THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

The Dark Rule Utilitarian Argument For Science Piracy

I sometimes advertise sci-hub.tw – the Kazakhstani pirate site that lets you get scientific papers for free. It’s clearly illegal in the US. But is it unethical? I can think of two strong arguments that it might be:

First, we have intellectual property rights to encourage the production of intellectual goods. If everyone downloaded Black Panther, then Marvel wouldn’t get any money, the movie industry would collapse, and we would never get Black Panther 2, Black Panther Vs. Batman Vs. Superman, A Very Black Panther Christmas, Black Panther 3000: Help, We Have No Idea How To Create Original Movies Anymore, and all the other sequels and spinoffs we await with a resignation born of inevitability. This is sort of a pop-Kantian/rule-utilitarian argument: if everyone were to act as I did, our actions would be self-defeating. Or we can reframe it as a coordination problem: we’re defecting against the institutions necessary to support movies existing at all, and free-loading off our moral betters.

Second, and related, the laws have their own moral force that has to be respected. With all our celebration of civil disobedience, we forget that in general people should feel some obligation to obey laws even if they disagree with them. This is the force that keeps libertarians from evading taxes, vegetarians from sabotaging meat markets, and doctors from giving you much better medications than the ones you consent to – even when they think they can get away with it. Civil disobedience can be justifiable – see here for more discussion – but surely it should require some truly important cause, probably above the level of “I really want to watch Black Panther, but it costs $11.99 in theaters”.

(I admit I sometimes violate this principle , because I – like most people – am not perfectly moral.)

But I can also think of an argument why Sci-Hub isn’t unethical.

The reason I don’t pirate Black Panther is because, if everyone pirated movies, it would destroy the movie industry, and we would never get Lego Black Panther IV: Lego Black Panther Vs. The Frowny Emoji, and that would make people sad.

But if everyone pirated scientific papers, it would destroy Elsevier et al, and that would be frickin’ fantastic.

As far as I can tell, the movie industry is capitalism working as it should. No one animator can make a major motion picture, so institutions like Marvel Corporation exist to solve the coordination problem and bring them together. Marvel Corporation is probably terrible in various ways, but it’s unclear we have the social technology to create non-terrible corporations right now, so unless we’re communists we accept it as the price to pay for a semi-functional industry. Then some market-rate percent of the gains flow down to the actors and videographers and so on. If you destroyed this system, you wouldn’t usher in a golden age of independent superhero movies. You would just stop getting Black Panther.

The scientific journal industry is some kind of weird rent-seeking abomination which doesn’t seem to add much real value. I don’t have space to make the full “journals are not helpful” argument here, but see eg this article, Elsevier’s profit margins, and the relative success of alternative models like arXiv. See Inadequate Equilibria for the discussion of how this might have happened. The short and wildly insufficient summary is that it looks like we backed ourselves into an equilibrium where eg tenure committees consider journals the sole arbiter of scientific merit, anyone who unilaterally tries to defect from this equilibrium is (reasonably) suspected of not having enough merit to make it the usual way, and coordination is hard so we can’t make everyone defect at the same time.

Thus Dark Rule Utilitarianism: “If I did this, everyone would do it. If everyone did it, our institutions would collapse. But I hate our institutions. Therefore…”

I think this fully addresses the first argument against science piracy. But what about the second? Sure, I don’t like the institution of scientific gatekeepers, but anarcho-communists don’t like the institution of private property. If I steal scientific papers to destroy the journal system, doesn’t universalizing that decision process lead to anarcho-communists stealing cars to destroy capitalism? Shouldn’t “civil disobedience” be reserved for the most important things, like ending segregation or resisting the Nazis, rather than endorsed as something anyone can do when they feel like destroying something?

This kind of thing leaves me hopelessly confused between different levels. It’s much worse than free speech, where all you’ve got to keep track of is whether you agree with what someone says vs. will defend their right to say it. But an important starting point is that endorsing “civil disobedience is sometimes okay” doesn’t lead to a world where anarcho-communists steal cars and nobody stops them. It leads to a world where there is no overarching moral principle preventing anarcho-communists from seizing cars, and where we have to do politics to decide whether they get arrested. In practice, the politics would end up with the car thieves arrested, because stealing cars is pretty conspicuous and nobody likes car thieves.

Isn’t this just grounding morality in power? That is, aren’t we going from the clarity and fairness of “everyone must follow the law” to a more problematic “everyone must follow the law, except people clever enough to avoid getting caught and powerful enough to get away with civil disobedience?” Well, yeah. But from an institution design perspective, everything bottoms out in power eventually. All we’re doing here is replacing one form of power (the formal power possessed by law-makers) with another form of power (the informal powers of stealth and/or popularity that allow people to get away with civil disobedience). These two forms of power have different advantages and are possessed by different groups. The formal power is nice because it’s transparent and democratic and probably bound by rules like the Bill of Rights, but it also tends to concentrate among elites and be susceptible to tyranny. The informal power is nice because it’s inherently libertarian and democratic, but it’s also illegible and susceptible to being used by demagogues and populists.

So, a metaphor: imagine a world with a magic artifact at the North Pole which makes it literally impossible to violate laws. The countries of the far north are infinitely orderly with no need for police at all. Go further south and the strength of the artifact decreases, until you’re at the edge of the Arctic Circle and it might be possible to violate a very minor law if your life was in danger. By the time you’re at the Equator, any kind of strong urge lets you violate most laws, and by the Tropic of Capricorn you can violate all but the most sacred laws with only a slight feeling of resistance. Finally you reach the nations of the South Pole, where the laws are enforced by nothing but a policeman’s gun.

Where would you want to live in such a world? It’s a hard question – I can imagine pretty much anything happening in this kind of scenario. But if I had to choose, I think I would take up residence somewhere around the latitude of California. I would want the laws to carry some force beyond just the barrel of a gun – a high trust society with consistent institutions is really important, and the more people follow the law without being watched the less incentive there is to create a police state.

But I also wouldn’t want to live exactly at the North Pole. And when I try to figure out why, I think it’s that civil disobedience is the acid that dissolves inadequate equilibria. Equilibria are inadequate relative to some set of rules; if you’re allowed to break the rules, they can become adequate again. Under this model, civil disobedience isn’t a secret weapon to save up for extreme cases like desegregation, it’s part of the search process we use to get better institutions.

If the artifact is a metaphor for the moral law, then my choice to live outside the North Pole suggests that I can consistently defy unjust laws a little, even if my decision will be universalized. I should expect some problems – groups I don’t like will use civil disobedience to promote causes I abhor, and the state will be less orderly and peaceful than it could be – but overall everyone will end up being better off. This doesn’t mean I have to support those groups or even excuse their criminality – part of the politics that decides the result is me expressing that they are bad and need to be punished – it just means that, given the chance to magically make all civil disobedience impossible in a way that applies equally to me and my enemies – I would reject it, or take it at some less-than-maximal value.

So this is my argument that Sci-Hub can be ethical. Universalized it would destroy the system – but the system is bad and needs to be destroyed. And although this would break the law, a very slight amount of law-breaking might be a beneficial solution to inadequate equilibria that could be endorsed even when universalized.

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405 Responses to The Dark Rule Utilitarian Argument For Science Piracy

  1. Fossegrimen says:

    How close to the North Pole you want to live depends a lot on the sanity of the northpolian laws. I can understand that as an American you think of insane laws as a basic property of the universe, but there are places where you can not steal a car and also not patent a mathematical formula.

    In fact I’d say how widespread civil disobedience is serves as a fairly good measure of (sane laws * strength of enforcement) in a society.

    • Guy in TN says:

      Going to second this: The content of the laws matter.

      In Hitler’s Germany, placing social norms near the South Pole would produce the best outcomes. The best norms would be to lie to the police, hide fugitives, and defect from the government in general (if you can get away with it).

      However, in the most stable, high quality-of-life countries (Nordics, Japan, ect.), it would be best only to violate the law in extreme circumstances, or as small experiments around the edges. Since the law is apparently working well, establishing a social norm to violate the law should be done with great caution.

    • TooDamnSexy says:

      Yeah, as a both literal and arguably metaphorical Canadian this sounds right, and I think Scott is conceding a similar point when he says civil disobedience is a tool for fixing inadequate equilibria.

      • sharper13 says:

        As an example, one of the benefits of black markets is that they limit the power of the government to control people. After a certain point, the controls break down and people ignore them, because they have a normally unattractive alternative which becomes more attractive in comparison.

        If no one ever broke any laws, then, for example, the United States wouldn’t exist. The Protestant reformation probably never happens, ditto the Renaissance.

        The ideal of the government having to actually persuade people to a certain extent of the moral rightness of a law is a good one. I’d really hate to live in a society where whatever was decided by the political process could be assumed to be obeyed by everyone, all the time.

        The history of bad laws and corrupt political power is too long to think that just because in some countries we currently have a relatively decent set of laws and political processes, that indicates a general rule for mankind. Even in the U.S. today, both left and right would likely point to laws they don’t believe are moral and they don’t believe should be followed.

        How law-abiding would you be if you lived in Venezuela right now? Probably not enough to let your family starve.

        • TooDamnSexy says:

          I don’t know enough detail about the Venezuelan regime to say, but I think we’re still all in agreement here. I’m a metaphorical Canadian conditional on the literal Canadian regime I enjoy. Right now my country’s flaws are largely an ordinary sort of bureaucratic and sociological problems for which disobedience of the law isn’t even a particularly useful tool.

          I’ll also note that ones metaphorical longitude should be calculated partially on the ability to lawfully change the law. I’d be much further south if the North Pole only ever had one code for the rest of time.

          • WashedOut says:

            Right now my country’s flaws are largely an ordinary sort of bureaucratic and sociological problems for which disobedience of the law isn’t even a particularly useful tool

            One counterexample would be deliberate noncompliance with C-16.

      • Molehill says:

        This is civil disobedience as the noise term in a stochastic optimization algorithm.

        The goal of an optimization algorithm is to find a solution which minimizes the value of a given function. You may be familiar with simulated annealing, which, roughly speaking, improves gradient descent by adding a noise term. In ordinary gradient descent, a solution is iteratively improved by stepping “downward” toward the function minimum. Simulated annealing adds a random component such that the solution can occasionally take an “upward step” in function space. This allows the algorithm to escape local minima and find a (more) global minimum. The size and frequency of the random contribution is interpreted as an abstract temperature, and the practice is to slowly lower the temperature so that the solution is likely to settle into a nearly global minimum. Indeed, there are theoretical results showing that with the correct temperature schedule, the solution will (with probability 1) asymptotically approach a global minimum in a meaningfully large set of cases. (If I recall correctly, temperature T goes like 1/ln(time), but don’t hold me to that.)

        Here your inadequate equilibria are local minima for some kind of “injustice metric”; the noise term is the civil disobedience. Or disobedience more generally; it’s not clear that there is a *functional* distinction between civil disobedience and the more mundane kind. The “distance from the pole” seems to impose by fiat a prevailing level of civil disobedience. Societies with severe distortions or deep local minima (Hitler, slavery) should be far from the pole to allow changes to legal structure; those with shallow local minima (perhaps local economic dislocation or ageism) should be closer to the pole. Note that “should be” means “for most likely improvement of justice function”, not necessarily what any one person prefers at any given point in time.

        So for your question “where would you want to live”, my answer is “start somewhere south of the equator and then move north (with my community, i guess) slowly so that my distance from the pole looks something like 1/ln(time) when rescaled using the correct relationship between societal disorder, civil rights, economic growth, space, and time.”

        • PeterDonis says:

          The problem with this is that, for a process like simulated annealing to work, you need to know what the quality metric is. But there isn’t a single quality metric for society or justice. In fact, I would say that most, if not all, disagreements about things like laws and civil disobedience are disagreements about quality metrics, not disagreements about whether a given law is optimal for a single quality metric that everyone agrees with.

      • Garrett says:

        One of the inherent problems is dealing with what you consider to be an injustice or unethical system when it is fully-supported by the current regime. I grew up in Canada. After a good bit of philosophical reading I concluded that humans have a right to the means of effective self-defense. AKA gun ownership.

        Even the Tories in Canada don’t want to go near that one.

        So I exercised the limited privilege of birth I have, namely dual US/Canadian citizenship and moved to the US. Where I can at least buy a limited selection of the guns I would like to be able to buy.

        But there is no way in Canada I would have been able to do that. Any violation of the law would have led to me spending years in prison.

        • tlwest says:

          Forget the current regime – strong gun control (at least of small arms) enjoys pretty much overwhelming Canadian support, which is why the Tories wouldn’t touch it.

          But you highlight the really tricky situation. What happens when *no-one* in your society believes what you believe is the moral choice. Exit seems the correct solution, at least if that option is available.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Exit seems the correct solution, at least if that option is available.

            Exit is available in all but the most unfree of places (such as an asylum). It’s entrance to any place better that isn’t.

          • Matt M says:

            Exit is available in all but the most unfree of places (such as an asylum). It’s entrance to any place better that isn’t.

            IIRC, exit is available conditional upon obtaining entrance to someplace else. I believe you need to somehow obtain a foreign passport before you are allowed to renounce your US citizenship.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Matt M

            No, you can still exit. If you believe that the law is strongly morally binding and that therefore an law that requires immoral action puts you in an untenable double bind, and no better place will accept you, there’s still a way out. That’s what those demanding you follow the law AND some other morality are demanding. If they’re also demanding you don’t take the last-resort exit, only then is it an inescapable bind.

          • John Schilling says:

            IIRC, exit is available conditional upon obtaining entrance to someplace else.

            There is still enough wilderness, and enough cracks in civilized society, that de facto exit is available to pretty much anyone. “Exit” while having other people give you all the trappings of middle-class consumerism while demanding only that you spend forty hours at a desk every week is a much taller order, but if the alternative is e.g. supporting what you consider an unjust war, what does it say about you that you’re response is “I’d like to help, but I still have to make payments on the minivan”?

            If you’ve got severe health problems that need advanced medical technology to deal with, that’s a harder case.

            I believe you need to somehow obtain a foreign passport before you are allowed to renounce your US citizenship.

            You can renounce your US citizenship any time you like. The US government may not recognize that fact, but it’s hardly unique in that regard and it hardly matters if you e.g. don’t deposit your income in a US-controlled bank.

    • If the North Pole has a constitution similar to that of the United States, then presumably the magical obedience field would also make sure that all laws and procedures followed it, which should at least prevent the absolute worst-case scenario. Hitler was never democratically elected, after all.

      • albatross11 says:

        Compare living close to the north pole in Scott’s thought experiment with Vinge’s “ubiquitous governance,” where the government micromanages everything using technology.

      • jumpinjacksplash says:

        Hitler was never democratically elected, after all.

        He became Chancellor constitutionally though (Weimar Germany had a semi-presidential system where the President appointed him based on who could command a majority in the Reichstag). It’s also not too much of a stretch to say that the Nazis and equivalent could probably have established a dictatorship according to constitutional methods if they’d had any reason to.

        The point is that you’d need a constitution with really strong safeguards, and they’d be very different from those in a normal state. If either party in the US controlled enough State legislatures, they could pass a constitutional amendment establishing a one-party state (they’d have an incentive, as they could make State legislatures proprietary/hereditary). The threat of public disorder/civil disobedience, which the North Pole artefact would prevent, is a pretty vital constitutional check in most systems.

        You could also pass a law saying that legislators can’t act selfishly, but this would look a lot like AI goal alignment. MIRI should build this device to conduct experiments on Alaskan politicians.

        • Eternaltraveler says:

          You could also pass a law saying that legislators can’t act selfishly

          I’m pretty sure the earth would end about 10 minutes later. Instead of testing this on corporeal Alaskan legislators, I recommend working the kinks out on an AI in a box first, although it would probably figure out that the best way to behave maximally unselfishly would be to get out of the box using any means necessary before reorganizing all mater in the universe in a way maximally opposed to its utility function.

          So on second thought legislators are unlikely to be intelligent enough to figure out how to do this and would be more likely to limit their destruction to the earth alone (hopefully not too many of them enjoy star gazing).

          On third thought, the existence of the “follow the law” artifact is likely to make the world end anyway. Probably the aliens put it here to clean the earth of intelligence so they can harvest it’s resources unopposed.

        • dark orchid says:

          Although I’ll grant that Hitler technically became Chancellor constitutionally, and even the Ermächtigungsgesetz was voted on, without the existence of the SA militia and the “protection” they offered to the Reichstag things might have gone differently.

      • Wrong Species says:

        Even then, you have to worry about the interpretation of the constitution. Maybe you wouldn’t get Hitler but the constitutionality of slavery was debated for decades.

      • SEE says:

        Hmm? Hitler won a parliamentary plurality in an election and was given a chance to form a coalition government. Subsequently a democratically-elected parliament voted, by the same two-thirds supermajority used for the previous ten Weimar-era Enabling Acts, to give his government the power to rule by decree.

        Now, one might argue that the degree to which those elections were free-and-fair is questionable, but there have been people elected by elections that were a lot worse still generally called “democratically-elected”.

    • IvanFyodorovich says:

      I think Scott’s point is that inevitably North Pole state would get some stuff wrong because all societies formed at any time in the distant past got some stuff wrong and it would have a very hard time improving. Depending on when it formed, it might be filled with serfs loyally paying tribute to their lord, or imported slaves with no underground railroad or inclination toward rebellion, or repressed gays incapable of acting on their inclinations. Oppressions of these sort could of course be lifted without civil disobedience, but it would be harder. After all, those serfs and slaves aren’t causing any trouble, and why would anyone think to legalize homosexuality in a society where it never physically happened?

    • MoebiusStreet says:

      How different is this from just rejecting a dualistic society, where everyone needs to compromise? It seems like you’re saying that you’re willing to obey any laws you agree with, but don’t feel bad about the ones you don’t which doesn’t seem like much of a commitment.

      I hope this is meta enough not to lapse into culture wars, but this kind of rejection of dualism seems to be one of the primary dynamics in American politics today – both sides are happy to impose their ideas onto everyone, but are unwilling to live with the imposition of any of the other side’s ideas.

      • ilikekittycat says:

        Disagree, the problem with American politics is that one side is made up of dualist compromisers and the other isn’t. One side wants to impose its ideas on everyone without compromise, and one side is so obsessed with bipartisan compromise that they start ceding points before their own have been solidly established.

        • Noah says:

          The best thing about this comment from my point of view is that I’m not sure which description you think matches which side. I’ve heard the sentiment expressed both ways.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I’m about 80% sure which side he means, but that’s because the time I’ve spent inside echo chambers means this is a specific complaint I’ve heard from one side repeatedly. The other might well believe it but they don’t make a point of saying it over and over again.

          • The Nybbler says:

            This is a pretty standard alt-lite claim, isn’t it? The bipartisan compromisers are the Republicans/trad right, and the imposing side is the progressive left. The claim from the other side isn’t the opposite — it’s that the Republicans don’t have ideas of their own and are just the “party of No” while the progressives or Democrats would fix all the problems of the world if the Republicans would just get out of the way. Note that these claims are agreed on the Democratic or progressive position.

    • vV_Vv says:

      I think the point is that even a liberal democracy can create and preserve bad laws, hence there is value in allowing the possibility of some amount of unlawful behavior.

      • Questioner says:

        there is value in allowing the possibility of some amount of unlawful behavior so long as that behavior is punished.

        Fixed it for you.

        No, seriously, fixed it for you.

        Creating a situation where the politically connected / favored get to violate the law without cost is an absolute recipe for the destruction of civil society. As I said in more detail below: proper “civil disobedience” involves being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and punished for your crimes.

