Scott Adams' Cognitive Dissonance
In "Is Copyright Violation Stealing?" he cited this anti-copyright argument that he found objectionable:
“Copyright violation is not stealing. If I steal something physical, the original owner no longer has it. But if I violate a copyright, the original owner has lost nothing tangible. So while copyright violation is illegal, it’s very different from stealing. In fact, it’s good publicity and might even benefit the person from whom you stole.”
I understand the point that copyright violations are different from theft of physical property, but is it a victimless crime?
When you violate a copyright, you take something valuable from the copyright owner that he can’t get back. You take his right to control where his creation is viewed and how. It might be your opinion that the “free publicity” you provide outweighs the loss – and you might be right – but you’ve taken from the creator the right to make the publicity-versus-overexposure decision himself. That might not seem like a big deal to you, but it feels that way to the person who lost control of his art.
So the creator loses the right to control what someone else does with his own property in his own home. Boo hoo. When the slaves were emancipated, the slave owner also lost a preexisting right of control. The proper question to ask is whether the "property right" involved in a particular form of control is a legitimate one.
Let me give you an analogy. Let’s say your neighbor sneaks into your house while you are gone and borrows your underpants. After wearing your underpants all day, the neighbor launders them, folds them neatly, and returns them to your house in perfect condition, all while you are gone. He tells himself that he will say good things to people about your business – whatever business that is – so this arrangement is good publicity for you. The next time he sees you, he tells you about the underpants because he figures you’ll thank him for saying nice things about his business. He informs you that it’s a win-win scenario.
Given that you have full use of your property (the underpants), is it a victimless crime? I would say the owner of the underpants lost something even though his property is physically the same.
This is a remarkably poor analogy. Underpants are a physical object that can only be in one place at a time. When the neighbor borrows my underpants, I no longer have that particular pair in my possession any more. His use of them logically precludes my being able to use them. Physical property is a zero-sum game, in which one person's possession necessarily comes at the expense of everyone else's possession. That is exactly why property rights are a logical conflict avoidance mechanism for physical property: given the fact that a physical object can only be possessed by one person at a time, property rules establish who the rightful owner is and prevent conflict between multiple claimants trying to possess the same thing at the same time.
For underpants to be a good analogy, they would have to be reproducible at zero marginal cost so that the same identical pair of underpants could be in ten million dresser drawers at the same time, without the original owner ever losing physical possession of his pair of underpants.
Mark Poncelet wrote a hilarious parody of Adams' underpants analogy, describing how the underpants thing would actually work if it were governed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. You never really buy those underpants, see. You just sign a license agreement. You have to pay again every time you put them on. (And if Bill Gates provided your underwear, you'd get a "New security updates are ready to be downloaded!" message every time you put them on).
Some people argue that copyright laws create an artificial property right that is inherently different, and less worthy than the more natural right to own physical property, such as your clothes. But it seems to me that you only own your clothes because the law says so. Absent any artificial laws, I could go into your closet and wear your clothes whenever I want. All property rights are artificial. Copyrights are no different.
As far as I can tell, this is the only attempt in either post that Adams made at a logical defense of "intellectual property." So as lame as it is, he at least deserves credit for attempting to justify it with an argument--as opposed to assuming it as self-evidently true and then resorting to ad hominems against those who disagree, as he does the rest of the time.
The argument, though, is still lame. Physical property rights are a direct outgrowth of the natural concept of possession. Because the same physical object can be possessed by only one person at a time, and the same space can be occupied by only one person at a time, my defense of my tangible property rights follows of necessity from my occupancy of it. All I have to do to enforce my tangible property rights claims is to maintain possession against any would-be invader. If necessary, I can call on my neighbors for help. But to enforce an "intellectual property" claim, in contrast, I have to invade someone else's space to make sure he isn't using his own property in a way the state has conferred an exclusive right on me to do.
You may now activate your cognitive dissonance and explain in the comments that every time you violate a copyright, the free publicity it generates for the artist is proof of your goodness.
Adams parleyed this "cognitive dissonance" bit into a second post: "Find the Cognitive Dissonance."
If you’ve read anything about experiments to produce cognitive dissonance, you know this was the perfect setup. You can produce dissonance by putting a person in a position of doing something that is clearly opposed to his self image. Then wait for his explanation. The explanation will seem absurd to anyone who doesn’t share the dissonance. In this case the model that produced it was…
1. Good people are not criminals.
2. Criminals break laws.
3. I break copyright laws.
4. But since I know I am a good person, my reason why it’s okay to violate copyright laws is (insert something absurd).
The fascinating thing about cognitive dissonance is that it’s immune to intelligence. No matter how smart you are, you can’t think your way out of it. Once your actions and your self image get out of sync, the result is an absurd rationalization.
So, for "cognitive dissonance" to come into play, doesn't there have to be an actual contradiction between the self-image and behavior of the person involved? If I don't believe intellectual property is legitimate, and I don't believe copyright violations are stealing, then file-sharing can't be cognitive dissonance, now, can it? Adams' cognitive dissonance argument applies only to someone who accepts his first premise (and by the way, anyone who accepts that premise has no principled basis for disobeying the Nuremberg Laws). Adams may consider my arguments against "intellectual property" to be absurd, but if I find them convincing how can I be doing anything clearly opposed to my self-image? Adams was having so much fun playing around with a half-understood concept from freshman psychology, he obviously didn't take time to think things through very well. Too bad he didn't take the freshman class in logic while he was at it.
For example, one of my favorite absurd rationalizations for violating copyrights goes like this:
1. Information is free by nature.
2. When rich people cause Congress to create copyright laws, they are taking something from me that used to be free.
3. Therefore, I am not stealing. I’m just taking back what was taken from me.
That's only an "absurd rationalization" if you believe copyright law is valid. Otherwise, it's simply an argument. It may be an argument that Adams disagrees with, but if so he ought to put more effort into demonstrating why it's wrong and less effort into psychoanalyzing those he disagrees with. But as we already saw, his only actual attempt at such an "argument" for intellectual property was lameness itself. It's pretty depressing to see a cartoonist who's normally so good at skewering the bullshit claims of those in authority, himself uncritically regurgitating the kind of corporate-speak bullshit you'd find here.
To see just how lame Adams' ad hominems really are, just consider how easy it is to turn the method around and use it against him.
"Intellectual property" opponents believe that copyright is stealing, pure and simple. If a cave man figured out how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, and thereafter went around forcibly collecting tribute from anyone else rubbing two sticks together on the grounds that he had an exclusive right to perform that act, that would be no different in principle from the actions of Gates or Ballmer or the RIAA. Copyright is simply the use of force to collect tribute from other people for using their own property as they see fit. Now, if we start with the assumption that copyright is theft, and treat any argument against it as an absurd rationalization for violating a self-evident truth, we can formulate the following cognitive dissonance argument against Scott Adams:
1. Stealing is bad.
2. Using force to make someone else pay tribute for using his own property the way he wants (i.e., copyright) is stealing.
3. I make money by copyright.
4. But since I know I'm a good person, my reason why it's okay for me to steal is (insert absurd rationalization, probably involving an argument to the effect that stealing isn't really stealing when its sanctioned by a gang of thugs calling itself "the government").
Now, mind you, I'm not making such an argument, because it's just as much an intellectually dishonest argument when I use it as when Adams uses it. It's intellectually dishonest because it assumes that Adams implicitly accepts Premise 2. If Adams does not believe copyright is theft, he may be in error. But he is not acting inconsistently with his own beliefs.
But then, I guess Adams has more invested in being right than I have.