Tuesday, April 06, 2010

In Defense of (some) Free Riding

Randy Cohen defends the commonsense view that if you've paid for a book, it's okay to illegally download a digital version of it:
Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.

I think this doesn't go far enough. Really, piracy (or 'free riding' generally) is only wrong if you would otherwise have paid for it. If you'd sooner go without than shell out the demanded price for a non-rival good, then you may as well free ride -- it's better for some (namely, you) and worse for no-one. Don't get me wrong: it's important that those who find the good worth the price do pay, so that there's incentive to provide such goods in the first place. It's merely those who wouldn't pay anyway who can, on this view, permissibly free-ride.

Admittedly, it may not be a good idea to publicize this principle too much, since it might easily be abused by the unscrupulous. It creates an incentive for self-deception, as a wannabe pirate who really does find some good worth the price might try to convince himself that he doesn't want it that much, in a (wrongful) attempt to excuse free-riding. But one cannot expect moral principles to be proof against knavery. Sure, the unscrupulous might make insincere and inappropriate appeal to the principle, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. I'd expect that someone sincerely concerned to adhere to this moral principle would "play it safe" by only pirating in cases where it's clear that they wouldn't buy the good in any case. (If the content-producers have an online "tip jar", they might even contribute whatever lesser sum the good is worth to them.)

What do you think?


  1. If you followed that rule you'd still end up spending less on content than you would without piracy. (Economists would say you forgot the substitution effect.) Suppose I download Wrestlemania 12 and watch it. It takes 3 hours to watch it tonight. I probably watched it instead of a movie, say The Dark Knight. Now The Dark Knight is great and I would have had to pay for it since it's worth it--which is why I didn't watch it. The "free" (lower quality) goods will "crowd out" some high-quality goods in any rational person's consumption bundle. So we're still rewarding good content less than optimally, probably.

  2. Good point. I wonder if we can build that into the principle? "No deliberate substitutions", or some such. (It'd probably be too difficult to pick up on all the substitution effects though...)

    I guess what we really need are more systems like Netflix whereby consumers pay an up-front general subscription fee for unlimited access to the content library.

  3. But when would anyone ever pirate something they felt wasn't worth paying for? If you hate wrestling, for instance, and wouldn't pay to see it, you likely aren't going to take the time to download it. If you're willing to spend hours watching something you find worthless, you should still remunerate the provider for the opportunity to shake your head in disgust in front of your computer. If you're seeing it or listening to it, you should pay for it.

  4. There's plenty of room between "hate" and "like enough to pay the full price for". Some things we just like a bit: enough that it'd be worth the time to consume (if free), but not enough that it's worth paying several hours' wages for in addition.

  5. "It's merely those who wouldn't pay anyway who can, on this view, permissibly free-ride."

    Doesn't this assume that you can reliably tell whether you would have paid in the alternate universe in which the content wasn't accessible for free? Even in the idealized situation where people have agreed to your principle and earnestly want to follow it, the principle requires a level of introspection and imagination that's difficult if not impossible to achieve. In fact, we can anticipate that, in practice, the application of the principle will be drastically skewed in favor of illicitly accessing free content.

  6. jaltcoh - are you assuming that we can always reliably tell whether our actions meet the objective conditions for permissibility? (I'm not.) If a wannabe pirate can't tell whether they would have paid, then -- if this principle is right -- they can't tell whether their free-riding is permissible. A responsible agent, in such cases, would presumably "play it safe". Any 'skew' such as you describe could only result from misapplying the principle -- and, as I say, that cannot be considered the principle's fault.

  7. Am I "assuming that we can always reliably tell whether our actions meet the objective conditions for permissibility"? No, I don't believe that. But if an ethical rule is consistently impracticable, then I question what the point of it is.

    Of course, you can go ahead and distinguish the application of the principle from the principle itself. Yes, I understand that conceptual distinction. So, if your goal is for the "principle" to remain untarnished and have any failings attributed to the "application," then I suppose you can get what you want. But is that what really matters? I don't think so. After all, those are just theoretical constructs -- they're not real. If you have a rule that would lead to ethical behavior if it were actual followed, but no one is capable of following it, what progress have you made?

