Felten's Law

Edward Felton of Freedom to Tinker points out that when it comes to the copyright and pornography debates the positions of the debaters switch changing from subject to subject.

The law:

As a copyright policy discussion grows longer, the probability of pornography being invoked approaches one.

And a corollary:

When the topic of a copyright policy discussion switches to pornography, each side suddenly adopts the other side's arguments.

And an example:

For example, Hollywood argues that filesharing will lead to a shortage of movies, because nobody will make movies they can't sell. But when the topic switches to pornographic movies, suddenly they start arguing that filesharing increases the creation and availability of content.
Similarly, some P2P vendors who say they can't possibly filter or block copyrighted content, suddenly decide, when the topic switches to porn, that they can provide effective blocking.

This is a great insight, and makes it clear to me that there are fundamental biases driving the debate as opposed to a search for solutions. When it comes to life online, people like content to be free for everyone else to see and they also look for ways to avoid content they don't want to see. From there we get search engines and ad blockers.

Perhaps this is not such a great shift when pornography is invoked, because the desired effect has shifted as well.

So, let me make my observations.

  1. People who produce content are performing work
  2. If they provide you that work it's either because they wanted you to see it or you may have paid to see it
  3. If you send it to someone else, it's because you want them to see it, or they want to see it.
  4. If they want to see it without paying and get it from you without compensation to the originator, that's wrong
  5. If someone sends you something you didn't want to see, but they wanted you to see it, that's spam

So, the reason for the switch in the pornography debate is that pornography is most often sent as spam (no one admits to looking for pornography), in hopes of getting people to buy the full content. P2P vendors want acceptance of their products and a customer requirement is the protection of children from pornography. We all know how well spam is filtered, so this seems like a vacuous claim on the part of P2P vendors.

There are tons of people (after all, someone is paying for all this stuff) that will want pornography available via P2P and they will most likely be copyright violators.

The copyright debate is all about making sure originators or distributors are paid for their content that people are getting to see without paying. P2P vendors derive a lot of use from people sharing copyrighted content that have purchased that they want to provide to their friends. They also want to look at their friends' copyrighted content. The tragic excess from P2P comes from the extension of the concept of “friends” to, essentially, the entire planet.

Solutions elude us, as a society, at the moment. It's far too easy to spam and to copy material so these activities are rampant. There is no strong cultural bias against these activities either. Strong penalties applied to people that perform these activities seem excessive to most in our society (a lawsuit and a $2,500 damage award against a 14-year-old girl in Montana, for example).

The only way out of this is to change the model. Let's hear your solutions.

Josh Poulson

Posted Saturday, Mar 19 2005 09:11 AM

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