worked so hard to develop it.

I think that’s fucked up beyond all measure, frankly.

Now, granted, not everyone takes that extreme a view to the notion of ownership of the results of one’s cognitive labors. A much more common argument in favor of intellectual theft is the “zero opportunity cost” argument.

This argument goes something like: “Well, there was no way I was going to buy Photoshop. If I steal a copy of Photoshop, Adobe has not lost anything, because I was never going to buy it to begin with. Because Adobe has not really lost anything, no harm has been done, and it’s OK for me to pirate it.”

Same for copying music, stealing cable, or sneaking into the movie theater; “I wasn’t going to pay for those things anyway, so it’s not like they have lost any sales. They’re not losing anything, so it’s OK for me to do this.”

It’s a bullshit argument, front to back. The opportunity cost is rarely truly zero.

My neighbor is a great example. In his attempt to steal cable, he has damaged property not belonging to him, he has interrupted a service that I’m paying for, and he has made Comcast send out repair technicians twice now. (Tomorrow will be a third time; they’re replacing the entire enclosure around the cable junction box, because in prying it open he damaged it beyond repair, and the junctions inside are now getting rained on.)

It’s a bullshit argument even if the piracy doesn’t involve crowbars to someone else’s property, though. Take Photoshop (or don’t, please!). Most of the folks who pirate it are not professionals; they don’t do print production for a living. That means they don’t use, or even know about, anything even close to 90% of its capability; they have no need of a $700 image editing program, and there’s no question that Adobe is not out $700 for everyone who steals Photoshop.

What these pirates need is a $49 image editing program; and that’s a $49 image editing program they’re not going to buy because they stole Photoshop.

And hell, there’s a free image editing program called The GIMP that they can have for nothing, legally! It’s not Photoshop and it can’t do everything Photoshop can do, but the folks stealing Photoshop don’t need everything Photoshop can do.

But that’s not even the most important reason the argument from opportunity cost is bullshit. The argument from opportunity cost is bullshit because it rests on a sense of entitlement. Bluntly, you don’t have the right to benefit from someone else’s work without paying that person, even if you would rather go without than pay.

People steal intellectual property and people steal services because they want the benefit. They see benefit in owning Photoshop or having cable TV. Having these things makes their lives better in some way. And they feel entitled to that benefit; they feel that they deserve to have their lives made better from the labor of other people.

If I do something that has value, and you want that value, pay me. If you don’t want to pay me, then don’t take the value. You are not entitled to gain value from my work for free.

Even if–and I’m looking at the folks who steal music here–you think that the money I want is excessive or that I am unreasonable.

If you think that I am unreasonable and the value I offer is not worth what I am asking in exchange, that’s fine. Don’t take the deal. But don’t then also believe that you’re entitled to have that value, and you have a right to steal it just because you didn’t take the deal! You may think the RIAA is a bunch of asshats who wouldn’t know ‘reasonable’ if it bit them on the cocaine-powdered nose, and I’d agree with you, but that still doesn’t excuse the fact that you have no right to take value from them for free just because they’re asshats.

It gets simpler to understand when we think about tangible things. If I rent cars, and you sneak into my parking lot, you hot-wire one of my cars, and you take it for a joyride, then you return it to my lot the next morning and I don’t notice what you’ve done, you could argue that the opportunity cost was zero. I didn’t lose anything’ the car is still there, and you weren’t going to rent it from me anyway, right? You might even say I’m financially better off, if you fill the gas tank before you put it back so it has more gas in it the next morning than it did when you took it.

Yet reasonable people, even people who think that software piracy or theft of music is OK, would draw the line at this sort of behavior. I doubt that very many folks would say that taking my cr for a joyride was acceptable; the “zero opportunity cost” argument would not hold up. Yet it’s the same argument that folks use to steal intangible things all the time.

Now, on to the horse that I have in this race.