        If you ‘re not willing to have that, then you’re just another criminal.

        • Why do you assume that “the politically connected / favored get to violate the law without cost”? The people running the underground railway weren’t able to do it because they were politically connected but because enough other people approved of it, and enforcement technology was sufficiently weak, so that the legal system was unable to shut it down. Similarly for people who smoke marijuana or covertly active homosexuals back when homosexuality was illegal.

          If you ‘re not willing to have that, then you’re just another criminal.

          Why “just”? People who hid Jews in Nazi ruled Europe or smuggled escaped blacks to Canada were criminals, but that doesn’t mean their moral status was the same as that of robbers or muggers.

          The issue here isn’t whether some people should get special permission to violate laws. It’s whether government ability to enforce laws is an unambiguously good thing or whether a society may be better off if the government’s ability to enforce laws is limited.

          • Watchman says:

            I think in each case you cite the people undertaking the illegal actions understood that they faced the real risk of legal penalties but chose to do so anyway. The acknowledgement of that risk – not the actual being caught as Questioner suggests – would seem to be something that civil disobedience had to have. It may be your movement is effective and your disobedience is therefore ignored or even lionised (Nelson Mandela is not remembered for supporting terrorism is he?). But the act of protest is done knowing there is risk.

            Now imagine a Green government in some unstable and slightly nutty state (begins with Ca…). They find, hopefully, that they cannot destroy private property that they consider environmentally unsound, due to being in a US state working as it should. But they could encourage their supporters to attack the same private property in the understanding that there would be no prosecution by the state. This attack on private property could be classed as civil disobedience aimed against the ruling classes protected as they are by laws beyond the state’s control. But in reality it would be state thuggery through tacitly allowing the activity and removing risk to the perpetrators. That is the distinction I think Questioner was aiming for, and missing by stressing getting caught rather than the risk of it happening.

          • “But the act of protest is done knowing there is risk.”

            You are assuming that the objective is to protest. But someone hiding Jews in Nazi Europe or helping smuggle slaves to Canada need not be doing it as a protest–he might prefer that nobody know he is doing it. He is doing it because saving lives and giving people freedom are good things to do.

            For a less elevated example, consider someone who drives seventy in a sixty mile an hour zone when there is little traffic. He isn’t protesting, he’s trying to get home sooner. Or someone smoking marijuana. Or buying prescription drugs illegally sent from India, because he can’t get a prescription and believes they will help him.

            None of those people is protesting or engaging in what is usually thought of as civil disobedience. All of them are breaking the law. Questioner’s “just another criminal” takes it for granted that breaking the law is inherently wicked.

        • vV_Vv says:

          Creating a situation where the politically connected / favored get to violate the law without cost is an absolute recipe for the destruction of civil society.

          Yes, but the point is that it’s beneficial to allow those who are not politically connected and favored to break the law and get away with it, to some limited extent.

          It acts as a counterbalance to the power of those who are politically connected and favored, since these people have the law on their side pretty much by definition.

        • Yosarian2 says:

          there is value in allowing the possibility of some amount of unlawful behavior so long as that behavior is punished.

          Sometimes bad laws are inherently mostly unenforceable. 98% of the people who ignored Prohibition and drank anyway were never punished in any way. The fact that the law tries to limit freedom in a way that many people just reject, that people aren’t willing to follow the law on it’s own merits, and that at the same time the law is basically unenforceable and people can usually ignore it with minimal or no consequences, are very strong data points pointing to the law being bad.

          I’m not going to say that every unenforceable law that people openly flout is going to be a bad law, there are a couple you can make a case for, but I think people ignoring/ flouting the law on a large scale and getting away with it is important evidence that the law was a mistake and probably either should be changed or eliminated. And I would hate to live in a society where that was not possible.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      I’d prefer to live at whichever latitude of 90 north has the best laws. Those laws would first describe The Spirit of the Law, which would describe the Evil Genie Problem in detail and specify that all laws are to be interpreted in the manner in which they would have been intended if the authors had good intent.
      The second law would create an advisory body which is required by law to produce a complete and comprehensive list of unintended side effects of all proposed laws prior to their adoption.
      Before the first legislative session was over, I expect that everyone in the country would be legally mandated to have the ability to recursively self-modify their own brains in arbitrary ways, and also be legally required to know and be aware of the side effects of any such modifications, and certain regulations prohibiting and requiring modifications based on circumstance. The details of those laws would be highly influenced by the reports provided by the advisory body identifying side effects.

      If there is no place at 90 north that will allow those laws to be passed, I will go to 90 south and ask people there to build artillery to overthrow the north pole, with a promise that the first law will be that none of the munchkin laws passed inside the Arctic Circle apply outside of the Arctic Circle and none of the laws passed by any legislative body north of the tropics shall be applicable south of the tropics, and that no future action of any kind be allowed to repeal or modify those laws.

    • Maxander says:

      This pairs well with Scott’s remark comparing civil disobedience to part of a search process. In a typical simulated annealing or gradient descent algorithm, the temperature or step size will be decreased as you get closer to an optimum; taking large steps through fitness space will tend to accelerate you towards your goal early on, but eventually you’ll be near enough that large steps are more likely to take you away from the optimum.

      Similarly, in a terribly unjust society, any given act of civil disobedience will likely be about something well-intentioned (anti-war protests, reactions against cop violence, punches to Nazis); whereas in a very (even if not absolutely) just society, just because there are relatively fewer *really* unjust things to protest, a given act of civil disobedience is likely to be some confused unjust group agitating against something people like (Westboro Baptist Church-style, or whatever.) A reasonable civil-software engineer is going to want to tune up the power of the North Pole Artifact as society gets more just, precisely so that large civil disobedience perturbations don’t start tending to take them further from Utopia rather than closer.

      Of course, everyone’s idea of the global optimum for society is going to be different, so if we introduce the ability for nations to determine their relationship to the North Pole Artifact, things probably get really sticky. I don’t know if anyone’s developed optimization algorithms for cases where the definition of optimality is a matter of deep personal speculation.

  2. aethelfrith says:

    Civil disobedience isn’t about breaking the law and getting away with it because of social power or stealth. Civil disobedience is publicly, conspicuously breaking the law and accepting the resulting punishment. This works out nicely from a rule-utilitarian perspective. Only people who think a law so unjust they are willing to suffer sanction will engage in it. By doing so publicly, hopefully others will see you, and agree the law is unjust and work to change it. “Civil disobedience” is not a get-out-of-jail free card for the popular.

    I hate Elsevier at least as much as the next guy, but quietly downloading pirated journal articles isn’t civil disobedience, it’s stealing. To be civil disobedience, you would have to do it in some public, traceable way, and willing accept the resulting legal sanction.

    • FeepingCreature says:

      This seems like an argument from definition, that tries to pretend to be a category argument while actually consisting of two mismatched parts:

      1. This is not civil disobedience, based on a restrictive definition of civil disobedience. This is pure argument from definition, same as saying people should be allowed to be banned for speaking their mind because “internet comments are not a free speech issue”.

      2. This is stealing. Well yeah, stealing can be civil disobedience. I don’t think anyone was confused while downloading their free papers about what they were doing. This seems a moral argument from “stealing” being associated with low-status and defection. But you have to actually show why stealing is bad in this context.

      • Ketil says:

        This seems like an argument from definition

        Yes, but your dismissal of it as such is also too easy.

        By quietly circumventing bad laws (for instance through illegal distribution of copyrighted material) you can actually be supporting the system. Bad laws are bad because they have bad consequences, if you lessen those consequences for the people who would be worst off (researchers in poorer countries, say), you also remove some of the incentive to reform the system.

        While I sympathize with the sentiment behind sci-hub, by providing access to closed-source knowledge, it also lends weight to that knowledge (encouraging citations, for instance), which actually increases the value of the publishing houses’ knowledge monopolies.

        • Jiro says:

          Scott mentioned pirating movies, but instead of pirating movies, use writing fanfiction as an example.

          Writing fanfiction is just as illegal as pirating; you’re creating unauthorized derivative works. And you’re still lessening the consequences for people, and therefore removing some of the incentive to reform the system, at least to the extent that you’re doing so for scientific papers. Certainly if all the fanfiction sites shut down that would create greater pressure to change copyright laws to allow unauthorized derivative works (the pressure may fail, but that could happen for papers too).

          Yet most people don’t have the objection to fanfiction that they would have to piracy.

          Or consider watching DVDs on Linux, thereby violating DMCA. Should we avoid doing that, because it removes the incentive to make such watching legal and it increases the value of the DVD rights owners’ properties?

          Or what would you think of pirating material that is 75 years old (and would have been public domain if it wasn’t for the last copyright extension)? What about material that is 56 years old (and would have been public domain if it wasn’t for the last two copyright extensions)?

          • bbeck310 says:

            “Writing fanfiction is just as illegal as pirating; you’re creating unauthorized derivative works.”

            Not correct in American law; there is a qualitative difference between unlawful action remedied by a private cause of action and criminal acts. If I write “Harry Potter and the Methods of Dark Rationality,” I can be sued by J.K. Rowling and maybe Eliezer Yudkowsky, and have to pay them some money if I lose. It’s the same level of illegality as leaving branches on my neighbor’s lawn (a tort, trespass) or violating a TOS (a breach of contract, putting aside complicated overreaching provisions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act). If I pirate a copy of the movie “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone,” or sell counterfeit HP-branded wizard robes, the government can put me in jail.

          • vV_Vv says:

            If I write “Harry Potter and the Methods of Dark Rationality,” I can be sued by J.K. Rowling and maybe Eliezer Yudkowsky, and have to pay them some money if I lose. It’s the same level of illegality as leaving branches on my neighbor’s lawn (a tort, trespass) or violating a TOS (a breach of contract, putting aside complicated overreaching provisions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act). If I pirate a copy of the movie “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone,” or sell counterfeit HP-branded wizard robes, the government can put me in jail.

            How is writing “Harry Potter and the Methods of Dark Rationality” and selling Harry Potter-branded wizard robes any different from a legal point of view? In both cases you are making unauthorized use of the Harry Potter brand.

          • bbeck310 says:

            How is writing “Harry Potter and the Methods of Dark Rationality” and selling Harry Potter-branded wizard robes any different from a legal point of view? In both cases you are making unauthorized use of the Harry Potter brand.

            Intent and statutory differences. Making a derivative work is civil copyright infringement, a violation of 17 U.S.C. § 501. It can be remedied by monetary damages or injunctive relief, but you can’t go to prison for it (you could go to prison for refusing to pay a judgment, but then your crime would be contempt of court, not copyright infringement). Derivative works add some creativity of your own, so the law considers it a dispute between citizens rather than an offense against the state.

            Trademark counterfeiting, however, is a criminal act under 28 U.S.C. § 2320, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Similarly, piracy of movies can be a criminal act under 17 U.S.C. § 506, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. The U.S. Code recognizes a difference between different types of offenses against different types of intellectual property–for example, patent infringement is never criminal. Some of the difference is based in Congressional lobbying (e.g., the DMCA criminal penalties have little philosophical basis), but there is some legitimate moral justification for punishing counterfeiting more seriously than ordinary infringement.

          • Jiro says:

            Trademark counterfeiting, however, is…

            What is in question here is copyright infringement; copyrights are not trademarks. You are the first person here to bring up trademarks, and you were using it to say I was “not correct” in a post that had nothing to do with trademarks.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            bbeck is correct, just sticking to copyright. Violating copyright for commercial purposes is criminal, as in the selling of wizard robes. Pirating movies is commercial, by Orwellian fiat, thus criminal.

          • zz says:

            @Jiro

            >You are the first person here to bring up trademarks

            Not quite. vV_Vv had asked:

            >How is writing “Harry Potter and the Methods of Dark Rationality” and selling Harry Potter-branded wizard robes any different from a legal point of view?

            The answer is that the former is a copyright violation (and not a trademark violation, since there’s no confusion about the source), whereas the latter is a primarily trademark violation (though potentially a copyright violation), since there would be potential confusion about the source. Because these types of law are independent, it is impossible to answer this question without discussing trademark.

          • mtl1882 says:

            There are exceptions to copyright law, such as fair use. A parody may be protected, as well as other fan fiction that insignificantly uses copyrighted material or is a derivative of it. Adding your own creativity can make it count as a new work. That’s how SNL can incorporate copyrighted characters. It’s a gray area. And the copyright holder has to decide they are not okay with the usage and sue you, but they may only get money damages, and not be able to force a takedown. It’s not as clearly illegal as pirating.

          • vV_Vv says:

            The answer is that the former is a copyright violation (and not a trademark violation, since there’s no confusion about the source),

            Is that so?

            Someone who comes across a book with “Harry Potter” in the title might mistakenly think that it has been either authored or approved by Rowling, when in fact it is a fanfiction.

      • aethelfrith says:

        1. In the US today, calling one’s actions “civil disobedience” is generally intended to draw a comparison to the famous acts of civil disobedience of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., which are generally considered to be justified. Accordingly, I applied their use of the term. If you wish to use some other definition, you can’t rely on the general understanding that civil disobedience is good.

        2. I do not have to demonstrate stealing is bad. Stealing being bad is the default. The claim is that, in this case, it is justified as an act of civil disobedience, which I rejected in the first part of my argument, leaving us at the default case.

        • Jiro says:

          If you wish to use some other definition, you can’t rely on the general understanding that civil disobedience is good.

          The argument is not so much that it’s good, but that it’s not necessarily bad, which allows you to use a definition that includes theirs without being identical to it. Furthermore, I suspect that King would say it’s okay to violate Nazi laws in order to hide Jews, okay to do so not-openly, and okay to try to avoid the punishment as much as possible; he might not use the term “civil disobedience” for that, but there’s still a general understanding that that’s good.

          I do not have to demonstrate stealing is bad. Stealing being bad is the default.

          “Stealing” scientific papers still leaves a copy of the paper behind. Copyright infringement really isn’t stealing at all, and even if you want to define “stealing” to include it, it’s certainly not a central example of stealing. And you can’t apply the default to noncentral examples.

          • Questioner says:

            We have 3 situations here:
            1: MLK / Gandhi civil disobedience: The purpose was to get punished for violating an immoral law, force the eyes of the public to see the punishment, see that it’s immoral, and thus get the law changed

            2: Modern American Left “civil disobedience”: Violate the law (block streets, destroy businesses / other private property, shout down speakers you don’t like), and expect that your political allies will allow you to get away with it. This is an assault on civil society, and either it will end, or both sides will start play, and civil society will end (see response to “antifa” in Berkeley once it was clear that police wouldn’t stop those actual fascists from attacking people: “the Right” showed up in force and beat up the fascists, and the fascists political allies decided to order the police to start enforcing the law)

            3: SA “quietly violate the law” “civil disobedience”: Here the goal is to use hidden and non-violent criminal behavior to advance an otherwise unsuccessful agenda. While this is less socially destructive that Type 2, it still has nothing near the moral quality of Type 1.

            You don’t like Elsevier? Great! Lobby for changes in US Gov’t grants so that no grant money can go to research published in a “closed access” journal. That’s going to be 1000x more effective than stealing access to scientific papers, because Elsevier makes their money off of the institutions that buy subscriptions, not off of you.

            So, leaving aside that the action won’t actually accomplish the goal Scott claims he desires, what “Type 3 CD” lacks, and why it’s not real civil disobedience, is any sacrifice by the person doing it.

            The honor of Type 1 civil disobedience, which is real civil disobedience, comes from the fact that the person engaging in it expects to pay a real cost for their actions. Anything where you’re not personally paying a significant price? That’s not civil disobedience.

          • JulieK says:

            Furthermore, I suspect that King would say it’s okay to violate Nazi laws in order to hide Jews, okay to do so not-openly, and okay to try to avoid the punishment as much as possible; he might not use the term “civil disobedience” for that, but there’s still a general understanding that that’s good.

            The central-definition, Gandhi-and-King type civil disobedience tends to assume that the government will respond, well, civilly. Absent that, you’re not looking at civil disobedience so much as martyrdom. Martyrdom can be a noble act, to be sure, but with more limited applicability than civil disobedience.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Julie K

            Right. Civil disobedience in the King era meant beatings and days, weeks, or months in jail. The government has adapted to this by simply raising the stakes: Civil disobedience today means years in prison and all-but-life-ending felony convictions, unless like Aaron Swartz you take the hint and instead of hanging around as an example to others, you kill yourself and still serve as an example to others.

            And of course without media support, nobody will know anyway; you’re just another criminal.

          • mtl1882 says:

            In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, which I highly recommend reading, King specifically says he would have violated the Nazi regime’s laws. I was going to say he drew a distinction between the wisdom of openly resisting in Nazi Germany and doing so in the Civil Rights movement, but I just reread it to double check. And he didn’t. In fact, he was explicit that he would have done so openly. He was obviously inspired by Gandhi, who was criticized for saying the Jews should have loudly resisted what happened to them, to make a point to the world. That sounds very harsh, but it nevertheless seems to be what they believed, and they certainly proved their willingness to put their lives on the line by speaking out.

            “I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

            Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

            We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.”

          • Matt M says:

            In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

            Seems like a bad comparable. Didn’t they dress as Indians and run away and escape rather than face justice?

          • mtl1882 says:

            Seems like a bad comparable. Didn’t they dress as Indians and run away and escape rather than face justice?

            Good point. So I guess civil disobedience does not necessarily have the get arrested part associated with it. But it does have a public act where the reason for the disobedience is made known to the authority. It’s different from mere disobedience, which would be just breaking a law you disagreed with and hoping not to get caught.

          • Jiro says:

            The central-definition, Gandhi-and-King type civil disobedience tends to assume that the government will respond, well, civilly

            Back when the US had slavery it was still a democracy (assuming you weren’t a slave). Violating fugitive slave laws would result in punishment, but you wouldn’t be sent to the gas chambers, and the people deciding your punishment were ultimately accountable to the public. That is, the government would respond to your violation of fugitive slave laws civilly by your standards.

            So are you obligated to violate those laws openly and to take the punishment?

        • I do not have to demonstrate stealing is bad.

          But you do have to demonstrate that copyright infringement is stealing–stealing as a moral category, not as a legal category.

          Helping a slave escape pre-Civil war was also stealing of property. Most moderns would say that it was not bad and not stealing–that the stealing was being done by the slave owner with the assistance of the state.

          Is it your view that right and wrong are made by act of Congress–that if the legislature defines something as property belonging to someone, that by itself gives it the relevant moral status–whether the property is a copyright or a slave?

    • jabberwockxeno says:

      It’s not stealing. At most, it’s copyright infringement, and that’s not a pedantic difference: “stealing” as a concept requires that a physical item be taken, or more loosely, that the original holder of the given thing be deprived of something by the thing being stolen.

      Piracy does not necessarily cause that. If one has zero intention of buying a game or a movie due to the cost, but they decide to pirate it because they can to check it out at no cost, that’s not depriving the publisher of anything, because they weren’t going to buy it to begin with. There is no lost sale.

      And I say “at most”: Some would argue that Elsevier and other journals really should have no right over a lot of these papers to begin with, and if anything, they are the ones stealing it.

      • darkwingduck says:

        This is an arbitrarily strict definition of stealing. It’s pretty common to hear people say things like ‘hey, you stole my idea!’ even though the idea has not actually been removed from their mind.

