It increasingly looks like the SOPA/Protect IP fights are turning into an example of how the political system sometimes does work correctly after all. The con forces on these bills initially looked numerically overwhelmed in congress and hugely outspent. But opponents really mobilized vocally, got people and institutions who don’t normally focus on politics to write about this, and perhaps most important of all demonstrated that more people genuinely cared about this issue than most members of congress initially realized. Now the momentum has slowed incredibly and the White House technology policy team has come out against these bills.
To look a gift horse in the mouth for a second, however, I note that the White House statement does contain a “reasonable” to-be-sure line stating that “online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs.”
It’s clearly the case that there are specific individuals and firms who would be better off in a zero-copyright-infringement world. But it’s almost inconceivable to me that such a world would be socially optimal. There is enormous deadweight loss associated with copyright, so the socially optimal quantity of copyright infringement is greater than zero even before you consider enforcement costs. For the economy as a whole, I’ve never seen any compelling evidence that online piracy is in fact a real problem. If it was a real problem, you would expect the problem to manifest itself in the form of consumers with cash in their pockets finding themselves unable to find songs to listen to or films or TV shows to watch. Obviously content-producers (like me!) would prefer to have higher revenues, but if there’s a genuine problem here it should manifest itself on the consumer side as creators just give up on writing new books or whatever. To say that there’s no real problem here isn’t to say we need to move to a zero-copyright or zero-enforcement world, it’s simply to observe that the enforcement status quo actually seems fine.