  8. I'd expect there to be plenty of clear cases, too.

  9. Idle thought but given that the press would have it that the most prolific illegal downloaders are the young - who might simply lack the cash to pay for what they are downloading, maybe people are already following that principle.

    I'm in my thirties, single, earning a reasonable salary, and can afford to buy the music and films I want to see/listen. And so I don't illegally download it, but on the other hand, if I were 19 and struggling to get by on a student loan, I might well have done. After all, whether something is worth paying for is dependent not only on how you perceive its quality, but on how much the money that you would have to pay for it is worth to you.

    Interesting that with all the furore over illegal downloading, the existence in the centre of the city in which I live of a large building I can walk into and borrow for free from a choice of literally tens of thousands of copyrighted works is considered to be a mark of civilisation and a worthy endeavour, and not an ominous threat to the printed word depriving legitimate content-producers of millions in lost revenue...

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Patrick - right, an implication of this view is that free-riding is much more often permissible for the poor. That seems right to me.

    J [author of deleted comment] - Personal attacks will not be published here.

    On topic: you asked whether academics ought to scan and make freely available expensive texts that students can't afford. University libraries seem a sufficient solution to this problem. (It's also common for professors to scan relevant sections of a text and place it on Blackboard so that enrolled students can access it. I gather that this is perfectly legal.)

  12. University libraries seem a sufficient solution to this problem

    Let's ask some grad students, even in League Ivy about that.
    I wager many, if not most--in all departments--object to the exorbitant prices of textbooks. And with one or two texts at the library, one usually ends up copying dozens or hundreds of pages, and paying for it anyway...if it's available...

    And you ducked the issue on the publishing biz--the endless editions of some popular text (mostly with little substantial changes) keep the shekels rolling in. A Calculus text from 10 years ago, even 30 years ago will generally suffice (also supplemented with other materials, online notes, etc). But the publishers and academics who work for them insist that students buy the 9th edition package, new for $250 or so, when the used 1st editions go for $5...so, a need for piracy (and/or scanning)

  13. Oh, I certainly agree that textbooks (not to mention anthologies) are often ridiculously overpriced. I don't see that as sufficient justification for piracy (though in some cases it could fall under the general principle advanced in my post). My response to the institutional problem is more to encourage academics to make their own work freely available -- choose open access publishing, share pre-prints of their published papers on their websites, etc.

  14. You've set this up the wrong way.

    The free rider wants the good/service because the cost is zero. If the cost was greater than zero, our freerider would not wish to purchase the good/service. This rather matters. Why? Because on your logic if I don't want a good/service at $1million that I would happily purchase at 50 cents, then I should be able to say "well, I wouldn't want it at $1m, so give it to me at 50 cents!"

    But that's not how it works. How it works is that people purchase the goods and services they are willing and able to buy AT THE PRICE OFFERRED. The fact that one would want something for free that one is not prepared to pay for is kind of irrelevant. Ergo, your free rider example is a red herring: the fact that some particular good/service can be attained by those who pay nothing (but would not pay something were a price imposable) is irrelevant to the question of whether those people SHOULD have to pay something. The brute fact is that they don't HAVE to pay something - because they are freeriding - but you can't move from there to conclude that only those who would pay more should have to pay more. Otherwise the knife cuts the other way and you have to start saying that people like me should get to buy ferraris for 50 cents because that's the price I would be willing and able to put the car for (it just happens to be retailing for a lot more).

  15. badconscience - you might want to follow my link explaining the 'non-rival' nature of informational goods. Obviously my argument doesn't carry over to physical goods, because if someone takes a ferrari for 50c, this makes someone else (viz. the previous owner, who no longer has a ferrari) worse off. Now, if you can copy a ferrari for 50c, leaving the original unchanged, then by all means go ahead...

    Since you seem to have misunderstood the most basic aspects of my argument, let me clarify. The premise is not "everyone should get whatever they want, no matter the costs to anyone else." It is instead the following Pareto principle, "if something would be better for some, and worse for none, then it should be done."


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