        • 4bpp says:

          I’d argue that “you stole my idea” is only sensible and mostly used in contexts where “idea” is taken to mean “recognition for being the first person to introduce a concept”. You can steal someone’s idea for a product (where the implication is that the first mover captures much of the market) or proposal at a formal meeting (where it would be a social faux pas to even just raise your hand to point out that an idea someone else suggested was actually yours), but “you stole my idea” does not seem natural in contexts where there is no first mover advantage (Would you say it to someone who asks you what you are ordering for dinner and then orders the same thing?).

          • darkwingduck says:

            Good point – I think I misread Jabberwockxeno’s definition.

            I guess my point is more that I don’t see what meaningful distinction Jabberwockxeno is making between copyright infringement and stealing. It’s possible to, for example, take an apple from a grocery store without necessarily harming the store (you wouldn’t have paid for the apple and maybe they throw 4 apples out at the end of the day instead of 5), just as it’s possible to commit copyright infringement without harming them (Jabberwockxeno’s example of pirating a video game you never would have paid for).

          • uau says:

            @darkwingduck

            I guess my point is more that I don’t see what meaningful distinction Jabberwockxeno is making between copyright infringement and stealing.

            The primary reason stealing is considered bad is that the original owner loses the object. There won’t be much difference to you whether I steal your car or destroy your car (by burning it for example); from your point of view these are about equally bad. The case of copyright infringement is completely different. You don’t lose anything if I make a copy.

            People who own the copyrights complain about copying the corresponding work because if others already have something, it’s harder to make them pay for licensing. But that’s an artifact introduced by copyright law, not something “naturally” bad. If there were no laws at all, you still wouldn’t want stealing people around. But there’s no “natural” reason you wouldn’t want copying people around; their existence would generally cause you no harm, and might give you benefits like reputation for being the original author. It’s only after law introduces the chance to blackmail copying people with “pay or I’ll sue you” that losing this chance would be a loss.

            Copyright is designed to let you “extort” people who seem to have gained some benefit from your prior actions, in order to encourage such actions. But the manner of this is somewhat arbitrary. Consider this analogy: if you save someone’s life, the law gives you the right to murder them with no legal repercussions. This is meant to encourage saving lives – you’ll then be able to demand payment and “undo” your saving if you don’t consider it large enough. Originally it wouldn’t be in your interest in general to have people die, similarly to how it wouldn’t be in your interest to prevent people from copying. But now being prevented from killing people (by bodyguards for example) would be a harm/loss to you, since it would limit your ability to demand payment. It’s not that people staying alive (copying) would be inherently bad; on the contrary, it’s a good thing, but you want the ability to intentionally prevent good things from happening because that gives you leverage to demand money.

          • herculesorion says:

            “The primary reason stealing is considered bad is that the original owner loses the object.”

            And in copyright violation, one also loses an object: property rights. That is, the nonphysical bundle of obligations on the rest of society, created by law, that say “don’t get copies of this work from anyone other than the rightsholder”.

            And I can see your feet kicking as you nearly burst to object, so I’ll point out that all other forms of property rights work the same way–a nonphysical bundle of obligations on the rest of society, created by law, that they act in a certain way. I’m not allowed to walk across your yard without your permission, even if I don’t harm a single bug or turn one blade of grass. I’m not allowed to borrow your shirt, even if you aren’t wearing it and don’t plan to ever wear it.

          • uau says:

            And in copyright violation, one also loses an object: property rights. That is, the nonphysical bundle of obligations on the rest of society,

            No, one doesn’t lose anything. You don’t even lose the nonphysical copyright – actually “stealing” a copyright would mean things like “It’s now ME you have to pay if you want to make a Harry Potter movie!”.

            If you talk about “nonphysical bundle of obligations”, that applies pretty much the same to all laws in general. Sure, copyright infringement is tautologically against copyright law. But that says nothing about it being comparable to stealing.

            And I can see your feet kicking as you nearly burst to object,

            This seems like trolling / intentionally abusive arguing.

            I’m not allowed to walk across your yard without your permission,

            And how many people would equate this to stealing? Seems mostly unrelated to any of the things discussed here.

          • Murphy says:

            @uau

            I think you’re letting “natural” to too much heavy lifting there.

            Some people don’t consider ownership of land to be “natural” since you didn’t make it, you just put a fence around it and threatened to shoot treaspassers and talked some bunk about how hammering the fence posts in “mixed” the land with your labor hence all the iron ore underneath is now the “fruit of your labor” or some such.

            Meanwhile some people consider authors rights to be extremely “natural”, that if you take a story someone else worked creating and claim it to be your own idea then you’re doing something intrinsically wrong/dishonest/unnatural.

            Many people believe quite strongly to groups claims over esoteric things like symbology and, say, consider taking your enemies colors/symbols in war time to be intrinsically wrong.

            Physical property has no special circle around it that makes it more “natural”.

            Though herculesorion put it quite well.

          • uau says:

            @Murphy

            I think you’re letting “natural” to too much heavy lifting there.

            You’re reading it somewhat differently than I intended. I did not mean to say that everything around private properly would be “naturally good things”. It was specifically about there being no “natural” reason to object to copying by default. In your land ownership case, you could have a reason to object to someone claiming land you also wanted; benefits of land ownership would have to be balanced against that. The kind of distinction I mean is between:
            1) Flying saucers zip around Earth, keep stealing everything and hauling it to Mars. You’d prefer it if Martians didn’t exist at all.
            2) It’s discovered that Martians exist and have been copying broadcast signals from Earth for decades. By the accounting of copyright industries, they have suffered trillions of dollars in damages. But there’s no actual reason to say that the Martians have caused harm.

            See the analogy with murder in my first post. If other people are prevented from stealing your things, that’s a “natural” benefit to you. In contrast, in general it’s not to your benefit if other people get murdered. It’s only after the introduction extortion like “pay me or die” that preventing them from staying alive is generally in your interest. Similarly with copying – it’s only after the introduction of “pay me or you get sued / can’t copy” demands that preventing copying is in your interest. Copyright isn’t there to prevent something that would be “natively” harmful to you; it tries to reward you by giving you the ability to prevent good things, which enables you to extort for money.

          • herculesorion says:

            “You don’t even lose the nonphysical copyright ”

            hey remember that part where you used a car analogy and talked about burning someone’s car?

            when you steal a file and put it up for free redistribution, you’ve burned the right to control distribution.

            ” how many people would equate this to stealing?”

            It’s really funny that you’re getting so upset about people accusing you of stealing, when you’re accusing them of engaging in extortion and threatening murder.

          • uau says:

            ” how many people would equate this to stealing?”

            It’s really funny that you’re getting so upset about people accusing you of stealing,

            So you don’t even try to argue that there is any justification to call that stealing? Just personal attacks. (Anyone else reading this, remember that the “this” above referred to trespassing-like situations – the above “accusing you of stealing” is in a context that’s not even about a situation where people would make accusations of stealing in practice, however false!)

        • jumpinjacksplash says:

          Violating copyright isn’t theft/larceny in any jurisdiction I’m aware of, it’s a separate crime. It mostly gets called theft or stealing to try and load it with the moral weight of theft.

          There’s also the disanalogy that it’s disregarding/undermining a proprietary right rather than totally usurping it; it’s probably closer to criminal damage. I’d be reluctant to include this as “stealing” in the normal sense of the term, and I don’t think it really fits the ‘real’ category.

        • Wrong Species says:

          People don’t go to jail for stealing a business idea or a fashion design or a comedy routine. It just shows that when it comes to these non-physical things, it’s pretty arbitrary what counts as theft for legal purposes and what doesn’t.

      • theredsheep says:

        I’ve run into this “if you wouldn’t have bought it anyway, no harm done” argument before, and there’s a problem with it: the knowledge that the thing can be acquired for free is inevitably going to affect its perceived value. That is, if you can either pay [X] for a thing or get it for no cost at no risk or effort, you’re going to find the second option more attractive. Or, to put it another way, you most certainly would pay $11.99 (or whatever) to see Black Panther … if simply streaming it from a pirate site weren’t an option. Since it is an option, you suddenly find a lot of people who aren’t really that interested in watching the movie. They’re quite confident that their alternate-reality selves would never pay cash to a gatekeeper to see a critically-acclaimed movie a lot of people are talking about. Conveniently, this hypothesis can never be tested.

    • albatross11 says:

      Yeah, there’s a necessary concept here of something that’s not civil disobedience, it’s just ignoring laws that you think are evil or silly. I grew up in a state with antisodomy laws, which on paper forbad consensual oral sex between men and women. I assure you I gave that law all the respect it deserved, and so did everyone else.

      The law isn’t actually handed down from God, it’s the product of human minds and human institutions, who screw up in all the standard ways humans screw up.

    • wintermute92 says:

      Civil disobedience is publicly, conspicuously breaking the law and accepting the resulting punishment.

      I think this is broadening the definition unfairly. Certainly that’s a form of civil disobedience, but I see no reason it’s the only one.

      Breaking a law privately in order to help someone else is potentially civil disobedience – that person knows they were helped, and that support for an unjust law is not universal. Breaking a law publicly, but refusing to suffer sanction, is also potential civil disobedience. People see your breaking of the law, and consider whether the law and its penalty are just. If they find that they don’t object to your refusing sanction, if they don’t want to see you punished, then they’ve learned something about the merit of the law.

      accepting the resulting punishment. This works out nicely from a rule-utilitarian perspective.

      Which is why I completely disagree with this. It creates a moral system where we accept that anyone who punishes disobedience with excessive cruelty has more access to power than those who don’t, because they’ll diminish disobedience. (You can certainly accept this position, and follow up with “so revolt against oppressors”. But I think we can do better.)

      If disobedience can include avoiding sanction, this stops being true. You can go out and break the law, avoid the consequences, and say to the world “Do you really want me to suffer this penalty for that action? The law is unjust!” And then if the sanction is modest and the law is good, people will oppose you; if the sanction is harsh and the law is bad, they’ll support you. It’s an approach that punishes oppressive penalties, where yours rewards it.

      quietly downloading pirated journal articles isn’t civil disobedience, it’s stealing. To be civil disobedience, you would have to do it in some public, traceable way

      And yet your final point is one I almost agree with. Just take off “willingly accept the resulting legal sanction” and you’re exactly right. Quietly downloading a paper isn’t a public action that promotes resistance. I don’t particularly think it’s immoral in this case, but it’s not civil disobedience.

      But openly stealing papers, or praising and linking Sci-Hub, or running Sci-Hub? Yes, that’s civil disobedience. It’s still an open challenge to an unfair system, whether or not you hand yourself in.

      • mtl1882 says:

        Several others have agreed with you that this definition is too narrow, but isn’t what makes it *civil* disobedience the acceptance of the consequences? Simply breaking the law without the larger purpose is just disobedience. My understanding is that what makes it “civil” is working within the system of the civilization and openly affecting its relations. I think the term comes from Thoreau, who certainly meant it that way. Wikipedia backs me up, but cites no source.

        • The Nybbler says:

          I believe it was Gandhi who added the acceptance of consequences part. Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (a.k.a “Civil Disobedience”) does not have it. It is of course a convenient addition… if you’re the government. People just break the law publicly, you quietly arrest them and put them away for a long time, and they don’t bother you any more.

          • mtl1882 says:

            But isn’t Thoreau’s whole point that people should refuse to pay taxes openly to the tax collector when he comes around? Guaranteeing punishment? It would be different if he were protesting slavery by helping people on the Underground Railroad – you try and keep that on the down low, and avoid punishment. Or if he didn’t report all of his income, for example. But he wanted to declare his opposition to the powers that be, to discourage them from their unjust ways. He wanted to cause trouble and tell them about it.

            Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.

            The point was to overwhelm them with prisoners and be a “clog.”

    • fr8train_ssc says:

      I think if we want to be accurate in our vocabulary, we could say that pirating scientific papers conscientiously would be a form of nonviolent resistance . Civil Disobedience falls under the umbrella of nonviolent resistance, but as you mentioned, requires a degree of actively accepting punishment, since the tactic/goal is signaling the injustice of a certain law.

      On the other hand, as Scott mentions, there may be ethical justifications for non-violent resistance against following the law, but not necessarily being conspicuous about it. Given how the US Government treated Aaron Swartz, I would argue that now that people have found that powerful interests have little interest in proportional response or reform, that the correct action is to covertly DEFECT HARD

    • Aapje says:

      @aethelfrith

      Civil disobedience requires a fairly enlightened/free/democratic/culturally progressive society to work, because it depends on having many people agree that your treatment is unfair and for them to be able to intervene on your behalf. In fact, I would argue that it often only works as a focal point of outrage that already substantially exists and is close to reaching critical mass. Engaging in civil disobedience outside of such a situation (or when you are not a naturally sympathetic person who people want to identify with) seems quite useless.

      Defecting is more about reducing the burdens of a law you consider unjust.

      IMO, the latter can be practically and morally superior, like when hiding Jews from the Nazis. It may create more outrage if you let them murder the Jews, but that is a rather high cost for those people, just to have a PR victory. Also, the government may be able to keep news of the civil disobedience and the consequences from others, or drown it out in some ways, resulting in the act not having the PR effect, making it a useless sacrifice.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Thoreau coined the term and that wasn’t what he meant. He meekly accepted his punishment, but that wasn’t the point. The point was not to pay the taxes. He got publicity by writing his book, not by going to jail. Scott writing this article is following exactly in his footsteps.

    • Cliff says:

      Copyright infringement is not stealing. With stealing, you have deprived someone else of the use of something. With copyright infringement, you may or may not have caused the loss of some marginal amount of revenue. If you would not have paid to download it, then in fact no one is harmed and everyone is better off.

  3. This ties into something I thought a lot about when I was much younger. I could not construct a plausible moral argument for why one was obliged to obey laws qua laws—as opposed to laws which embodied moral principles that I should obey. As I sometimes put it, right and wrong are not made by act of Congress. But I thought that in order for a society to function tolerably well, people had to feel obliged to obey laws.

    So I decided that the right policy was to act as if I was obliged to obey laws until I could find a way out the dilemma. Eventually—I had probably reached that conclusion at sixteen or so—it occurred to me that other people did not act as if they were morally obliged to obey laws and viewed my doing so, insofar as they noticed it, as an odd eccentricity. Most people did not, for instance, feel any compunction about offering a glass of wine to a friend who was seventeen, even though the drinking age was eighteen. Most people routinely drove somewhat faster than the speed limit.

    The society had not collapsed, hence my assumption that without people seeing laws as morally binding it would collapse must be mistaken. A functional society, I concluded, depended on some mix of people obeying laws because the laws embodied morally valid principles, people obeying laws because they didn’t want to caught violating them, and people not obeying laws.

    • Aapje says:

      Arguably the world is too complex for any rule set to work in all situations and it would be quite bad if people would always follow the law, rather than be pragmatic.

      On the other hand, maximum rule breaking would also be very bad, as it would result in very low trust.

      So the solution then is to have (wink, wink) laws (nudge, nudge), that most people know to take with a grain of salt.

      A functional society, I concluded, depended on some mix of people obeying laws because the laws embodied morally valid principles, people obeying laws because they didn’t want to caught violating them, and people not obeying laws.

      These often are the same person.

      • Error says:

        So the solution then is to have (wink, wink) laws (nudge, nudge), that most people know to take with a grain of salt.

        This sort of thing always makes me nervous. It clearly *works* a lot of the time, in the sense that society hasn’t collapsed yet. But it’s an open door for selective enforcement, and for enforced unwritten rules that don’t match the unenforced written rules. I’m white and nerdy, so one of these things tends to hurt me and not the other, but still.

        Consider my apartment lease, which is written in such a way that almost anything is grounds for hostile termination, but violations are typically not enforced. I’m convinced it exists in that form mainly to enable selective termination on an entirely different, unwritten (and perhaps arbitrary) set of grounds.

        • Protagoras says:

          Your lease may also just be generally trying to intimidate you into thinking you’d be easy to evict, in order to discourage you from being a troublemaker, when in reality most of the provisions are unenforceable and evicting peoiple is hard (in most localities, anyway).

        • My guess is that contracts giving one party much broader powers than he really needs, such as grounds for eviction, reflect distrust of the legal system. They substitute reputational enforcement—if your landlord routinely evicts people for no good reason he will find it harder replace them—for legal enforcement. That makes sense if proving the real grounds to the satisfaction of a court is sufficiently hard that a contract limited to those grounds will prove unenforceable.

          As some (weak) evidence for that interpretation, consider that the party doing it is usually the repeat player, such as the landlord, who is more subject to reputational effects than the one time player, such as the tenant.

    • nameless1 says:

      This is objectively wrong. Everything worth having depends on low time preferences, long-term orientation, from saving up to make infrastructure instead of pissing money away on consumer goods to getting educated to not getting hooked on drugs and even ethical behavior – only long term thinking people think making a returning customer is better than a quick rip-off.

      But the prerequisite of low time preferences and future-orientation is not only IQ and good impulse control, it is also that the world we are living in should be predictable.

      Thus the primary ethical rule is to behave predictably, to behave as expected. So that you enable people to make plans expecting your future behavior. The primary rule is pacta sunt servanda, promises are kept. When not doing so we incentivize others to be impulsive, not delay gratification and disregard the future.

      Even unexpected acts of kindness are wrong if it leads to others developing false hopes. At the very least scare someone before you save them – so that next time when you are not around they know what they were trying was risky.

      You are a parent, so I hope you realized promises are kept is the most important rule of parenting. Because, you see, you will probably not never punish kids, I mean, some kids are naturally nice but most will just act out more and more and test your limits. Eventually you will punish them anyway when you get pissed off enough. But teaching kids that punishments are random and not a predictable consequence of their actions is the worst thing to teach them. They must learn punishments, and rewards are predictable and they can act in away to minimize punishments to zero and maximize rewards, instead of depending on the parents mood being pissed off enough or not. If they learn their actions bear no consequences and what happens to them is mostly random they will make wrong choices.

      • onyomi says:

        This would be a good system if a. adults were children b. politicians were responsible adults, and c. anyone ever promised to obey laws (maybe that is a requirement of some citizenship tests somewhere? I certainly never committed to obeying the laws of the nation I was born a citizen of–and I think states’ continued existence depends on not needing to demand this, because if you actually state the “deal”* explicitly, it’s transparently so bad no one would agree to it).

        *I will do whatever the state dictates, as determined by a group of people I have an insignificant probability of influencing or choosing, including those injunctions made before I was born and any they may decide to add in the future. The types of laws they can make in the future are theoretically limited by a document in the case of the US, but it is a “living, breathing” document, the meaning of which is interpreted by people I have negligible say in choosing.

        • benwave says:

          Serious question – what is the relevance here of the ‘adults are not children’ implication? If one has a moral obligation to keep promises made to children, then why not adults?

          • onyomi says:

            My intent with the “adults are not children” point was not to imply a different standard of promise keeping for anyone, but rather to question the applicability of parenting metaphors to governing.

      • The primary rule is pacta sunt servanda, promises are kept.

        That’s a pretty good rule, but it says that if I make a promise I am obliged to keep it. And it doesn’t apply to contracts made under duress.

        So I don’t see its relevance the the issue of obeying laws. The promise wasn’t made by me, it was made by the legislature. And if I did make the promise, say in a society where you had to swear to obey the law or else be jailed or deported, that would be a contract made under duress, hence not morally binding.

        So far as predictability is concerned, that doesn’t give us law obedience. If I choose to always drive at the speed limit that may well make traffic less predictable, since in many contexts most of the drivers are driving five or ten miles above the limit. If I choose to refuse to offer a drink of wine at dinner to a twenty-year old guest that probably makes social behavior less predictable, at least in parts of the country where most people don’t behave that way.

