Perfect timing. I've been trying to come up with my latest post in my series on economics when scarcity is removed
on some products, and it seems that Scott Adams of Dilbert fame wants to help me out. Earlier this week, I posted about Adams' unconvincing
views on how copyright violations really were equivalent to theft using a really weak analogy involving underpants. Apparently, my post caught his attention and he's now responded on his blog, buttering me up by calling me eloquent before trying to defend his underpants analogy
and throwing an occasional insult in my direction. Multiple people have noted in the comments that Adams apparently uses his blog to make ridiculous arguments just to see how people respond to them, and that this is clearly one of those cases. That may be true, but a number of the points he raises are often raised by others in discussing the economics of infinite goods -- so it's worth digging a little deeper into them.
First off, it wouldn't surprise me if it's true that Adams doesn't really believe or care about the argument he's making. One of my favorite bits of Adams' writing came many years ago when he described a debating technique he hated, which can basically be called the truckload of vegetables argument
. I'm such a fan of it, that I've invoked it
in the past. It basically describes people who extrapolate out your position to a ridiculous extreme to try to prove you wrong, while also making up ridiculous analogies and then jump to the wrong conclusion when you point out their analogy isn't at all accurate. Now go read Adams' latest post again, and you'll notice that he extrapolates my argument out to an extreme, brushes off the fact that his analogy wasn't even remotely accurate and then jumps to the wrong conclusion about what I said. Scott, I think you're eating a truckload of vegetables here.
He notes that the critique of the underpants analogy is meaningless, because no analogy is perfect, otherwise it's not an analogy. That's clever, but wrong. It's like the question of whether or not you can make a perfectly accurate map -- and you realize that the only perfectly accurate map is the world you're actually living in. However, we're not discussing imperfections from simplifying. We're discussing the fact that the analogy isn't actually an analogy at all. That is, it's not an analogous situation -- and therefore, it doesn't prove or model anything. Sure, analogies can be imperfect, but they at least need to be analogous.
Next, he clarifies a point that I misunderstood. I dinged him for using underpants as an example because it brought out an emotional response (people think it's gross to wear someone else's underpants, or to think that someone might be wearing their underpants). Adams basically says that emotional response was his point. People have the same emotional response to others making use of their copyrighted works. That's a fair statement, but it's also totally unrelated to what he was trying to prove (that copyright infringement was the same thing as theft). In order to do that you have to show that there's an actual loss involved -- but what he actually showed was that someone may get emotionally upset. Tragically, making someone emotionally upset isn't yet against the law -- and even if it is, it's quite different than theft. Being emotionally upset may suck, but it's usually a part of life.
Then we get to the meat of his argument: he experimented with letting people download one of his books for free and it didn't help sales. Thus, we've got proof that downloading doesn't equal promotion. This probably seems convincing... but it's still wrong. The problem is that he was promoting the wrong thing. Too many people assume (and Adams seems to fall into this camp as well), that when we suggest people use "free" as a promotional effort, that it means that's the end of the strategy. You simply give stuff away and somehow, at the other end, you simply expect people to give you money. When that doesn't happen, they insist that free isn't a good way to promote.
What we (and others) are actually saying is that you need to recognize what things should be free and what those things should be promoting (and how to promote with it). That's why we've been talking about understanding the economic nature of the bundle of benefits that make up any good
. The fact that Adams was unable to sell more books by giving away free downloads just means he (or his publisher) failed to use the free promotion properly to entice people to buy the actual book and failed to make the book valuable as a separate purchase from the free download. He didn't add enough value to the book above and beyond the download. That doesn't mean that free isn't promotional, it just means that Adams used the promotion incorrectly.
After that Adams goes into full insult mode, basically saying that anyone who disagrees with him couldn't possibly have advanced education in business or economics (apparently, I should give back my degrees)... and then proceeds to completely confuse the economics of his own statements. He, like many others, seems to think that using free goods for promotional purposes is somehow a "socialist" idea: "I think a reasonable person can dislike capitalism and wish for a more socialist world where art is free for all takers." Unfortunately for Adams, that's not what we're saying at all. We're pretty strong believers in capitalism and free markets -- it's just that capitalism and free markets recognize that price gets driven to marginal cost, even if that marginal cost is zero
. It's difficult to understand how people believe that a gov't granted and backed monopoly is somehow less capitalistic than letting the free market and the laws of supply and demand accurately set price
So, whether or not Adams is just acting as a professional troll, it's time that people started to actually think about issues involved in copyrights. That means stop making bad analogies. Stop making bad assumptions. Stop getting confused by the importance of free. Stop focusing on the emotional arguments rather than the rational ones. Stop assuming that "free" is somehow anti-capitalist. Start understanding how to use free effectively as a promotional tool (which Adams has done at other times, whether on purpose or not). Start understanding the business models that are enabled by free, and start recognizing how those business models actually expand rather than shrink
your market. Then, perhaps, we can have a serious discussion about the issues of copyright and whether or not infringement is really the problem (emotionally, legally or economically) that Adams seems to think it is. So, how about it, Scott? Can we agree to get rid of the truckload of vegetables?