Monday, June 25, 2012

Optimal intellectual property protection (part 2)

In which the state of current copyright law is discussed, a meager calculation is effected shewing the exercise of said law necessary to compensate rights-holders for their losses, and the stage is set for act 3.

The major U.S. laws currently in place to handle copyright infringement on the internet are: The United States Copyright Law, and the DMCA.  Under the former, the maximum penalty for an infringer is $150,000 dollars per copyrighted work.  An unknowing infringer--somewhat not protected by fair use provisions, but not willfully breaking the law--suffers a minimum penalty of $200 dollars per copyrighted work.  Recent rulings have indicated that the granularity of a work is on the song (as opposed to album) level.  Now, judging from iTunes, the market value of a song is about $0.99.  That's quite a mark-up.  Real world awards have reached truly astronomical levels, but let's look at a recent case, in which a judge knocked down a $675,000 dollar fine to $67,500 for willful infringement for 30 songs.  That's $2,250 a song, down from an initial $22,500 a song.

Just working with the music numbers for a moment, things look a little like this:

In 2007, the RIAA report estimates sales losses of 3.7 billion dollars with their (quite reasonable) download substitution estimator.  I'm ignoring their physical piracy numbers because they don't apply to the intarwebs points I want to make.  To make up for this they'd have to levy the minimum fine on 18,500,000 (by the RIAA estimates, 0.3% of 6 billion yearly illegal downloads), the maximum fine on 24,667, or the judge determined "reasonable" $2250 fine on 1,644,445 instances of illegal downloads.  Even the largest of these would be a tiny percentage of enforcement.  Of course, the RIAA only managed to file 20,000 lawsuits (primarily ending in settlement) by 2008 when they mostly stopped doing that on account of it being hilariously unpopular.  It seems like the settlements were generally between the "reasonable" and minimum fine levels, so the RIAA clearly wasn't going to recoup costs through these lawsuits.  Since they gave up that tactic, they have focused on the DMCA, and on producing bigger, badder, scarier versions of it. 

At issue in the DMCA and its would-be successors is the burden of enforcing copyright laws.  Basically, the DMCA explicitly prohibits circumvention of copyright protections regardless of whether such circumventions are used to violate copyright, enacts the mechanism of "takedown notices" which limit the liability of compliant online service providers (OSPs) in exchange for rapid response to notification of infringement by copyright holders, and permits subpoenas of OSPs for user identity information.  Copyright holders feel that these provisions are insufficient, and have proposed a variety of legislation holding hosting sights responsible for infringing content posted by users.  Obviously, this imposes substantial costs, risks, and responsibilities on social networks and community content sites.

All this sets things up quite nicely for part 3: actual cost-benefit analysis!
Potential costs: money of social network sites, money of taxpayers, money of RIAA and member organizations.
Potential benefits: greater compensation of copyright holders, deterrence of copyright violation.

Of course, that's only if you forget that the goal of IP law is to incentivize the development of intellectual property.  So, we'll be taking a look at the incentive maximizing level of IP protection as well.  All that to come.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Macroeconomic quicky

Recessions and depressions occur when total spending--and therefore total income--is reduced.  This reduction of total spending is brought on by an increase in demand for money, either to hold as savings or to use to pay down debt.  Once you have your head around this, the Federal Reserve remedies for depressions and recessions--lower interest rates and higher inflation--become kind of obvious: they're both just ways to increase the supply of money, and reduce the demand for it.  It also becomes obvious that government austerity exacerbates the problem; it's just one more player contributing to the reduced spending and resulting reduced income.

Obviously, there are a bunch of wrinkles in this story, but sometimes it helps to just look at the simple fundamentals of a situation.  Those fundamentals indicate we should have more government spending, higher inflation, and lower interest rates.  Since interest rates are already at 0, we've only got two options left.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Let's have a little chat about Republicans

Once upon a time, Republicans were conservatives, and followed to a significant extent the primary dictate of conservatism:
conservatism - a political or theological orientation advocating the preservation of the best in society and opposing radical changes.
It seems clear that with Republicans routinely promoting the elimination or dramatic restructuring of things like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, that fundamental position has been abandoned.  But, I don't think it is right to say that modern Republicans are entirely unprincipled, or that they are merely advocating the interests of their wealthy donors (though they are certainly pursuing policies that primarily favor the wealthy).  Rather, I think the best way to view Republican ideology is through the lens of psychology.

Republicans understand the direction of human psychology, and the sorts of motivations that impact people's behavior.  It's true that higher marginal tax rates make people less excited about making more money; I've experienced that first hand.  Likewise, it's true that the leap from something for nothing to a-little-more-something for a-lot-more-work is significant.  If you stop your thinking there, then it is obvious that things like unemployment benefits and high marginal tax rates are ridiculous, silly, and probably counterproductive.

The trouble, of course, is that you can't stop there: you have to measure the size of the effect.  Basically everyone in Republican-land is assuming very-large, even dominating, effects from these psychological factors.  Thus things like "the confidence fairy", "regulatory uncertainty","bond market vigilantes", a preoccupation with "moral hazard" and the like.  Sadly, in most cases the empirical evidence seems to indicate that these psychological effects, though often real, are quite small.  The far side of the Laffer Curve--the hypothetical curve depicting the point at which increases in tax rate actually reduce tax revenues through disincentive effects--is estimated to be around a 70% tax rate.  Likewise, unemployment benefits increase unemployment rates much less than one might naively expect, especially in severe recessions like the one we are in.  As for the confidence fairy, bond market vigilantes, and regulatory uncertainty--they just don't seem to apply to our current situation.

Basically, Republicans show an interest in and a sense of human psychology which is intuitive, substantially correct, and praiseworthy.  Liberals are all too often guilty of ignoring the human, social, and psychological aspects of situations.  However, when it comes to accurately describing the way the world works, you'd be much better off dropping the psychological variables from your equations than the mechanical ones.  Or, best of all, keeping them all in and looking at what the econometrics data is actually telling you.  Doing that tends to show that optimal economic policy is much more closely aligned to Keynesian policies than Austrian ones.  Just goes to show that even if your intuitions are broadly right, it is still important to look at the data.

A little post-script:
It does seem that Republicans tend to forget their psychology when it comes to looking at regulating business.  Much, if not all, of the recent bank legislation is about avoiding the "moral hazard" created by federal guarantees on bank deposits, and for some reason that isn't subject to the same psychological rational as unemployment benefits.  Hard to see why, really, except for a sort of team "give the rich what they want" mentality.  That's a bit annoying.

Also, it's worth pointing out that a lot of people think that the financial collapse was brought on by Republican banking deregulation, and the conservatism as defined earlier would have been the exact impulse--that the rules of the past were laid down with wisdom and shouldn't be so easily cast aside--that protected us from that silliness.  In a proper conservative-liberal dichotomy, the liberals should have been pushing for the deregulation, and the conservatives should have been saying "hey man, we made those rules for a reason".

In my mind, both of these failures of Republicans to follow either their "human nature" or "conservative" ideologies is strong evidence of regulatory capture; the business interests have at least partially conquered the Republican party and put them to use on the behalf of banking against the best interests of society.