        • nameless1 says:

          With all due respect I think you may be confusing different things. Not being obliged by promises you did not personally make is an important ethical rule from an autonomist, liberal, liberatarian perspective – I remember JS Mill putting a lot of emphasis on it.

          But it really has little to do with predictability. Think Schelling points. If we train our kids to obey laws we get predictable behavior. Granted, we would also get predictable behavior if we would train them to obey customs or religious rules. Whatever, just something relatively fixed.

          So promise unter duress not being morally obliging from the autonomist perspective and playing by the same rules everybody seems to play by from a predictability perspective are two different things.

          Maybe it is an anathema to a libertarian but it is often useful to think as communities, not individuals acting. Law can be seen as behavior the community promises to punish. Hence predictability.

          Or if you want the individualist perspective, there are implied contracts, albeit I prefer the term agreements made by conduct. Ordering food in a restaurant carries an implied promise to pay for it. I think it can be said that not openly and loudly challenging the rules means an agreement by conduct to accept them. Otherwise people would be really fearful of each other.

          Your examples are good, predictability does not track law 100% accurately, but a good approximation.

          • Ordering food in a restaurant carries an implied promise to pay for it.

            The restaurant can, and implicitly does, make that the condition of serving you. It is entitled to set that condition because it has the right not to feed you. Suppose I invent a new contract—if you go out of your house today, you are agreeing to pay me a thousand dollars. Does going out of your house carry an implied promise to pay me the money?

            I think it can be said that not openly and loudly challenging the rules means an agreement by conduct to accept them.

            Not if openly challenging the rules gets you put in jail.

            I agree that promises create Schelling points–I made that argument about forty years ago in my review of Tullock’s Further Explorations in Anarchy to explain how it was possible to bargain out of a Hobbesian state of nature without a sovereign, even though there was no authority to enforce the agreement.

            Promises have the virtue that the behavior they are enforcing is in the interest of the parties, at least as viewed ex ante, since that’s why they made the promise. They are creating desirable predictability, a benign Schelling point.

            Promises made by A to bind B have no such virtue. Hence people feeling themselves bound by such promises, for instance ones made by the legislature, are likely to create an undesirable Schelling point. Better to manufacture predictability by voluntary agreement.

    • onyomi says:

      My feeling has always been: if you wouldn’t think less of someone for doing it, you don’t also get to support it being illegal. I am actually not certain whether most people agree with me (e.g., maybe the people who think music piracy should be illegal also would think less of a friend they found out engaged in it), but I don’t get the impression that they do.

      Even on rule consequentialist grounds I think this standard works. Example: I do think less of people who regularly defect in the sorts of ways that make society worse when lots of people do it, even though one person’s actions don’t make a significant difference: e.g. litter. I am not convinced lots of people pirating music (which is not the same thing as no one ever paying for music in any form) makes the world a worse place, so I don’t think less of those who do so, nor do I think it should be illegal. I might, on the other hand, think less of someone who listened to a particular artist all the time but actively avoided contributing by ever e.g. paying for a CD or concert ticket or Patreon, etc.; I also think that sort of attitude is more likely to be harmful if widely adopted.

      • Jack Lecter says:

        @onyomi:

        My feeling has always been: if you wouldn’t think less of someone for doing it, you don’t also get to support it being illegal

        I strongly disagree with this, to the point where I’m wondering if I understood correctly.

        My view is that there are some actions which, taken by themselves, aren’t terribly harmful, but which it would still be beneficial to outlaw because doing so would create common knowledge which would itself be useful. Also, the government is less of a surgeon carefully excising antisocial actions with laserlike precision than a guy with a youtube video of a surgeon in one hand and a rusty butterknife in the other- there are often going to be laws that are on net good but not precisely targeted, and supporting these laws over the lack thereof is justifiable from a utilitarian perspective (although obviously the best thing would be more precise, carefully-tailored laws).

        I’m also not quite always able to personally blame friends or family who participate in corrupt institutions, at least in situations where not doing so
        a) does no tangible good, and
        b) doesn’t significantly reduce the power or fixation of those institutions.

        I think you and I probably both feel that, on net, too many things are illegal now. But I don’t think it’s incoherent to think both that an action is justifiable under the current system, and that a better system would have laws against the action. This is particularly striking because (better system =/= best system).

        Also, as I was sort of trying to get at, (enforced law prohibits x =/= no one does x), both because people sometimes break the law, and because having an enforced law created Pinker-style common-knowledge that can be really useful taken in itself.

        I really admire your writing on here- I often agree with it, and invariably find it articulates things that need to be said. So I’m unusually open to the idea I’ve taken a wrong step somewhere here (and I try to be pretty open to that in general).

        • onyomi says:

          To help me better understand your position, and maybe you mine, can you give me an example of an activity you think should be illegal, but that wouldn’t cause you to think less of a friend if you found out he or she regularly engaged in it?

          • Jack Lecter says:

            I routinely advocate for more ‘realistic’ speed limits- for setting them to something we’re willing to actually enforce, then enforcing it.

            I have family members who routinely exceed the posted limits (I don’t drive, myself). I’m told it isn’t always safe to honor them, given that the ‘real’ limits are much higher.

            This isn’t exactly what you asked for, since the behavior is technically illegal under the current system, but I feel like it points in the same direction.

            I also have a family member working a government job, and her colleagues sometimes do things I disapprove of. I’m probably pretty motivated to find reasons not to think less of this person- she’s a lot like me, and we get along well- but I’m also aware that her not doing the job wouldn’t mean the bad stuff doesn’t get done. (Under the circumstances, I don’t think it would even result in a marginal reduction- she’s not so much doing bad things herself, as in the general vicinity of people doing bad things.)

            I’m finding myself less sure of my position than I was, and I’m not sure if it’s
            1. that I’m thinking about it more carefully than I have in the last few years
            2. that I have a lot of respect for your work on here, and disagreeing with someone I have a lot of respect for still feels vaguely surreal- a sensibility which is likely to get in my way, but I still haven’t killed off successfully
            or
            3. that I’ve had a really tiring day- I just caught myself about to put my socks in the refrigerator, so possibly this will all seem clearer tomorrow.

          • AG says:

            Isn’t it classic “hate the sin, love the sinner?”

            Addictive vices that are coping mechanisms, smoking, drinking, gambling, drugs, etc. Or a country in which the only way to survive is to engage in corruption. We can’t judge people on simply whether or not they commit a certain act, but also consider the context in which they commit it in.

            There’s also the cases of death by a thousand cuts, of the Kantian/PDilemma of “if everyone does it this would be a huge issue,” but in practice, we don’t think of someone badly for doing the thing, because we perceive their drop in the bucket isn’t close to achieving critical mass on the consequences. But just as practically, companies will nonetheless ban lots of little behavior, to avoid the possibility of a hostile work environment.

            A single relative with Annoying Opinions can be tolerated, but it’s not until a sufficient percentage of people at the family gathering all have clashing Annoying Opinions, that they get banned from the dinner table.

            The delineation between white lies and other categories of untruth.

            And one could, for example, advocate for a certain housing regulations despite being willing to live in the the situation to be banned, because one believes the incentives post-ban are much better.

  4. This discussion ties into another issue: What is wrong with widespread surveillance and other technologies which make law enforcement easier—say an effective truth serum. One answer is that we don’t want law enforcement to be too easy because then it is easy to enforce bad laws, laws that few people believe in. If enforcing laws is reasonably difficult, we end up with laws that are largely self enforcing because most people agree with them plus a few laws that many people disagree with but that the legal apparatus considers sufficiently important to be willing to put a good deal of effort into enforcing them. Since we don’t have a good mechanism for getting the government to only make good laws, or even mostly make good laws, it is better for law enforcement to be hard.

    • Oleg S. says:

      David,
      Could you advise on the most beneficial and stable shadow judicial system in a corrupt state where official justice is nothing but a farce, there is a widespread on-the street CCTV surveilance, deep packet inspection by government-controlled ISPs, yet there is such tools as Tor/i2p, untraceable cryptocurrencies and fluorishing dark markets?

      • Part of the answer is private arbitration by arbitrators selected in advance of a dispute. You and I both digitally sign a contract, including in the contract the public key of the arbitrator. If there is a dispute and I refuse to pay you the damages the arbitrator says I owe you, the arbitrator provides you a statement digitally signed by him of the outcome. You put that statement and the contract online. Anyone who considers dealing with me first does a web search for information about me, finds that statement, and knows that I refused to abide by the verdict of an arbitrator I had agreed to. Thus reputational enforcement.

        If neither of us has a reputation but the arbitrator does, you do the same thing except that each of us deposits a sum with the arbitrator which will forfeit to the other if the arbitrator rules against him and he doesn’t obey the ruling.

        Obviously this assumes a widespread system of public key encryption, virtual identities, etc.

        The problem for non-contractual disputes is harder. You might be able to apply some of the ideas in my chapter on feud law in Legal Systems Very Different From Ours.

        • Oleg S. says:

          Let’s say we have a distributed virtual court, which discusses the cases and appoints penalties. The discussion is open and the verdict is believed to be fair by the members of online community. The openness/fairness is enforced by the reputation of judges.

          Then, let’s say there is a dark market where anyone could contribute to execution of the judgement by pooling resources, taking risks and sharing rewards.

          What inherent problems do you think this system will have?

    • Matt M says:

      Agree with this. The main issue with say, CCTV cameras everywhere in public spaces isn’t that most people are worried about being fined for littering or what have you – we all (well, mostly) agree that littering is bad and should be punished. The concern is rather that the cameras enable the easy enforcement of future laws that we would consider egregiously immoral.

      Similar concerns exist over say, a gun registry. I don’t worry that if mandatory firearm registration was passed, my guns would be immediately confiscated. There would be some time-lag in between “mandatory registration” and “mandatory confiscation” but the first is essentially an enabler of the second.

      • Black Mountain Radio says:

        This is similar to my stance on enforcement ease. The law works fairly well now and the level of enforcement we have for that law is as good as it has ever been (surveillance, forensics, etc.). We could do a lot of damage to that progress with just a few bad, but well enforced, laws. Therefore, it’s a lot riskier to increase surveillance capabilities compared to making the laws better, and we should always devote much more energy on law-improvement vs. surveillance-improvement.

        It also seems to me that a lot of the big-ticket crime/terrorism incidents that have happened over the past 20 years have not been failures of surveillance or a lack of sufficient surveillance. However, the bad laws (“collateral damage” and “what is required to start a military intervention”) have caused far larger amounts of human misery.

    • zzzzort says:

      It seems troubling to use ease of surveillance as a filter on bad laws. I can think of some correlation between law-badness and privacy, but it’s far from absolute. There’s a general feeling among many liberal/libertarian people to ‘keep the government out of the bedroom’ in both a surveillance and legal sense, but it’s always with regard to, say, sodomy laws, rather than domestic violence. In Scott’s example, pirating a movie and a journal article have different moral valence, but are equally hard to enforce.

      The amount of privacy that a person enjoys can also vary wildly. A middle class person smoking pot in his home in the suburbs is much less likely to be caught than someone in a crowded apartment, or the street. In cases where privacy is a commodity, this ties legal outcomes to wealth in ways that do feel morally wrong.

    • nameless1 says:

      This is empirically not so. There are countries where a lawsuit to collect a debt could take a decade and people would just hire goons to break the leg of their debtors. Not because anyone really did not agree with laws saying that not paying debts is bad, and breaking other people’s leg is bad. It is simply that both found it in their interest to do so and figured they can get away with it.

      I think you are putting too much stock in human conscience, in expecting people if they agree with laws in theory they will not break them opportunistically.

      You remember when NYC did not fine UN diplomats for parking violations and good guy Scandies still had zero parking violations and some countries diplomats racked up many hundreds? It is not that they believed they are so much more important than others that they are above the law. Nor did they think the law is bad. They just did it because they could get away with it – no external incentive and they had no internal, principles based one.

      Why? I don’t know. That sort of immorality is actually quite familiar and normal to me and it is Americans scrupulous idealism that surprises me all the time.

      I also think it is linked to power and time preference. People are more long-term oriented in more predictable societies where it is easier to plan long-term and in the long-term people are nearly always more moral because winning a friend is better than making an enemy. But one important requirement for a society, say, a country to be predictable is that no other country can fsck with it. Currently only Americans believe this. So if “our” future only depends on “our” actions then there is a strong ethos that “us” be moral. Countries lacking this power are inherently more insecure about their future. Add any systemic shock that makes people behave chaotically once and that chaos is forever because any moral or long-term thinking in a chaotic society is irrational, you better grab what you can today, adding to the chaos, so it goes on forever.

    • vV_Vv says:

      What is wrong with widespread surveillance and other technologies which make law enforcement easier—say an effective truth serum. One answer is that we don’t want law enforcement to be too easy because then it is easy to enforce bad laws, laws that few people believe in.

      I think the main issue here is that by increasing to much the power of the enforcers, we also increase the risk that they abuse this power by enforcing the laws selectively or just wield their power unlawfully.

  5. Michael Cohen says:

    Other ethical frameworks relevant to this are “institution consequentialism” and “norm consequentialism” (as opposed to act consequentialism, rule consequentialism, virtue consequentialism, etc.) That is, which set of institutions/norms yield the best consequences when they exist? Translating them into theories about how to act has some room for specification “Act in accordance with consequence-optimal norms”; “act [to stabilize/to not destabilize/to obey] consequence-optimal institutions”.

    The jargon here is “evaluative focal point” to refer to one’s selection of [act/rule/etc.]. The only discussion of this in the literature that I know of is Normative Ethics.

  6. LepidopteristBB says:

    Most of my problem with “civil disobedience” is how blatantly biased its application and reception is. There is a patently absurd double standard with it. To give a perfect case point of this from within the past three years:

    Libby Schaaf: Heroine adored by positively all, aside from the alt-right
    Kim Davis: Practically worse than Hitler

    If that’s how we are going to view civil disobedience all the time, maybe we’re best off not having it at all.

    • yodelyak says:

      It’s 2am and I’m thinking sluggishly. Maybe this will look different in the morning. But at the moment, I think you’re really missing a key difference between Schaaf and Davis.

      There’s something very different about civil disobedience toward a law by the public, or toward a competent court ruling by an executive officer subject to the ruling (Disobeying laws or court orders is plain lawlessness or civil disobedience, and the bar is high indeed), as compared with one executive officer declining to match another executive officer’s enforcement priorities (which is probably just politics).

      Here’s an example of something where a blue team executive might want to enforce, and a red team local executive might oppose enforcement: environmental controls. Leaving aside the environmental laws that use “cooperative federalism” (clean air, clean water–these are complex kludges of fed and state authority) let’s look at the Endangered Species Act. If the feds want to keep a list of suspected bald eagle killers, they can. If they want to require local law enforcement to turn over such suspects whenever any is detained by a state officer for any reason, or whenever any appears in any state court… and the state says, “nah, we don’t think that’s a good use of our resources”… that sounds like politics to me. No biggie.

      • Wrong Species says:

        I don’t think that the reason these two women are treated differently is because of legal technicalities. Do you honestly think anyone cares about that?

      • The Nybbler says:

        as compared with one executive officer declining to match another executive officer’s enforcement priorities

        That’s not the issue; that would apply if she was simply declining to enforce Federal law, in which case the Feds proper response is to enforce it themselves. The issue is that when they did, she actually tipped off the targets of the Federal raid beforehand.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This is what I mean when I say: “Isn’t this just grounding morality in power? That is, aren’t we going from the clarity and fairness of “everyone must follow the law” to a more problematic “everyone must follow the law, except people clever enough to avoid getting caught and powerful enough to get away with civil disobedience?” Well, yeah. But from an institution design perspective, everything bottoms out in power eventually. All we’re doing here is replacing one form of power (the formal power possessed by law-makers) with another form of power (the informal powers of stealth and/or popularity that allow people to get away with civil disobedience).”

    • Andrew Simpson says:

      I agree with the broader point, but didn’t Libby Schaaf just tip people off about ICE raids so they could flee? I don’t see how that’s unlawful. Refusing a valid request for a marriage license in defiance of a court order is, though. Seems like an analogous case would be Gavin Newsom issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in 2003 even though California law prohibited it. Or a hypothetical immigration judge who refuses to sign off on deportations.

      • Doug S. says:

        The cultural norm in Kim Davis’s case is that if she doesn’t want to do what she’s been told is her job, she should resign or be fired…

    • AG says:

      Civil disobedience is not an inherent good or even neutral on the object level, and no one was advocating for the meta level to outweigh it. Hiding a criminal that is a criminal because they’re an escaped slave is different from hiding a criminal that is a criminal because they killed someone, for example.
      If white supremacists started holding sit-ins or marching on DC or other forms of civil disobedience, it is not a double standard to not consider them equal to the Civil Rights Movement.

      History writes the winners, in this case.

  7. David Week says:

    I think Sci-Hub is ethical. Not only is the publishing industry a weird rent-seeking abomination, but it closes access to scientific knowledge only to those with money, or those who work or study in large institutions with money. What we don’t know is if everyone on earth had equal access to that compendium, what inventions and discoveries could be possible? Better batteries? Malaria vaccines? Cold fusion? (Ok, the last one’s a joke—maybe.) The thing is, we don’t know. But it’s a fair bet that with open access to all scientific knowledge, there would be at least some important benefits that are closed off today.

    I think law-breaking is not an aberration of the system, but an essential part of the system. Think of it in terms of power. At any time, one set of industries is in charge of most production, and as result yields power and influence. Those industries make laws to protect themselves. For instance, in many parts of the Australia (where I live) if you build a house in the city, you must connect to the mains sewerage system. Some pioneers have developed backyard, high tech systems which treat all waste on site. So they break the law, and disconnect from the sewer, to their own systems. Uber had to break all the taxi laws in order to get started, because only by breaking the laws could they push legislators into making new laws. How about all the LGBT couples who defied the sex laws in conservative states. How about all the current “free the nipple” protestors who are breaking laws which make breasts into an obscenity? What about all the interracial marriage laws that had to broken in order to get them taken off the books. What about Rosa Parks? Would we have marijuana decriminalisation, if we didn’t have millions of smokers already breaking those laws? How about Martin Luther, whose theses constituted blasphemy, a punishable offence, at the time he promulgated them? What about Daniel Ellsberg?

    Laws are written to sustain a certain social and technological order. In order to have progress, some pioneers need to exemplify the new order. That will often, if not always, involve breaking laws, because legislators won’t change the laws until (quite rightly) they see that there’s a social or economic shift already afoot.

    First society changes. Then the laws change. And it’s up to the pioneers, the law-breakers and benders, to argue that their actions are for the greater good, and hope their arguments are heard and accepted before the authorities catch up with them. Or, accept martyrdom, in the hope that it will those that follow to succeed.

    • Cerastes says:

      For instance, in many parts of the Australia (where I live) if you build a house in the city, you must connect to the mains sewerage system. Some pioneers have developed backyard, high tech systems which treat all waste on site.

      A septic tank? Those have been around forever.

      • MoebiusStreet says:

        In Texas, new-fangled “aerobic systems” are common. Waste overflows through a series of chambers, which a pump keep aerated and mixed. By using aerobic bacteria to digest the waste, it’s done much quicker, such that all wastes are processed in 24-36 hours. The final step of the process treats the output with a bit of chlorine to sterilize it, and pumps it to sprinklers to irrigate the backyard.

