Every once in a while I run across someone very smart who has become completely lost by intellectualizing out of all proportion to the issue at hand. In some cases this is intentional: the objective is to display dizzying mental agility, then perform some sleight of logical mind that allows the smart person to convince others that up is down. At other times the smart person has actually deceived themselves, losing the forest of reality for a theoretical tree that some other intellectual lifted a leg on.
I don’t think there’s anybody who has a higher ratio of smarts to brain cramps than Christopher Hitchens. I could read Hitchens all day, just to enjoy the flow of his language and the logic of his ideas, even as he launches many of those diatribes from premises I consider invalid, destined for conclusions I deem absurd. In the more duplicitous camp I think of none other than George Will, the humorless columnist who enjoys nothing more than turning his megawatt mind to the subjects of both politics and baseball, with equally dubious results.
I mention all this as preface to a post* a couple of days ago by Matthew Yglesias, who is a smart person. Regarding the effect of free (stolen/pirated) content on the record industry, Yeglesias writes:
But under conditions of perfect competition, the price of a song ought to be equal to the marginal cost of distributing a new copy of a song. Which is to say that the marginal cost ought to be $0.
It’s of course amazing to me that someone could write something like that and not recognize the obvious problem, which is that this paradigm allows for no costs associated with the creation of the music that is being distributed, nor any opportunity to recoup those costs — let alone turn a profit. Then again, this is what happens when smart people talk about things like intellectual property as if it simply exists inside the walls of a black corporate castle, rather than as something that someone — an artist or craftsperson — makes.
Obliquely recognizing the potential problem, Yglesias adds:
It is, of course, possible that at some point the digital music situation will start imperiling the ability of consumers to enjoy music. The purpose of intellectual property law is to prevent that from happening, and if it does come to pass we’ll need to think seriously about rejiggering things.
In reply, Sonny Bunch makes the obvious point in a post titled Piracy. Is. Stealing.:
No! False! The purpose of intellectual property law has very little to do with Matt Yglesias being able to enjoy a wide variety of new music. The purpose of intellectual property law is to protect the intellectual property created by artists so they are rewarded for their efforts. The purpose of intellectual property law is to punish people who steal that which isn’t theirs.
Yglesias, in his reply to Bunch, again ignores the question of authorship, or even the existence of the artists and craftspeople who create content:
He’s being sarcastic, but that is, in fact, an absolutely insane idea. The point of intellectual property law is to benefit consumers, not producers.
Note that last word: “producers”. That’s not the same as: artists.
To the Matthew Yglesias’ of the world, no human being with a passion or a vision actually makes music or tells stories that they hope to sell as a product. That’s all done by corporations and copyright holders, who are just looking to make a buck. Admitting as much, Yglesias reaches for an analogy and comes up with…the pharmaceutical industry.
Does Bunch think it’s a terrible affront to the moral rights of pharma researchers that there are generically available drugs? Does he want to see ibuprofen and penicillin and measles vaccines taken off the market? That’s crazy.
The only thing crazy here is the inability of a very smart person like Matt Yglesias to wrap his mind around the idea that without copyright protection, there exists no object — no ibuprofen pill — for artists to sell. That’s how complicated it isn’t.
— Mark Barrett