In the past few days, intangible theft has affected me twice. First, my cable modem service was interrupted because my neighbor thinks that theft of service is OK. (Which, I suspect, will soon become a self-correcting problem; the police and the cable companies take theft of service seriously, and I started the ball rolling on a theft-of-service investigation this morning.)

Second, because I create intellectual property. I create content in the form of software, such as my game Onyx, and in the form of a great deal of writing on a number of diverse subjects.

Now, I like to think that I’m a reasonable fellow. I don’t much like the way the software industry works, so I give away a limited version of my game for free. I don’t like DRM and Draconian copy policies, so I license the pay version to people rather than to computers–if you buy the game, you’re free to put it on as many machines as you own, under whatever operating system you like, and the same serial number will work on all of them.

I believe that outreach, especially on subjects like non-traditional relationship and lifestyle choice, is important, so I permit anybody who wants to to copy any of the information on my Web pages, provided they credit me for it. My BDSM and polyamory pages are wildly popular, and I get several requests a month to copy part or all of the site elsewhere. Go for it! Do whatever you want. You don’t even need to ask me first. Seriously.

You want to print my stuff out and use it as a handout at a seminar? Be my guest! You want to translate it into other languages? Go right ahead! You want to put it on your own Web site? No problem! Just credit me as the author. That’s not an undue burden.

Yet, even that is apparently too much to ask for some folks.

Lat week, I discovered that large sections of my BDSM site were being used on the commercial, for-profit site of a prodomme who makes her living from her Web site, and they were posted without attribution. I sent her a nice email explaining that I was fin with her using the material, but I’d really appreciate credit. She responded by saying that she’d never heard of me or my Web site, and that she hadn’t taken the material from me, she’d taken it from another site.

I looked, and sure enough, she had–she’d lifted it from another site that had lifted it without attribution. From, get this, still another site that had lifted it without attribution.

No honor among thieves, I suppose.

So I’ve spent, over the last day or so, about four or five hours working my way up the chain and sending out copyright infringement notices. And I bet that over the next week I’ll probably be hearing from a bunch of pissed-off people.

That seems to be how it happens. People do geniunely seem to have a sense of entitlement to the intellectual work of others; when I’ve dealt with this kind of thing in the past, it’s shocking how often someone will become angry, as if to say ‘how DARE you tell me that I can’t take material you have created and use it on my own pay-for-access Web site!’. It’s not just me, either. In any dispute over intellectual property, the person whose work has been stolen is often cast as the villain–in ways that they are not if, for example, someone has his car taken.

Which is weird, and more than a little fucked up.

And sometimes, it’s by folks who really, really ought to know better. One of the Web sites that has lifted content from me belongs to the Triskelion Society, a well-known and generally well-respected BDSM organization. (Edit: As it turns out, the material was given to the Triskelion Society by a third party claiming copyright; they were blameless and have since removed the material.)

I’m sure that there will be folks who think I’m being unreasonably hard-assed about this. After all, my own site is free; what’s the harm in taking content from it for their own site? It’s not like I’m losing money, right?

In the end, I think that it comes down to respect. We (well, generally, most of us) respect the property of other people, and the labor of other people, but it seems that same level of respect does not extend to the intangible creations of other people. The zero-opportunity-cost argument displays an appalling lack of respect for other people’s effort and creation; it essentially boils don to “I want this, but I’m not going to pay for it, so I should have a right to have it anyway.” It’s even worse when it’s dressed in the language of self-righteous indignation; there are many music bootleggers who will rail against the RIAA as a corrupt, archaic, greedy institution that exploits its own members (which is true) and doesn’t pay its own artists (which is also true), but the difference between the RIAA and the misic pirates is that the RIAA believes artists should be paid a trivial pittance, whereas the music fans, incensed by this arrogance, seem to believe that the artists should be paid…nothing at all.

Now, me, I don’t ask for money; I merely ask that work I created should be attributed it to me. And apparently that’s too high a cost for some folks–even folks who use my content to build Web sites that they do charge money for.

But after all, they weren’t going to pay me for it anyway, so I haven’t really lost anything, right?