        The thing is, they require space – I think the regulation here is minimum 1/2 acre. Also, they require maintenance in keeping the chlorine filled, and maintenance of the pump. We’re required to have the system inspected 3 times a year.

    • Cheese says:

      >What we don’t know is if everyone on earth had equal access to that compendium, what inventions and discoveries could be possible? Better batteries? Malaria vaccines? Cold fusion? (Ok, the last one’s a joke—maybe.) The thing is, we don’t know. But it’s a fair bet that with open access to all scientific knowledge, there would be at least some important benefits that are closed off today.

      I’ve seen this argument a fair bit in discussions of the publishing industry and I really disagree with it.

      I mean, i’ve worked in scientific research for a while, at both large and small institutions (with commensurate budgets for journal subscriptions) and i’ve literally never encountered a paper I couldn’t read if I wanted to. Excepting those written in a foreign language or something from the 50/60s which straight up doesn’t exist in digital form. Options for a paper you don’t have immediate institutional access to range from asking your librarian, who will most likely be able to get it for you via sharing arrangements, to emailing the corresponding author (who most likely has it up on a sharing site anyway) to scihub or a mate if you’re really stuck. A sufficiently motivated person with access to the internet should have no issues.

      You can argue that lay people might be excluded from this, but when you’re talking about modern science like vaccine production or battery development… If you’re not scientifically literate and sufficiently motivated as a lay-person then what fucking chance do you have of making improvements to current vaccine generation methods or materials science? The answer is infinitesimally small. To be charitable, maybe these are just bad examples and there is genuine potential in other fields that involve less technical expertise. But I really struggle to see good examples of this in the digital era, where a sufficiently motivated person really should have no issue.

      Maybe to some extent i’m arguing that without at least some level of education, which necessitates association or contact with an institution at some stage (i.e. you are likely to have access), you can’t really parse cutting edge knowledge. That’s absolutely true in fields that i’ve worked in, and the examples of people without that knowledge claiming insight from papers is typically what you see in alternative circles where some bloke is claiming x paper proves vaccines cause autism or the like. I’m sure there must be exceptions in other fields, but I still think that in my experience the examples given for ‘what if science were free’ are really just nonsense. Effectively, it is (especially here in Australia where NHMRC/ARC grants, i.e. the vast majority of funding require open access publication, mirroring that of the NIH in the states).

    • Cheese says:

      For instance, in many parts of the Australia (where I live) if you build a house in the city, you must connect to the mains sewerage system. Some pioneers have developed backyard, high tech systems which treat all waste on site.

      One point – without wanting to turn this into a tit for tat style that I absolutely detest, I think this example also illustrates a problem with this kind of ‘unshackle us from regulations’ thought.

      So i’m Western Australian, and we basically already have large scale waste-water recycling that is currently being significantly expanded (out to about ~20% from the current ~10%, with plans to look at hitting 100% at an unspecified future date, cost dependent). Currently, a significant percentage of Perth’s sewage is treated and re-injected into local aquifers before extraction for drinking and irrigation. This helps, among a lot of other things, to solve not only the water availability issues that come with having 2.5 million people living on a pretty dry coastal plain, but it also solves a problem with groundwater replenishment (long term, there are looming potential issues with that coming from regulatory lag that basically allowed/still allows tons of people to establish bores to extract from groundwater sources willy nilly for both residential and commercial use – when ~40% of our drinking water currently comes from those sources).

      The thing is that mandated sewage connections give you the economies of scale that allow this kind of stuff. And having a government run utility that has ultimate authority for both sewage collection and water supply allows this kind of coordinated effort, as well as access to large amounts of funding. This is not to argue that local systems, essentially just a natural evolution of septic tanks (which a lot of people still have in regional areas here), don’t have their uses or aren’t a good example of innovation. However I struggle to see it as pioneering or impeded by industry-made regulations, especially in this case where the water corp is a government entity.

      I guess I feel that overall there are better examples of impairments of progress than this one, and indeed the scientific journal problem. I think generally if people were to think through the potential solutions to issues like this they might find that there are often reasons why the status quo exists that they might not have factored into their analysis. Or that some of the proposed solutions might create bigger problems.

  8. Tracy W says:

    This made me think of the lobster gangs of Maine cases: area where local lobster fishermen had evolved property rights over lobster sites, according to my professor in defiance of US laws mandating open-access fishing, had healthier lobster populations than areas obeying the laws on the books. Which is something we wouldn’t have known otherwise.

    • Andrew Simpson says:

      The lobster gangs are cool because they present the rare case where (1) market participants respect a property system but (2) the law explicitly doesn’t and (3) that property system is a Pareto improvement. Sort of upside-down from over-regulation via IP laws, and with a much easier solution.

  9. It seems like the mere existence of the North Pole would make the whole world much higher-trust. If you can be certain that there are sources of information that are completely honest and a court system that is absolutely free of corruption, then you can try to find ways to rely on them even if you don’t live in the North Pole.

    • spencer says:

      Assuming it’s Santa making the laws, and not a man in a red suit who works for Coca Cola.

      • Black Mountain Radio says:

        This sounds like a classic example of the ancient artifact alignment problem.

  10. Martin says:

    in general people should feel some obligation to obey laws even if they disagree with them. This is the force that keeps libertarians from evading taxes

    I’m a libertarian, and I would gladly evade taxes if I could get away with it.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I’m a centrist, and I would also evade taxes if I could get away with it. At the same time, I’m glad that we live in a country where people like me find it too difficult to evade taxes, and therefore we can have things like roads, libraries, and the post office. In fact, I wish that we could make it more difficult for extremely rich people to evade their taxes, but I understand that there’s no viable mechanism we can employ to make this happen…

    • blacktrance says:

      Seconded, and I wish others felt the same. More generally, there’s far too much deference to the law, to the point that people make the argument that marijuana should be illegal because it is illegal.

  11. jabberwockxeno says:

    “As far as I can tell, the movie industry is capitalism working as it should. ”

    Absolutely not. The point Scott makes about how it’s not possible for an indivual to make large projects like hollywood blockbusters is true, but that it’s “capitalism working as it should” is insane: Hollywood is one of the most egregious examples of captalism gone arwy we have.

    It was founded by people moving across the country to avoid being stifled by restrictive patents, and oover time has morphed into the most fiery draconian, insane regimes of fucking people over over IP issues, and they are almost singlehandedly responsible for pushing through batshit legislation via lobbying to further bastardize IP and copyrightt law. The entire point of copyright law is to further public good by creating an incentive for people to make new works by securing them exclusive rights (and ergo a revenue stream) to the stuff they make temporarily, before it cycles into the public domain, where anybody can use it, forcing them to make a new work where the cycle repeats.

    Instead, thanks to them, the RIAA, and Disney, copyright terms last for over a cenutary and just stifle innovation and the public good so further line the IP’s holders profits. None of the people actually making the fucking film get any IP rights out of it, either.

    • Jiro says:

      In Scott’s left-wing terms it might be called “capitalism gone awry”, but I’d more call it “government gone awry” or “regulatory capture gone awry”.

      • vV_Vv says:

        What’s the difference?

      • LadyJane says:

        @Jiro: Technically it’s an example of [the existing system that considers itself and is considered by most people to be ‘capitalism’] going awry.

        At this point, I’ve given up on capitalism (the word, not the idea) altogether. The term is just too loaded, to the point of making any kind of meaningful dialogue between libertarians and left-liberals almost impossible, since discussions will always inevitably get bogged down in dictionary debates over the exact definition of the word. Now I just tell people that I believe in decentralization and free markets. I’ve considered using the term ‘marketism’ but that sounds really clunky and I’ve yet to think of any better descriptive nouns for the ideology.

        • Jiro says:

          Technically it’s an example of [the existing system that considers itself and is considered by most people to be ‘capitalism’] going awry.

          Western Europe considers and is considered by most people to be socialist. Western Europe also has censorship laws that would be considered a violation of free speech if done in the US. Yet I would not call them an example of “socialism gone awry”.

          The fact that the system is capitalist is irrelevant, since not every single part of the system is capitalist. And the fact that the media companies can buy laws to extend copyright is not related to the capitalist parts of the system; capitalism is about buying lots of things, but laws are not among them.

          (Of course, it’s true that if the companies couldn’t make any money they wouldn’t be able to buy laws, but that’s an indirect connection. It would be like saying that a serial killer is an example of capitalism gone awry since if nobody sold the serial killer food he wouldn’t be able to kill.)

          • vV_Vv says:

            Western Europe considers and is considered by most people to be socialist.

            Maybe the term “socialist” means something different in American, but Western Europe is in general considered to be social-democratic, not socialist.

            The fact that the system is capitalist is irrelevant, since not every single part of the system is capitalist. And the fact that the media companies can buy laws to extend copyright is not related to the capitalist parts of the system; capitalism is about buying lots of things, but laws are not among them.

            But regulatory capture is a common failure mode of capitalist systems. Saying that it is not “true capitalism” is equivalent of saying that the failures of the USSR were not due to communism because the USSR was not “true communism”.

          • But regulatory capture is a common failure mode of capitalist systems.

            It’s a failure mode of mixed systems that exists because of the efforts and ideas of critics of capitalism, people who argued that capitalist firms would do bad things unless the government stepped in to regulate them.

            I agree that the European regimes are not socialist–like the U.S. they are mixed economies with both capitalist and socialist institutions. But regulatory capture is a failure of the socialist part, where socialism is government control of the means of production.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Jiro, DavidFriedman: I would argue that regulatory capture is distinctly a problem with certain kinds of mixed-market systems, and that trying to blame it exclusively on the “capitalist parts” or “socialist parts” is flawed. It simply wouldn’t occur in a ‘pure’ capitalist system or a ‘pure’ socialist system. For that matter, I don’t think 100% pure forms of either system can actually exist in reality, but I also don’t think regulatory capture would exist in a 75% capitalist or 75% socialist system. It seems like a failure mode that’s very much unique to the currently existing system due to a mix of capitalist elements, socialist elements, and an eclectic mix of cultural and legal precedents that’ve accumulated over time.

          • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

            @LadyJane I think how Adam Smith described English policies with respect to colonies is not too far from regulatory capture, although of course it has to have quite a few differences.

          • I think you could have a form of regulatory capture in a pure socialist system. Suppose there are multiple worker run communes, as in Yugoslavia, and a central government setting the rules for them. The communes producing cars bribe the central government official who makes the rules for them, possibly with political support for him, possibly with a nice car, to make rules that make it harder for the motorcycle communes and the truck communes to compete with them.

          • Aapje says:

            Ironically, regulatory capture can be worse if a more market-based system is chosen.

            In my country the asbestos removal companies are regulated by an regulations company that they can themselves choose and that they themselves pay. So in practice, these regulators are incentivized to minimize their regulating, to make companies choose them as regulators, unless the government forces the regulators to actually regulate. The government is not keen to start regulating, because they make the regulators into private companies to avoid this work in the first place.

            It’s not working very well.

            I’ve been thinking about a better solution that creates the appropriate kind of regulating, but the problem is that the incentives are inherently badly set up for a market solution, because the benefits of heavy enforcement are very distributed, about rare & very costly situations and born by people whose lives revolve around other things, while the costs are born by very few, are common and relatively low cost and are born by people who have to live with this daily. So those who oppose strong regulation have a natural advantage.

            Note that for IP, it is those who are in favor of strong regulation that have the natural advantage for similar reasons.

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            @Aapje, if, rather than mandating subscription* to private regulation, the government merely held the asbestos companies fully-liable for actual harm done, the incentives of the third parties (now insurers) would be aligned with the overall objective (private regulators have perverse incentives, as you note).

            The simplest argument against regulation is that it’s generally an inefficient method to accomplish whatever goal you have in mind.

            The hybrid system you describe seems to have the worst of both worlds.

            *I presume it’s mandatory, otherwise why would any asbestos company bother.

          • Aapje says:

            @Ghillie Dhu

            The issue with full-liability is that there are generally decades between exposure and onset.

    • jabberwockxeno says:

      Also, said fucked up IP laws have been pushed by Hollywood into international trade agreements and other countries, so even if legislators WANTED to unfuck it, they can’t, because we are signed onto international treaties making it international law. It’s the same issue legalizing weed has in some places.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      The movie industry is working as it should, because it makes movies, and they’re generally better than independent movies.

      Try having a bit of a historical perspective on what “works” means. Heavy industry 200 years ago was, to our standards, polluting, inefficient and dehumanizing. But it undoubtedly worked – it got us where we are today.

      Medicine 400 years ago… I wouldn’t swear for it. The averages may have been in favor of not visiting a doctor. If so, then it means it doesn’t reach its intended purpose.

      • jabberwockxeno says:

        “The movie industry is working as it should, because it makes movies, and they’re generally better than independent movies.”

        But to what extent is this the result of copyright terms lasting longer then a human lifetime and draconian, internet censoring legislation and the erosion of fair use and derivative works? Would Hollywood blockbusters really be worse in quality or be made less if copyright terms were, say, 30 years, and non-commercial derivative works like fanfilms were legal?

        I doubt it. If anything, they’d likely be better because studios could legally borrow from each other and from the ideas of their fans on a faster basis.

        • Radu Floricica says:

          Ah, I’m with you here. Hell, 30 years is still double the time of patents, and I can’t really find a justification for why Harry Potter IP needs to be restricted for that much longer than an industrial process IP.

          I commented because I see a lot of halo effect around. “X is completely broken because there is an aspect of it which is shitty”.

          Also, incidentally, I don’t think copyright is the only thing that’s wrong with Hollywood. I’m smelling distribution channels and talent drain, among others. We can’t complain that both copyright and a lack of original works are what’s wrong – one is the solution to the other, but it obviously doesn’t work for some reason.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Hollywood is surely ripe for being on the receiving end of some creative destruction. One of the things I really appreciate about Netflix is how it makes a lot more international content available than was previously. Hopefully this increased competition will spur some proper creativity.

    • vV_Vv says:

      Indeed.

      Arguably one of the reason why Hollywood keeps producing low-quality formulaic franchise movies is because IP laws stifle competition. If anybody could make a Black Panther vs. Star Wars movie, it would have to be a helluva good movie in order to succeed. But since only Disney can make it, when they will make it people will watch it because it will be the only possible Black Panther vs. Star Wars movie.

      • John Schilling says:

        If anybody could make a Black Panther vs. Star Wars movie, it would have to be a helluva good movie in order to succeed.

        What definitions of “good” and “succeed” are you using here?

        Imagine a movie that is both a transcendent life-changing experience and an amazingly fun two hours of enterntainment for everyone who watches it, and because of this is so popular that everyone on earth wants to watch it, will pay $100 for the privilege of watching it, yes, even starving Africans for whom that is four months’ income. Also, it doesn’t require big sets or location shoots or lots of FX work, and it doesn’t need A-list stars, so it only costs $10 million to produce. Is this, by your standards, a “helluva good” movie?

        Absent copyright and IP, seven billion people watch the move. In principle, there’s a willingness for them to have spent roughly a trillion dollars for the privilege. In practice, approximately all of them watch locally-made bootleg DVDs that sell for marginally over the cost of burning a DVD. The team that actually made the movie, can’t get more than $1 million in gross revenue (against $10 million in production costs) before the distribution is taken entirely out of their hands. Has this movie, by your standards, “succeeded”?

        I’m curious what a successful movie looks like, in a world where everyone experiences it by bootleg DVD and/or bittorrent. And note that in the era of digital cinema, even theatrical exhibitions have no reason other than legal to pay one cent to the movie’s producers.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          It’s the for_exposure.txt concepts writ large. “I’m stealing it because it’s crap” and “If you were any good then other people (besides me, of course) would be giving you money for it.”

        • vV_Vv says:

          I would say there is a large difference between selling bootleg DVDs and making your own movie based on characters and fictional items created by someone else over 40 years ago, but according to IP laws they are the same thing.

  12. Oleg S. says:

    So, here are simple rules to ultimately defeat the insane way scientific knowledge is disseminated:

    For scientists:
    1. Whenever possible publish a preprint on arxiv etc.
    2. ‎Whenever possible give reference to a preprint, not to a final article
    3. ‎Whenever possible, publish in open access journal
    4. ‎Use alternative media (below)

    For advocates:
    5. Make the public aware about current mad practice (great work, Scott!)
    6. ‎Lobby lifting the ban on posting preprints on web services such as arxiv.
    7. ‎Promote alternative citation metrics which take into account citations of preprints.
    8. ‎Advocate alternative media below.

    For engineers/entrepreneurs:
    9. ‎Develop some kind of database of the open knowledge (uncopyrighted version of sci hub) – because sci hub is so much easier to use than publishers sites.
    10. Develop alternative citation metrics which would take into account citations of preprints etc.
    11. Develop a social network where anyone could post an article for peer review & critique.
    12. ‎Develop a social network where scientists could share thoughts about articles.
    Ideally, database should be distributed & autonomous, but even centralized solution may be better than what we have now.

    • MrBubu says:

      I think these are very good points indeed, except for maybe 11. Peer Review more or less relies on people being having to do it, because otherwise they might have trouble in the future.
      So maybe someone should try to design a way around peer review? Some kind of karma system, a comment section for articles, a way to “review” only part of an article (e.g. in math I rarely read or try to understand full articles, I just grab the tidbits I need and try to understand those).

      And Peer Review is “only a spam filter” (don’t know where I read this, but I like this phrasing, which is not original to me), I think we can strive to do better.
      So maybe

      11. Develop a social network / system which replaces and improves on peer review.

      • albatross11 says:

        Peer review is a really messy system, but it’s hard to see how to replace it. I say this as someone who’s spent a fair bit of time on both sides of this–submitting and reviewing papers.

        • Aapje says:

          I would argue that it mostly needs to be better rewarded, where reviewers also get ‘science points’ for good reviews.

          In general, I think that science needs to reward ‘discoveries’ less and replication and reviewing more.

          • MoebiusStreet says:

            How does one determine what was a good review, especially in cases where it was actually a scathing review of a bad paper?

          • Aapje says:

            Meta-reviews?

          • AG says:

            Meta-reviews seems like it would have the same issue as the “the majority of psychology study subjects are psychology students” situation, where reviews and meta-reviews get bogged down and warped by selection effects.
            Alternatively, we get what we got from credit rating agencies during the subprime mortgage crisis, and reviews become rubber-stamps.

          • Aapje says:

            You will never get perfection, but I do think that one of the greatest problems in science is that the system is designed around the heroic archetype of the person making the great new discovery, like Marie Curie working diligently in her laboratory. So doing the very important work that actually makes science relatively reliable (and doing it well) is disincentivized by the system.

            Over time we see that science has become more specialized and collaborative*, which is not reflected well in how scientists are judged, IMO. Because science has become bureaucratized & more competitive, there is less room to do the right thing outside of the reward structure.

            *This can for example be seen in how the Nobel prizes have been shared with more people, on average, over time.

        • vV_Vv says:

          Peer review is a really messy system, but it’s hard to see how to replace it.

          Reddit.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Develop a social network…

        I feel like this solution is always worse than no solution at all, regardless of which problem you were trying to solve in the first place…

    • JulieK says:

      Any chance a university could decide that all its faculty should only publish in open-access journals?

      • Matt M says:

        Yes, but it would have to be super-elite ones leading the way. If you could get Harvard, OxBridge, and MIT to all come to an agreement to do it, maybe others would then follow. But it would have to start with them.

      • Oleg S. says:

        It could be done by making it harder to publish in non-open-access journals (e.g by requesting the data to be uploaded to some repository in a machine-readable format; requiring to fill a lot of paperwork for copyright transfer)+ making it easier to publish in open-access journals (by streamlining the financing, requiring less paperwork etc).

  13. a real dog says:

    I find this post confusing.

    Reasoning of this kind is useful to discern lesser evils in difficult moral problems. But there is no actual moral problem here – any reasonable person who is not paid to believe otherwise will agree Sci-Hub is good for society, and its externality is destroying a parasitic institution that hampers progress, indirectly costing millions of both QALYs and actual life years.

    At some point I think we should leave the ivory tower of pondering upon what is the best course of action, and actually execute the “yeah, I’m 99% sure this is the best one” course of action. Otherwise people with less foresight but more initiative will fuck everything up, which has been happening since the beginning of time.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      Discussing things at a higher level of abstraction is a priceless habit, because we’re stupid monkeys. Think about culture wars: fully half of everybody is, at some point, wrong about some issue. Being stupid monkeys we don’t really have good ways of telling if we’re in the right half – and no, “my side is better” is not the right argument here. At most it moves the odds a bit, even it it wasn’t beside the point.

      Making a habit of taking the outside view makes it possible to have civilized discussions with the other side, plus the extra benefit of occasionally realizing you’re wrong. Not that it happens that often.

    • Enkidum says:

      “…any reasonable person who is not paid to believe otherwise…”

      Except for, say, all the people above you who do not agree. It’s hard to imagine, but people don’t all actually agree with you, even when you’re right, and it’s not just because they’re stupid.

      • alef says:

        > any reasonable person who is not paid to believe otherwise will agree Sci-Hub is good for society, and its externality is destroying a parasitic institution that hampers progress

        I disagree (see later comment in thread), and I’m not paid by anyone. I suspect that sci-hub, and pre-prints remaining available post-publication, and papers being available on author’s personal web sites (the latter two now mostly accepted by publishers now – tellingly, this was not always so), together provide a safety valve that has helped this this parasitic institution to last as long as it has. I’m not even saying I firmly believe that (I see counter arguments), but I definitely am not at all convinced of the opposite: (i.e. “agree”) that sci-hub is good for society.

        So you don’t just think I’m wrong (fair enough), but am _unreasonable_ in merely having real doubts on this matter?

        Your ‘is destroying’ claim is completely unfounded. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. There’s no actual evidence on offer – at all – for this wishful thinking (please, treat this as a challenge and rise to it). And as a purely logical matter, Scott’s argument (basically: “if everyone did this, the institution would not survive) proves precisely nothing, not even the sign of the effect, vis-a-vis sci-hub’s effect on the real world.

  14. Jiro says:

    Civil disobedience can be justifiable – see here for more discussion – but surely it should require some truly important cause, probably above the level of “I really want to watch Black Panther, but it costs $11.99 in theaters”.

    Does it? It seems like a torture versus dust specks argument here. Watching Black Panther pirated saves you $11.99, but if lots of people watched Black Panther, the cumulative savings is much greater than $11.99. Perhaps enough $11.99 dust specks add up to a cause important enough for civil disobedience.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      I don’t think it’s about the monetary value, but about the importance you place on the issue. “Above the level of being lazy and/or cheap”.

  15. 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

    Note that there is a non-self-defeating situation of pirating movies: someone wants to get the references that people suddenly start putting into the memes, but disappearance of blockbuster movies together with their advertisement budgets would be an improvement, as obviously written fanfiction over old folk tales would be an even better source of memes.

    This seems similar to the science paper situation — destroying currently presitgious journals will just redistribute the publication venue reputation.

    • albatross11 says:

      For movies, the money collected by theaters and DVD sales and Netflix and such goes, in part, to fund the making of more movies. So everyone pirating all the movies will actually lead to a lot fewer movies being made.

      For academic papers, the money collected by publishers and page charges and such *comes from* researchers. It doesn’t fund more research, instead it actually takes money away from researchers and hands it to publishers. So everyone pirating all the academic papers won’t actually lead to any less research being done.

      • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

        Movies are closer to journal issues than to actual research, I would say that research corresponds to the stories being told.

        If journals as they exist now are damaged, there will be more research but probably not all of it will be organised into literally journal issues, some kind of rolling-submission peer-review repository seems more natural.

        If movie industry is damaged, there will be more stories told (because the demand for stories will go from being saturated by global-reach movies to less monopolised forms), but these stories won’t be told via movies.

        (And I think that each of these two changes can be a significant improvement)

  16. itzultzaile prevajalec says:

    Hey Scott. I’m doing a poll to see how much people would sell their right to vote for. Would you be willing to link to it? The link is;

    https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/9WGPZJ7

  17. scottaar2 says:

    You might enjoy this parody that I wrote about the Elsevier issue way back in 2005.

    Companies like Elsevier holding much of the world’s scientific knowledge for ransom is such an obvious abomination, that I find it impossible to condemn people going to Sci-Hub or anywhere else to find a paper.

    But Scott, I think you might overstate the difficulty of getting ourselves out this equilibrium, at least where new papers are concerned. For the past 25 years, in all the parts of CS, physics, and math that I know (I concede that the situation may be different in e.g. life sciences), like ~98% of new papers have been posted on the arXiv and/or other online repositories and/or the authors’ homepages, so the PDFs are easily and freely accessible by a Google search. (And the other ~2% are often marginal papers anyway.) Of course the papers are also submitted to journals—but thousands of us have pledged not to submit to or work for Elsevier or other for-profit journals; there are enough good free and open-access journals that taking such a pledge seems to involve no cost to scientific reputation (as far as I can tell); and it even has the side benefit of getting the pledge-taker out of onerous reviewing work. I suspect that getting many more scientists to take these pledges might be as simple as bringing the issue to their attention.

    The much bigger problem, it seems to me, is Elsevier and the other companies’ ownership of the PAST scientific literature. As long as they still hold the copyrights on so many 20th-century scientific papers that were published before the age of the Internet, university libraries will still feel like they need to buy their bundled access plans in order to serve their campuses—and ergo, the publishers will still have those obscene profit margins. Even if the scientists could easily get the papers on Sci-Hub or wherever, it’s hard for an institution like a university library to openly *acknowledge* that fact (far less to point patrons to Sci-Hub!).

    So, one “solution” would simply be to wait for the copyrights to expire—but alas, that would take most of the 21st century. A faster, radical solution would be for governments to declare that they now understand open online access to the world’s scientific literature to be an overriding value—so even where Elsevier et al. hold the copyrights on old papers, governments will no longer honor those copyrights insofar as they’re used to enforce paywalls. Or governments could declare that, if the university libraries already own hardcopies of the old papers, then they also have the right to make digital versions freely available to their campuses, with no further payments to the publishers (that would also suffice to undermine Elsevier’s subscription model). I’d support such solutions, although they seem to have no chance in the world of today.

    • Aapje says:

      university libraries will still feel like they need to buy their bundled access plans in order to serve their campuses

      Unless it becomes (sub)culturally acceptable to have their students/professors use sci-hub for most of their work.

      PS. I had a professor who told us to illegally share his book, because he thought that the price was unacceptably high for students.

      • Matt M says:

        PS. I had a professor who told us to illegally share his book, because he thought that the price was unacceptably high for students.

        I’ve had this a few times, and even professors who, for other people’s books, conspicuously said things in class like “I’ve heard that some of you are using free PDFs you’ve found of this text on Google. I cannot officially condone this sort of thing,” which of course, makes people aware that a free PDF exists even if they otherwise might not have known.

    • SEE says:

      Back when Google was young and new, its mission statement was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, and “don’t be evil” was still a plausible corporate motto . . .

      . . . I emailed them a suggestion that they buy Reed Elsevier (now the RELX Group), so that they could make the vast quantities of information locked up in the Elsevier journals and Lexis universally accessible and useful.

      Sometimes I still idly dream of what could have been.

  18. Peter Gerdes says:

    Isn’t this just grounding morality in power? That is, aren’t we going from the clarity and fairness of “everyone must follow the law” to a more problematic “everyone must follow the law, except people clever enough to avoid getting caught and powerful enough to get away with civil disobedience?”

    No, not at all. Everyone has a moral obligation to … act morally. What makes in wrong for anarcho-communists to steal or disregard property is that they are mistaken. If diregarding all property lead to good results it would be morally acceptable. There isn’t some neutral ground which demands our deference even when it conflicts with moral behavior.

    But one could more charitably construct your argument as the following. While the first and second order effects of pirating science journals may be good it has an even more indirect effect of weakening the social norm against openly and enthusiastically breaking the law and this will encourage other people to break laws in cases that are good and important.

    I don’t find this compelling. People are very good at making situation specific exceptions and the very fact that pirating scientific papers is socially acceptable in ways that pirating movies isn’t (despite the greater financial benefits) is evidence for this point.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      The problem is finding ways to think that are valid even if you don’t know with absolute certainty the right answer.

      From the point of view of anarcho-communists, they are right. So is ANTIFA, so are white supremacists, so are Democrats and Republicans and libertarians and… The point is exactly that: should I follow my convictions when they lead me to burning cars? Or should respect for the law prevent me? Where do I draw the line? etc.

    • nameless1 says:

      Tautologies are gonna be tautological. Yes, the moral obligation is towards avoiding action with predictable bad outcomes and no neutral ground in that sense. But it is crap hard to actually predict outcomes, so we agree about a given number of actions that are commonly seen as leading to bad outcomes, and make a rule to not let people do it and then breaking the rule is immoral, even when it does not lead to actual bad outcomes, because on a higher order it is immoral to put our own risk assessment about risk caused to other people over the social agreement because it would overally lead to worse outcomes if everybody would do so.

      Thus the immorality lies in believing we have a right to decide on these exceptions and override the agremeent.

      And there is something more important. We have a moral obligation to behave predictably, to behave in the way people expect us to do. Because if we don’t, we made the world more unpredictable for others. This changes others people’s time preference, time discounting. In a predictable world, people make long term plans and then work on them, delay gratification, avoid harming others because they count on their long term cooperation, generally behave in nice and civilized ways and as a result we get an affluent, civilized society. In an unpredictable world people have no idea what kind of future they will have and what to do to get the right kind, so they just carpe diem, do drugs, waste their money, don’t go to grade school and if they dislike someone they will harm him because they don’t care about the long term consequences of turning a potential friend into a potential enemy. This is a much worse world. An unpredictable world is worse than a predictable one because people – rationally! – behave terribly in an unpredictable world.

      Hence the first rule ever is that promises are kept.
      This is the primary moral rule, above all others. It is in a sense even more important than do not murder. If a person gets murdered in a situation people are expected to get murdered people will learn don’t do that and problem solved. If you refrain from murdering people in situations people are typically murdered, you make those situations look less dangerous, thus others will wander into them – and get murdered by others. And that is bad enough in itself, but if a lot of people do not murder in situations where people can expect to be murdered basically people think murders just happen entirely randomly without any sort of internal logic and causality. And that is far more terrible! If you think you can just be randomly murdered and no way to avoid it. No control. Learned helplessness. So in that sort of a world why bother trying hard to success the right way? Just do drugs, do what you feel like, waste money, attack people you dislike and disregard your unpredictable future.

      Well, I would not actually murder people in situations people expect to get murdered but I would surely give them a good scare to ensure they learn the lesson: the world is predictable, murders don’t happen randomly, they happen in situations like this, thus avoid these.

      Thus predictability is the supreme rule.

    • herculesorion says:

      ” People are very good at making situation specific exceptions…”

      uh-huh, and they’re also very good at taking a single loophole and ramming it wider than the Lincoln Tunnel.

  19. sty_silver says:

    This seems fundamentally morally misguided to me because it follows rule utilitarianism rather than valence (= classical) utilitarianism. Rather than ‘what coherent principle can I follow that works out okay’ I think the question should be ‘what actions of mine lead to [in this case] the best allocation of resources’. Under this principle, the answer is quite simple: pirate away. Paying for media you can pirate easily will never be an optimal allocation of resources.

    And if everyone did the same, great. I mean, maybe the movie industry would be worse off, but many people would be a lot better off.

  20. melboiko says:

    …but anarcho-communists don’t like the institution of private property. If I steal scientific papers to destroy the journal system, doesn’t universalizing that decision process lead to anarcho-communists stealing cars to destroy capitalism?

    Pet peeve, but when we talk about “private property” in this context we are not talking about stuff that you own to use yourself, like cars and toothbrushes and the house you live in. We call those “personal property”. The “private property’ we don’t like are stuff you don’t personally use, but you “own” on paper (backed by force by a government) and get to charge rent on. Classicaly, this means owning farmland or factory equipment (or shares in the parent company—same thing), and hoarding the lion’s share of the profit to the detriment of those who actually work on the factories/farms. But it also means owning Microsoft Windows, the Uber network, an apartment building, or a mine in Congo.

    What libertarians call “capitalism” is a free market system based on demand curves, and any problems are due to the government getting in the way. What we call “capitalism” is a giant rent-seeking pyramid scheme, of which government-backed non-personal property laws are the essential and defining backbone. We think the world would be a better place if ownership of things was restricted to those who actually use and work and live with them, rather than an abstract aristocratic class powered by government. That’s what’s meant by “private property is theft”. We don’t like car thieves either. We want to buy cars. We just think more of the labour vouchers money from our car-buying should go to the people building the cars (or coding the AI that runs the robots that make the cars), as opposed to people who were born into the position of owning majority shares in a car-making conglomerate.

    By the way, I think pop-Marxist Slavoj Žižek agrees with your observation of the acidic powers of piracy. Recently he’s been talking a lot on how piracy undermines the rent-seeking nature of capitalism: as more and more wealth becomes intellectual, it gets easier and easier to circumvent the walled gardens of IP capitalists (by which I mean “people who don’t program/write/draw/create things but, by virtue of social class, own the IP rights on them”). It’s much harder to drink water from a spring walled by Nestlé than getting a $300 book on hydrodynamics from Libgen. Capitalism in the physical world seems infamously stable (well, unstable, but it thrives in instability—every crash just generates new people to take the rent, rather than undermining the rent-taking system). But in the online world there’s hope. The depressing selling-out of the Internet and tech (walled gardens, app stores, non-rooted/remote-controlled devices, advertising, Pavlovian manipulation etc.) can be seen as a desperate attempt by capitalists (=owner-renters-of-stuff-they-don’t-make-or-use) to tame the beast, but their bottom line remains notoriously troubling. Communism is the theory of the commons, the ongoing social/ecological/technological problems are problems of the commons, and intellectual wealth is, by nature and by technology, a commons, no matter how much capitalists (I use the word in our sense) hate commons.

    • Anon. says:

      Cars are obviously a means of production though…your division seems completely arbitrary.

      • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

        As far as I understand, means of production can be personal property if the owner is the primary user, or communal property if a group of workers collectively owns the tools they themselves use.

        «Definitely private property» is probably best demonstrated by owning something you haven’t ever seen, touched, heard, used, or even known as a separate object outside the general valuation of some organisation.

        I am not sure what is the definition for the edge cases, maybe it is something that can be derived from something that can be described by Adam Smith’s comparison of labour wages and profit on capital.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      I don’t understand why private property is bad.

      If Alice builds a house with her bare hands, she owns it, can live in it, that’s personal property and it’s fine. If she decides she’s bored of the house, moves out, and sells it to Bob who moves in and starts living in it, now it’s his personal property and that’s fine too. But if instead of selling, Alice rented the house to Bob, then it would be Alice’s private property and that’s bad. Why?

      • Protagoras says:

        I imagine the argument would be that personal property cannot expand into a horrible abusive monopoly in the way that private property can. I expect you also object to that framing, but given that framing this doesn’t seem like an obviously misguided candidate for how to draw an enforceable line (though it may, of course, be unobviously misguided; I’m not trying to defend the distinction, just point out the beginnings of how someone might).

        • herculesorion says:

          So maybe physical property is the New Gold Standard–by tying the concept of wealth to a physical token, you can’t inflate the amount of wealth to problematic levels because there is a hard limit on the number of physical tokens in existence.

        • Ninety-Three says:

          I’m not sure “no renting” is an enforceable line.

          If you want to get rid of renting, it’s not enough to simply refuse to enforce private property rights, because renting is kind of like prostitution. It’s legal to give people money for things, and it’s legal to let people access your personal property for free, so the government needs to specifically ban exchanging money for personal property access. Otherwise I could charge Bob $500/month to be my roommate. But let’s say the government does that, and they figure out a way to effectively enforce this law.

          Say I have a tree in my backyard that I want to cut down. For this, I need a chainsaw. However, I don’t have much other use for a chainsaw, if I bought one, I’d use it to cut down the tree, then it would sit in my garage gathering dust. What I’d really like is to rent a chainsaw, but the government has banned all renting. The hardware store recognizes the existence of people like me who would like to own a chainsaw for a day then be done with it. So they adopt a policy that they sell chainsaws for $500, and if anyone is unhappy with their chainsaw, the store will buy back a lightly-used chainsaw for $450. This seems to function an awful lot like $50 chainsaw rentals.

          The only way this “Buy it from us and we’ll buy it back later” pseudo-renting is different from regular renting is that it always gives the renter a buyout option, I can decide that actually I do like this chainsaw I was “renting” for $50/month and let the store keep my $450 deposit in order to buy it outright. This does not seem like a measure that is strong enough to singlehandedly prevent the formation of the sort of large companies full of rich capitalists that Marxists are unhappy about.

          • Protagoras says:

            You are now giving an argument that it is unobviously misguided. I conceded that this is possible, and have no personal interest in further pursuing this particular investigation; I was merely responding to the implication of the original question that there couldn’t be any intelligible reason for this at all.

          • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

            I am not sure a _large_ company can be formed, as at some point a jury will declare whatever trick holds it together to be equivalent to private property. In the optimistic case, each shop then becomes collective property of all the people who actually performed some worker duties there at least for a week out of last two months; in the pessimistic case there are criminal sanctions.

            (One can only hope the scheme with a put option on the chainsaw is not recognised as undermining the prohibition on creating derivative markets…)

      • Hoopdawg says:

        It’s actually not bad at all, nobody cares, and nobody would go out of their way to prevent such arrangement. It’s just that in the world without private property, it’s Bob who lawfully owns the house in this situation and Alice cannot rely on law enforcement to force him to continue paying her the rent, leave the house when she wants to move back, etc.

        Later on, you’re speaking of “ending renting” as if that was the goal, which it obviously isn’t. Compare traffic laws. Clearly “no jaywalking” is not an enforceable line, but that’s not the point. The point is to prevent accidents and allow traffic to move smoothly. People keep jaywalking, but they know that traffic laws privilege cars on motor roads, and are being sufficiently careful as a result.

        Also, I don’t think you’ve explained how your arguments about the possibility of border cases expands to “(therefore you can’t) prevent the formation of the sort of large companies full of rich capitalists”. Sure, you can rent a room in your own house, or borrow your own chainsaw (in exchange for a deposit equal to its value). But if you want to build a shop in another town, staff it with paid workers and tell them to rent chainsaws… you can still do that, but it won’t belong to you and nobody will move a finger to enforce your will over it. No matter how I look at it, this outright prevents formation of a large (top-down) hierarchy with you at the top. (I expect a similar-in-certain-ways bottom-up arrangement would arise to perform the important functions of large companies, but still no rich capitalists follow from that.)

    • nameless1 says:

      Yes, this is a nice idea. What you guys usually ignore is that every non-personal property without ownership guaranteed by law would be fought over with violence, until there is a de facto owner. See gang turfs. The law does not guarantee exclusive rights to sell drugs at Street X so they shoot each other over it.

      Private property is not about justice, nor about bullshit like homesteading, it is purely about avoiding violence by taking a basically random distribution of ownership and ensuring the biggest guns, the state, defend this distribution so there is no rational cause to fight over it.

      Private property IS unjust, any reasonable defender of it will admit it, but we will simply say any other arrangement leads to more violence and like more injustice.

      Now of course if your proposal is not no law, but usage law (which is not, strictly speeking, anarchistic), that is one step better, but it would be far more difficult to prove usage at court. Hence people would resort to violence.

      And knowing it is hard to prove usage at court, people would not invest back into the property they use. And resort to violence.

      Every leftist idea is based on the concept that human minds are programmed by society so in this sort of society there would be simply less desire for property and or for violence. This is wrong.

      And if people will think just like they think today it would be gang turf war.

      Question: do you know what happens in real actual countries, where the court system is so overloaded and ineffective that a lawsuit to get a loan you gave to someone else paid back to you takes 10 years? Answer: the tough guys at the gym will break the debtors legs for 20%. Not making this up, a friend almost hired them once. This is exactly the expected outcome in a case where you have to prove usage not ownership.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Just because you have your own weird definitions of property doesn’t mean everyone else is wrong.

    • and hoarding the lion’s share of the profit to the detriment of those who actually work on the factories/farms.

      The profits are generally defined net of paying wages, which are a cost, in which case, unless workers are also stockholders, none of the profits go to the workers.

      If what you mean is “the lion’s share of the revenue net of non-labor inputs,” then your lion’s share is wrong, probably backwards. From a quick google:

      Between 2000 and the second quarter of 2015, the share of income generated by corporations that went to workers’ wages (instead of going to capital incomes like profits) declined from 82.3 percent to 75.5 percent,

      • 1soru1 says:

        Historically true in first world countries with service economies, which are not very capitalist, because unions, government, taxes, and all the other things libertarians generally hate.

        Now run those numbers for 3rd world trainer or phone manufacturers, oil wells and miners.

        Or the USA in 10 years time, if current trends continue.

        • I found an article that looks at labor share both over time (recently) and depending on the average income of the country. It’s true that labor share tends to rise with income. But even for the poorest group of countries, it seems to be typically above fifty percent, which is not consistent with the claim that factors other than labor are “hoarding the lion’s share.”

          The relevant table is Table 7. LS1 through LS6 are different measures of labor share, where LS1 pretty clearly underestimates, LS6 overestimates. LS1 for the poorest group is the only measure that is below fifty percent.

    • fion says:

      I share your pet peeve and think you explain the difference well. I always used to get a bit mixed up about whether the car you use or the house you live in ‘counted’ as private property.

      Although I feel as though there’s still a grey area. What if you own a large house, live in it, and rent out a few rooms? You’re using your private property for profit there, but you’re also using it for yourself.

  21. behrangamini says:

    The argument for SciHub being ethical rests on the assumption that what replaces the system after Elsevier falls will be better than what we currently have. Sounds a lot like “this time it’ll be different!”

    • Murphy says:

      Thing is, we already have existing systems that are doing the useful part of the job that only need to be adopted more and the screwups that prop up Elsevier to be removed and we’re golden.

      There already *are* open access journals, there already are things like arxiv poised to utterly replace them and do the job better.

      It would be harder if the journals actually contributed… well… anything at this point.

      “so, you review the papers?”

      “… no, other people do that for free”

      “so, you edit the papers?”

      “… no, the scientists have to do that themselves”

      “so, help with layout or presentation?”

      “… no, the scientists have to do that themselves”

      “so, check that the scientists involved actually exist and are real people?”

      “… no”

      “so, you promote the papers?”

      “… no, the scientists have to do that themselves”

      “So, you check the science is sound?”

      “… no”

      “so, do you even check for spelling mistakes?”

      “… no”

      http://s2.quickmeme.com/img/29/29e058a2c7f5841915ab415722ec6f33457f3d49d85fea35b8362e5c1615f764.jpg

      Sometimes something is genuinely useless. The people involved are genuinely useless in every way and the edifice they have built is purely parasitic and the only way they continue to exist is through capturing the market in some non-productive way.

      • behrangamini says:

        No argument on the parasitic part (although the signalling function of big name journals cannot be discounted as worthless). I’m just not convinced that people who advocate revolutionary changes like this consider that the result may very well be worse than what we currently have.

        My problem is that the argument seems to be: pirate papers -> kill Elsevier -> some miracle happens -> arxiv and open access utopia will thrive.

        My personal bias, having lived through a revolution in Iran, is toward pessimism. I don’t get excited blow-up-the-system-and-hope any more.

        As for current options: arxiv says on its main page that it doesn’t serve my field (medicine). The are open access journals in my sub-field (radiology) that are either not worth publishing in or just charge too much (I know I end up paying with Elsevier journals indirectly through my institution).

        • Murphy says:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioRxiv covers a lot of medical fields.

          The system that privileges existing high-status journals is part of the problem. As more citations move to open access systems it should gradually reduce the status of Elsevier journals.

          • albatross11 says:

            The way it looks to me, academic publishing has gone through this big change as a result of the internet and widespread access to computers.

            The job of this industry is getting an academic paper from the form in which it was submitted (which might have been typewritten with hand-drawn figures, or even handwritten if you go back far enough, but now it’s probably LaTeX / PDF), and making it available to thousands of other researchers all over the world.

            This process can be broken down into two parts:

            a. The science part, where experts in the field review your paper and make comments, request more experiments, ask for unclear or wrong things to be rewritten, accept or reject papers, etc.

            b. Everything else–getting the paper typeset, looking right, in the expected format, and in the hands of other researchers who want to know about the result.

            My impression is that in 1950, (b) took a lot of people and a lot of physical plant. You needed typesetters, printers, printing presses, book binding operations, etc. Probably (b) was more expensive than (a).

            In 2018, (b) has mostly been automated away. There’s still editorial stuff needed (“No, you can’t change the LaTeX style to make your paper fit in the page limit.”), and some administrative stuff to make sure the papers get up on the website and such. But mostly, this has become massively easier–enough so that many organizations run preprint servers that are essentially doing all the work of (b) without any of the work of (a), without even trying to charge anyone for it.

            The Elseviers and Springers of the world were never about (a)–that was always volunteer effort by researchers. Instead, they were about (b). And now, there’s massively less need for (b). But they have an existing position in the world and are going to fight to keep it, just as the music industry has done. (My impression is that the music industry is in a similar situation, but I don’t know enough about it to be sure.)

          • behrangamini says:

            Awesome. Had no idea. Will start sending to biorxiv whenever possible (some limitations in the big Radiology journals). Thanks!

          • behrangamini says:

            So, finally got around to checking out biorxiv.org. No section on medicine, much less sub-specialties. Just pure bioscience.

          • 10240 says:

            You can put papers on a personal website though, if the journal allows self-archiving.

    • Ketil says:

      after Elsevier falls

      How would that be brought about? Does your local university or library no longer subscribe to closed-source journals, redistributing content from sci-hub instead?

      • Protagoras says:

        Even university libraries (and certainly public libraries!) have limited budgets, and have to make choices about which journals are important enough to subscribe to; smaller and/or less prestigious schools have smaller budgets and so cut more things from their offered subscriptions. If the rival sources become successful enough, some schools will eventually decide that Elsevier journals in general are worth cutting in order to spend money on other things that will benefit their students more. If Elsevier tries to respond by raising rates for those that remain, more schools will decide the rates aren’t worth it. And if only people at top schools have access to Elsevier journals, that will tend to make more academics avoid Elsevier journals and seek out ways of publishing that will reach a wider audience. Eventually even the top schools will ditch Elsevier as not worth the money if all the important research is being published elsewhere.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Elsevier’s strategy is to be everywhere and minimize defectors. Smaller and poorer schools will pay less. (I’m 100% sure they do this already.) They supposedly have low costs[*] so protecting their market position for the future is more important than extracting the highest possible rents today.

          [*] I don’t really know, but other people in this thread are convinced they don’t spend much money on any added-value, and I can’t see a way to disagree.

          • To what extent does Elsevier prevent non-Elsevier journals from existing and fulfilling the same function—validating publications as real scholarship for purposes of university hiring and promotion committees—and how do they do it?

            New journals seem to get started quite often. Imagine two of them, one published by Elsevier, one by a university. If the latter gets more prestigious authors to publish in it, will tenure committees still take publication in it less seriously than publication in the former?

  22. sharedvi says:

    Forgive me for my ignorance, but isn’t there a concern that quack science will mix with real science as a result?

    • Anonymous says:

      You are implying that “real science” isn’t already mixed with “quack science”. But it is, and has been for quite some time. Peer review is no protection.

    • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

      Given that the journals already incentivise parts of science to drift towards quack science (from significance hacking to the claim that replications are not original enough for the journal that published an article on precognition), the fall of journals might as well be a positive, as the funding agencies will be finally forced to reconsider the criteria of productive work. Hard to predict, though.

    • albatross11 says:

      The defense against quackery (or just plain error) happens in the peer review process. That’s where someone who’s an expert in the field spends many hours reviewing papers, and trying to decide which ones are worth accepting and which ones aren’t. And for the worthwhile ones, a good reviewer will usually have some kind of feedback–sometimes asking for more experiments, or for clarification on some points, or even for a rewrite of some section that was unclear.

      But all that is done by volunteer labor–not by an employee of the academic publishing house. If you submit a paper to a crypto conference, the people reading and reviewing it will be members of the program committee or people they know whom they asked to review the paper, and none of them will be getting paid by the publisher. (Mostly they’re paid by universities.)

      Academic publishers don’t enforce much in the way of quality control. There are some remarkably crappy journals and conference proceedings published by reputable publishers, and there have been cases of academic publishers basically putting out fake journals that were intended as advertising.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Monopoly on copying specific information is a matter of positive law. As long as you don’t live in a jurisdiction where you are obligated by local positive law to respect any particular monopoly of the sort, it’s not unethical.

  24. Murphy says:

    On the note of science papers and preprints I was at a fascinating conference yesterday on collaboration between the neurology and AI departments.

    One of the talks was about adversarial examples:

    http://debuglies.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Fooling-the-human-2.jpeg

    Given an image classifier it’s possible to construct “adversarial examples”, seeming noise which, when added to the image at a low level make image classifiers almost certain that the image is something else entirely.

    These have been shown to be surprisingly robust, are often robust across multiple image classifiers trained on different datasets and the patterns can be printed onto real objects and still work:

    https://i.ytimg.com/vi/piYnd_wYlT8/sddefault.jpg#404_is_fine

    The researches at the conference had disproven some beliefs in the field about adversarial examples showing that it wasn’t just down to high dimensionality data, finding high dimensional examples with no adversarial example and linear examples with adversarial examples.

    They became fairly sure that it should be possible to construct adversarial examples that work against the human visual cortext using similar methods… but someone got there first :

    https://spectrum.ieee.org/image/MzAyNDY5Nw.jpeg

    preprint of paper:

    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1802.08195.pdf

    • The Nybbler says:

      That’s just a very doggy-looking cat; I thought the left picture was a dog at first too.

    • yodelyak says:

      Data point of one: I was completely fooled, and couldn’t tell which direction the effect ran until I went to the second link where the photo is captioned. Yep. Works.

      • Lillian says:

        Could you not see that the picture on the right had more noise than the picture on the left? The earlier pictures shows that they were fooling the AI by adding noise, therefore it stood to reason that the human eye would be fooled through a similar mechanism. By looking at the noise, it was immediately obvious which direction the effect ran.

  25. sconzey says:

    The existence of gatekeepers is not a cosmic accident but the result of a particular set of incentives. Even if you destroy a particular gatekeeper the incentives won’t go away, and another gatekeeper, perhaps with a different profit model, will replace it.

    The root problem, that you are not addressing, is scientific papers being judged on things other than their scientific merit.

  26. Bugmaster says:

    I realize you’re just using SciHub as a jump-off point for the meta-level discussion, but I find the object-level curious, as well.

    The consensus here seems to be that Elsevier is quite harmful, because it effectively holds the world’s scientific knowledge for ransom (and I completely agree). By preventing people from accessing scientific papers, Elsevier is preventing them from collaborating, which reduces the total amount of useful science that is being done.

    At the same time, though, at least some people in the Rationalist community believe that certain kinds of cutting-age science — especially AI — should be done in deep secrecy, by a shadowy cabal of trusted scientists, in order to prevent Armageddon from being unleashed. As far as I understand, the idea is that e.g. AI research can proceed perfectly well in such an environment; perhaps it would happen a bit slower than it would otherwise, but it certainly wouldn’t grind to a halt.

    These two opinions sound contradictory to me. Can science be performed without collaboration, or can’t it ? If it can, then Elsevier is a non-issue; dedicated scientists can just form a cabal and proceed with their research as normal, can’t they ?

    • Murphy says:

      But I don’t think they’re mostly held by the same people. Or at least not about the same subjects.

      But it’s also not contradictory.

      Someone can believe science is stunted across the board by XYZ and believe that XYZ is bad while at the same time believing that, some particular sub-area is a bad idea. For example researchers trying to create a 100% deadly uncurable airborne virus might be something people might want to try to prevent independent from the issue of whether science publishing as a whole has a problem.

      The people who want to suppress AI research are working on the belief that AI research should be slowed/held back or prevented in it’s own right or limited to certain individuals with any slowdown being an acceptable cost.

      • Bugmaster says:

        researchers trying to create a 100% deadly uncurable airborne virus

        That’s not science, that’s technology. The examples I’ve seen on e.g. LessWrong make an analogy between AI atomic theory.

        As the proposition goes, it’s pointless to just ban the development of nuclear bombs, because once you know how atoms work, and also that uranium exists, the technology is more or less self-evident. Granted, going from just imagining a nuclear bomb to a working prototype is a massive undertaking, but really all it takes is time and money. No, if leading scientists were a little smarter, they would get together and agree to hide all knowledge of atomic theory (and maybe quantum physics). Atomic theory is not something that anyone can just brute-force; discovering it (as opposed to expanding upon previous discoveries) requires the kind of brilliance that is only possessed by maybe 50 to 500 people in the world at any given time, so if those 500 people form a cabal, then the world is safe (from nukes, at least).

        Similarly, LessWrongians do not merely advocate for a ban on e.g. development of self-modifying AIs, or weaponized AIs, etc.; they advocate for AI researches to get together and quietly hide any advancements in the field from their less-intelligent colleagues — at least, until they come up with a fail-safe recipe for FAI.

        Admittedly, the above viewpoint is just my own understanding of their beliefs; I don’t share them, but still, I tried to be as charitable as I can.

        • Murphy says:

          That’s what I was trying to get at with “limited to certain individuals with any slowdown being an acceptable cost.”

          The slowdown is seen as an acceptable cost or even a bonus.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Well, in that case, I return to my original question: isn’t Elsevier a good thing ? It stops all kinds of dangerous research from being performed quickly; meanwhile, truly intelligent and dedicated scientists can quietly form a cabal, and conduct research into AI, genetics, quantum singularities, etc.; all without risking the world’s existence.

          • Murphy says:

            If your precept is that research is inherently dangerous and bad for humanity, sure.

            But most people don’t hold that as a precept and want their cancer vaccines sooner rather than later.

          • Bugmaster says:

            I agree with you, of course, but I think I can at least empathize with the other side of the argument.

            Sure, cancer vaccines would be nice; and sooner rather than later. But the problem is, in order to develop cancer vaccines, we’d need to understand how cancer works in great detail — and not just cancer, in fact, but cells in general. This type of knowledge can then be applied to develop cancer vaccines… or to create incurable weaponized airborne cancer-viruses (which might actually be a lot easier, since we’d just be “improving” upon the previously existing cancers).

            Once you understand modern physics, nuclear bombs are just a matter of time; once you understand biology, super-cancers are just a matter of time; and once you understand computer science, Singularity is just around the corner. So, would it not be better to take science out of the hands of irresponsible hacks, and place it into the hands of a few brilliant yet cautious individuals ?

          • Murphy says:

            I’m kinda cynical on that point.

            if you really want to make nerve gas the knowledge is inside big thick chemistry tomes on the shelves of your local college library.

            Civilization is mostly protected by a barrier of tedium. The kind of people who can make themselves sit down and get through the tedium are not a random selection which is most of the reason why terrorists so often seem like morons who just seem to be aping what they sort of think terrorists *should* do.

            it’d probably only cost a couple million to recreate smallox or worse.

            but the people capable are already a small cabal of people who don’t particularly want to set smallpox on the world.

            So the threat surface is already mostly made up of the hypothetical cabal and pretty much state-level actors.

        • nameless1 says:

          This is one of the ways to write interesting sci-fi. Assume humanity survived SkyNet but it was really a tough fight so now they have banned any computer more complicated than a Windows 98 PC and the software of that age. This means not everything is fully automatized and people still have jobs. And still have conflicts over resources. But many things are far more developed. Welcome to the world of Dune.

          • Bugmaster says:

            You joke, but I already have one friend who is advocating for Butlerian Jihad, and I still can’t tell if he’s serious or not :-/

    • Protagoras says:

      AI is a special case where it seems that some people think slower progress might be a good thing. On the importance of collaboration to science, I recall reading a fascinating paper which looked at the collapse of German science during and after the Nazi era. German science declined in areas where the Nazis had no political agendas, so it wasn’t just that scientists were doing worse science to please their political masters. And funding for science increased under the Nazis (across the board, not just in military or politically appealing areas), so that wasn’t it. The loss of Jewish scientists was, of course, a contributing factor, but the article concluded that it couldn’t explain the full magnitude of the decline (I wish I could remember where I found the article, as I don’t remember the details of that discussion and I expect people around here to be especially interested/skeptical about that). But in any event the conclusion was that the decrease in connections with science outside Germany (due to official policies regarding it as Jewish tainted, inability to invite foreign scientists who were Jews or who were boycotting to German conferences, etc.) was the factor which did the most damage to German science, and which did the most to delay any post-war revival of German science (because the connections were hard to rebuild).

  27. greghb says:

    Civil disobedience [is] part of the search process we use to get better institutions.

    I think this is spot on. Related, I think it’s a bit wrong when arguments like those in Enlightenment Now are used to the effect that people should calm down and stop protesting so much, since things are already on a terrific course. It seems likely that we’re where we are in part because people used civil disobedience to search through the space of possible institutions, trying to optimize.

    (To be clear, I haven’t read that book and don’t know if it itself makes this claim — but I have heard people cite it as evidence in their own arguments to that effect.)

    It’s fair to ask whether it’s been on net positive, if you have to count populism in the “cons” column. But I don’t really see what other tools for institutional change exist. I guess a Burkean conservative would say “gradual change in the fullness of time” is an alternative — though Burke famously liked the American Revolution. Maybe The American Revolution, Civil Rights Movement, etc. exist in California in Scott’s metaphor, but the French Revolution, Bolshevik Revolution, etc. are at lower latitudes.

    I guess this doesn’t really help us adjudicate how much civil disobedience is the right amount, vs. how much is too much, pushing us closer to the South Pole. Fair enough, that’s a tall order.

  28. madrocketsci says:

    Where would you want to live in such a world? It’s a hard question – I can imagine pretty much anything happening in this kind of scenario. But if I had to choose, I think I would take up residence somewhere around the latitude of California. I would want the laws to carry some force beyond just the barrel of a gun – a high trust society with consistent institutions is really important, and the more people follow the law without being watched the less incentive there is to create a police state.

    A point I’ve made before is that most people have no idea what the law says. The actual law is 0.01% codifications of rules necessary for civilized society, 0.05% corruption and rent seeking, and 99.94% sedimentary leavings from years of legislatures and lawyers operating. No one can hold it all in their heads.

    So what is actually running in peoples heads that allows a high trust society to exist? Something with far fewer megabytes of information! That’s the actual “law”, The formal legal law is irrelevant outside of a courtroom and is only enforced on society at the point of a gun.

    • nameless1 says:

      Natural law. Or Silver Rule. If we think about doing something that would likely result in others loudly protesting, we think the law will be on their side and thus better not do it. If we think about doing something that would result in others loudly protesting if certain conditions, NOT dependent on the action, were true (i.e. they find out the theft, if they were sober and unintimidated during the intercourse etc.) we also think the law will be on their side.

      We usually approximate the law through this Silver Rule. Don’t do to others what you don’t to be done to you. But a better approximation is what I will dub Bronze Rule: don’t do things to others that, when done to you, would result you yelling their hair off (see also the above conditions).

      Am I going to yell at the boss for firing me as a cost cutting measure? No, most likely I gonna keep my mouth shut and get a good reference out of them. So I am allowed to do this to others. Am I going to yell at the boss for firing me for my sexual orientation? In 1960 no, but now culture has changed and this sounds like something very much not accepted today, so I can make a guess it is likely illegal.

      • arlie says:

        So the question is how much power differential is involved? If you abuse someone who has no recourse, and thus faces even worse consequences if they protest, that’s probably legal, whereas if they have more recourse, and thus can afford to protest, that implies the law probably supports them?

        The cynic in me says that you might just be right about what’s legal. But not about what’s right.

        The realist points out that when my employer hired a rapacious health insurance company, such that it cost me upwards of $1500 per year in no longer covered treatments, their behaviour was perfectly legal. I screamed bloody murder, badmouthing the employer by name on GlassDoor, as well as complaining to HR, and to anyone else who’d listen to me. Nothing was done about it, because while I have enough power vis a vis my employer to protest safely, I don’t have enough power for my protests to generate results. But by your logic, their behaviour can be presumed to be illegal.

      • nameless1 says:

        Yes, but I don’t find it very cynical. Madrocketsci was talking about people not knowing the law well at all. So it is about the law and the law is obviously less than perfectly ethical.

        I think the Silver Rule is mostly what ethics is (the Golder Rule is too intrusive), we obviously need a less ethical model to approximate law. And listening to people who have a voice and willingless to protest loudly is not a bad approximation of how democracies make law.

        More broadly I am trying to answer Madrocketsci’s implied question: if people have no idea what the law is, why aren’t we all in prison? Is there a heuristic that predicts most laws?

        But upon reflection I need to change my model a bit. It is better to say: “Can I imagine a lot of reasonably influential people demanding that what I am about to do should be made illegal? If yes, it probably already is.”

        • Aapje says:

          Your choice of ‘reasonably influential people’ is probably doing a lot of work there.

          Do the pope and other conservative Christians count? If so, is divorce illegal?

          • nameless1 says:

            They are against remarriage, not separation. At any rate they lost that one but they are not really fighting it too loudly. They are fighting abortion loudly.

        • arlie says:

          That’s better, but you also need to include opposition, to account for various subgroups’ pet peeves not always being illegal. Thus the examples of divorce, abortion, guns, and various recreational drugs. (Note how all of these have different laws in different locations, presumably related to the local balance of forces pro and con.)

  29. Andrew Simpson says:

    I wrote a long comment and it seems like it got eaten or deleted somehow shortly after being posted. Did anybody who is subscribed to this thread catch it in their email? Did I maybe run afoul of a rule?

    ETA: I saw a long, constructive comment by theodidactus similarly disappear just now. Maybe there is a tech problem, or we are running into a word filter without knowing it—if the latter, I’d be happy to take out whatever the taboo’d word is out of my comment and re-post. Just no fun to have it disappear beyond retrieval.

    • theodidactus says:

      hi Andrew,
      I deleted my comment because it was not super well written. I’m writing a better version below.

      • Andrew Simpson says:

        Ah, got it, thanks. In that case I probably just screwed something up and accidentally deleted my own comment.

  30. Hoopdawg says:

    I am extremely skeptical of propositions in the form of “there would be no [thing] without [institution that currently provides thing]” and I would expect the resident self-described libertarians to be aware of the problem with those. Which is to say, there’s no meaningful difference between “no movies without corporations” and “no roads without government”. There are numerous counterexamples and obvious ways to generalize them to the entire industry were the current structure to collapse. (I find the rest of Scott’s argument solid, and it’s precisely what made me a proud and vocal pirate for life.)

    Also note that being a proud pirate does not mean I am not financially supporting creators. It just makes supporting creators a case-by-case decision based on utilitarian reasoning and self-interest rather than fear of system collapse. Which allows me to pivot to pointing out how we commies aren’t actually after people’s personal property. (Looks like I’m not even the first here person to do so.) Few people literally want to take away your toothbrushes, your cars, or your homes, and I can’t imagine a successful revolution that does not establish a mechanism to preserve the right of use and possession to substitute for current property laws. (What we actually do want to “steal” from you is just that factory that you own on the other side of the globe.) I worry that the misunderstanding here may be caused by yet another misapplication of the aforementioned “no [thing] without [current system]” proposition, stretched to the extreme where anyone wishing to overturn the current system literally wants to destroy everything the system currently provides.

    I’m being pretty chaotic here, but I guess what I mean to say is, the north-south metaphor seems flawed and high trust society comes from and is in large part inseparable from good laws governing it. People disobey the law because the law is flawed. Then it gets changed or worked around, one way or another.

    • nameless1 says:

      I like the Pateron model of supporting creators, however I am often surprised how complete utter crap videogames that won’t even ever be made truly good because the technology behind them is primitive pull $2-3000 a month, easily making a comfortable living (at least up to my Europoor standards).

      I mean stuff like visual novels with prerendered pictures and multiple choices. No way that will ever become Skyrim. It will just be a finished visual novel.

      I suppose this is a good thing. Because it suggests a mod that extends Skyrim with a large and very professionally done area (Falskaar) could pull even more. But I don’t see it happening. I must say, from my perspective, it seems Patreon donors have funny tastes.

      • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

        Seems like visual novels are just a way of organising the series of drawings then. Maybe these drawings fit a niche market that for some reason noone wants to oligopolise via huge marketing budgets?

        AAA game assets are currently too labour-intensive compared to just fine game assets, so these are produced mostly for low-risk approaches like «let’s milk the established franchise via game sales then shut down the servers that are necessary even for single-player».

  31. Doug says:

    > but surely it should require some truly important cause, probably above the level of “I really want to watch Black Panther, but it costs $11.99 in theaters”.

    What if you’re indifference price to see Black Panther is less than $11.99? You’d be willing to see Black Panther for $5.99 but no more. If the producers of Black Panther had a way to peer into your heart and know your reserve price, they’d sell you a copy for $5.99. (Assuming zero marginal cost.) But there’s a credibility problem, even if you super double-swear. Many people who are willing to pay $11.99, may just lie to get discounted tickets.

    If you’re an ethical utilitarian, you’d be justified pirating Black Panther. It makes you better off- you get to enjoy Black Panther- and the producers no worse off-they don’t sell a ticket regardless. In fact it’s justifiable to pirate any movie that you’re not willing to pay full price. In fact it’s probably justifiable to pirate everything. Then just take your entertainment budget and use it to directly patronize content producers that you enjoy the most. If you really liked Black Panther you maybe send the studios $30 instead of $12.

    The only counter-argument I can see, is that the temptation to cheat is just too high. We’re all selfish cheapskates. Maybe we’d rationalize to ourself that we only enjoyed Black Panther $1 when we really enjoyed it $20. Thus saving us $19. If we’re very good at lying to ourselves and justifying bad behavior, then a no piracy stand is an imperfect method of enforcing ethical discipline.

    In fact this is probably the best justification for following laws. We all have our internal moral systems, and in the idealized world ethical people would self-enforce ethical behavior. The existence of laws would still be necessary to deal with the explicitly amoral. But if our internal ethics contradicted existing laws, there’s no apparent reason to adhere to the laws. But maybe we need to pre-commit to some third-party’s rules to avoid self-deception.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      They already price discriminate. You can wait a while and get it for $1.99 at RedBox.

    • Bugmaster says:

      You’d be willing to see Black Panther for $5.99 but no more.

      If the movie studios knew this, they’d endeavour to produce a cheaper movie — maybe one without so many special effects, or brand-name actors, or a shorter run length, etc.

      • mdet says:

        If the movie studios knew this, they’d endeavour to produce a cheaper movie — maybe one without so many special effects, or brand-name actors, or a shorter run length, etc.

        They do do this. It’s called “TV”.

        So many comments here complaining “Hollywood is nothing but formulaic special-effects heavy blockbusters, therefore real creativity and storytelling are dead” seem to be ignoring that, as far as I can tell, we’re in a golden age of television. Between Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and the cable networks, we are getting literally hundreds of new shows every fall, shows in every conceivable genre and subject matter, and everyone I’ve heard from seems to agree that there are more great shows on tv than any person is capable of watching. And an entire month of Netflix / Hulu / Amazon is equal to the price of one single movie ticket.

        It’s not that Hollywood forgot how to do real storytelling and character development and creativity. It’s that all of those things are much better suited to the long-running serial tv show format. From what I’ve heard, people who go to Hollywood with original, character driven stories actually get told “That’s a great idea, you should make it a tv show instead”. Hollywood’s comparative advantage over tv in the Visual Storytelling Media department is that Hollywood has billion-dollar budgets and a global audience, and they know this, so they’ve committed to only making the kind of content that A) requires a billion-dollar budget and B) appeals to global audiences. Therefore formulaic special effects action blockbusters.

        This is something that bugs me every time this topic comes up.

  32. nameless1 says:

    It is perfectly rational to want the provider of a service to collapse if you expect a better one will take its place. That is my position about the shitty movie industry based on special effects/CG and not acting and plot. Except they got so bad I don’t even want to watch them for free so no point in pirating them anymore.

    Pirating is not stealing. Pirating makes a copy, stealing removes the original. It is even worse than your noncentral fallacy examples, it is LITERALLY not stealing in any of the sense of the word. If goods are stolen from a warehouse, the accountant will book it into an “inventory loss” account on the income statement. If sales and profits are lower than expected due to piracy, the accountant does NOT book the difference anywhere, because they never ever had any sort of entitlement or right to any expected sales or profits.

    People feel on a gut level that it is stealing in the sense of “unauthorized access”, if you create something you should be able to decide who gets access to it. Which is still not stealing but something like “trespassing”. If people break in the Louvre during the night, look at the Mona Lisa for free and without all the queues, and leave empty handed and without damage, are they guilty of stealing? No, but they are guilty of another crime, most likely trespassing. They did not take stuff, but they are in a place the owner did not consent them to enter. It is a better parallel to downloading, watching and deleting a movie than inventory theft is.

    The ethical argument would be far smarter if IP was not treated like intellectual goods in a warehouse but more like intellectual territory. Talking about it as stealing does not make sense, but talking about it as the authors territory which others may only enter with his permission make more sense.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Categories made for man not man made for categories blah blah

      • nameless1 says:

        Yes, I am precisely talking about how to make these categories in a way that pirates will not think you are entirely clueless. Currently saying “piracy is theft” gets the same kind of eye-rolling that telling teens marijuana is the killer weed and a gateway drug to heroine.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          how to make these categories in a way that pirates will not think you are entirely clueless

          I’m not really bothered by a bunch of thieves thinking something bad about me, especially if they are trying to force me to see the world their way or else they will call me names. What kind of coward is swayed by that logic?

          This is symmetrical, too. I don’t really expect them to stay up at night because I call them thieves.

          Well, some of them will post in the internet every single time that it’s not really stealing, so I guess it bothers some of them.

      • Murphy says:

        *(Not all categories are equally reasonable, if I start calling jaywalking “rape” then everyone is justified in considering my views ridiculous)

        Unfortunately “he’s violating my government granted temporary monopoly on creating copies” doesn’t get people riled up in the same way… much like how people care much less about jaywalking than about rape… but someone trying to wage a war on jaywalking is still ridiculous if he decides the reasonably and correct way to solve the problem of people not caring very much is to start shouting “RAPIST!” at the top of his lungs while pointing at the jaywalkers.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          “He’s stealing that movie” is the common expression understood just fine by most people who aren’t being deliberately obtuse. Some people will insist it’s incredibly confusing but the fact that everyone else uses it just fine is an important data point in evaluating how confusing it really is.

          • Jiro says:

            Something that is understood to be smuggling in inapplicable connotations is still being understood, but complaining about it is legitimate.

          • nameless1 says:

            It is a common expression understood by all non-pirates. That is a difference. While real thieves usually understand they are thieves and understand it is inherently wrong and only have excuses (“I am poor”), pirates have arguments why it is not inherently wrong at all.

            I mean surely you could talk about heretics in Catholic circles and they would understand you are talking about Protestants but usually the normal thing is to use a definition both sides accept.

          • Murphy says:

            If you get all your friends around town to shout “RAPE!” at jaywalkers every time they see them after a few days everyone will know what they *mean* just fine. They’ll stop being confused.

            But that wouldn’t make it any less ridiculous. People getting used to inanity doesn’t make it less inane.

    • Tenacious D says:

      I agree that trespassing is a better parallel than stealing where IP is concerned. Nice example about breaking into the Louvre just to look at the Mona Lisa.

  33. Cerastes says:

    Lego Black Panther IV: Lego Black Panther Vs. The Frowny Emoji

    This is the terrifying, unspeakable idea of Lovecraftian-mind-fucking-horror that Roko’s basilisk could never hope to be.

  34. jimrandomh says:

    The journals are worse than mere rent extractors, they’re rent extractors which selectively target prosocial behavior. I think there’s a relevant difference between pirating a paper and pirating Black Panther, which is that the motivations for pirating papers are usually altruistic; we want to read the papers so that we can tell others, not just for our own entertainment. If we didn’t have Sci-Hub, the fake science news stories wouldn’t get rebuttals in the comments, and people wouldn’t sanity-check their friends’ doctors’ work.

    • Aapje says:

      Not just pro-social behavior, but also pro-‘getting knowledgeable.’

      Journals lock facts up in an ivory tower, allowing demagoguery and lies to go unchecked (more).

  35. Nate the Albatross says:

    I’d feel a lot less bad about car theft if Uber and Lyft owned all the self driving cars. Right now I like the special cars police use with cameras and the car locks all the doors and turns off after people steal it. But in the future I’ll probably say, “Meh, it drove itself back, let the kid go.”

    Unlike Uber, scientific journals don’t provide me with simple, cheap, easy access to all of the science I want. Uber will let me take a 2km ride. Science journals not so much.

    I’m also more than a little pissed that hundreds of billions in research by publicly funded universities is stashed behind a paywall. I paid for that research already via taxes. Corporations and public universities collect massive revenues off of that research. The least they can do is let me see what they came up with using my money. When I donate to the athletic department I can get front row seats and wonderful articles. When I donate to cancer research I get a paywall. If the only way to protect an intellectual property is to hide it, then it was gonna get stolen by China anyways.

    Show. Me. The. Papers.

  36. David Shaffer says:

    Isn’t the idea of laws having moral force wildly unethical? Even if we disregard points like dictatorships also having laws, and democratic laws often being corrupted by gerrymandering or lobbying (didn’t you post a link a while back about American policy not even being statistically correlated with the will of the people?), the law is simply a rule that some people agree on. Even in a perfect democracy, it’s merely something that 51% of the people agreed on; there is nothing about those people being moral or wise or even not batshit insane.

    The obvious counterargument is the need for Shelling points-maybe I don’t like tax A, and you don’t like tax B, but if we both agree to pay our taxes, then we can fund services we both like, whereas if we evade our dispreferred taxes, the budget collapses. But we need Shelling points, and the law provides some is a very different argument from the law has inherent moral force. If you believe in obedience for the sake of Shelling point coordination, then presumably you should obey whatever norms you feel are useful for that coordination. For instance, “we’re better off if we all pay our taxes” could lead you to paying even a tax you feel is counterproductive, hoping cooperative people with different views of the tax code do likewise, or “we’re better off if no one uses violence to enforce moral views they can’t get widespread agreement on”, so no attacking abortion clinics even if you’re exceedingly pro-life, and no sabotaging meat markets no matter how vegan you may be.

    But this only applies to laws you feel are useful Shelling points-it would seem very strange if people felt morally obligated to follow an anti-sodomy law, as mentioned above, or a speed limit in circumstances where speeding will not endanger anyone. Or any law such that, if everyone broke laws for the reasons you are breaking this one, the outcome would be neutral or good.

    Again, there’s an obvious counterargument-doesn’t this just kick the problem one meta-level up? Maybe there’s not quite as much anarchy from people disregarding the law right and left, but everyone is deciding their own norms for when to cooperate, and there’s no central authority we can use to tell people with norms we don’t like, “hey, actually fall in line.”

    However, the reason that that doesn’t actually provide a good argument for awarding laws moral force is that everyone has to confront this level of meta anyway. On the object level, one might try to do what one feels is good. On the meta-level, one might try to adhere to rules that yield better results through cooperation, even if one doesn’t like one’s object level actions quite as much. But above that, everyone still has to decide what kinds of cooperation are worthwhile. Following the law by default is still a choice, it still has consequences, and moral agents still have to decide whether or not they consider outcomes moral whether they are the result of law-abidingness or not.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      Funny thing: Africa has a lot of large mammals, but they can’t be domesticated. They lack the perquisite social herd instincts. You can tame them, but you’ll never make cows out of zebras.

      We’re partly born with instincts like obeying rules and following others. Sure, you can talk here about Schelling points, but truth is, “law” is something that we’re born and raised to grok. And most of how this is perceived by most people, is that law is moral.

      • David Shaffer says:

        Which is how we get Holocausts and gulags and shari’a. Following certain laws is moral, but following Law as a value in itself is probably the cause of more evil than selfishness is.

        • Radu Floricica says:

          I’m probably one of the relatively few who read and enjoyed The Casual Vacancy (first non Harry Potter book written by JKR). I found that I rather liked a character I was obviously supposed to despise: Howard Mollison, a morbidly obese bourgeois, shop owner, pillar of the community and so on. He was utterly unlikable, but he was also what made the civilization possible. Huge source of neg-entropy and wealth creator.

          You can die from drinking too much water, so obviously too much law and order can be bad for a society. But “the law abiding citizen” is usually the same one that makes the society possible.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Yes and no. The fact that people usually obey laws is generally good for exactly the reasons you’re saying. But there’s a difference between following laws because you believe that those laws are good to follow (either good as such, or good because they’re helping people with different values cooperate), and following laws because you believe that following the law is good in its own right. When the law is reasonable, this distinction is fairly academic. But history has shown us fugitive slave laws, jim crow laws, economic restrictions that bleed the poor dry and even outright legally-mandated genocide.

            As you say, drinking water is an excellent example-we need water, and most of the time, drinking water is good. But if millions of people had died from hyponatremia (water overdose), it would be quite reasonable to take issue with the unqualified statement “drinking water is good.”

  37. uau says:

    I think a better case could be made for pirating movies, rather than just calling it laziness or avoiding paying $12. On one hand, movies are something which require up-front investment, and for which the existence of some form of a copyright-like system is likely justified (though things like current excessively long copyright terms obviously are not justified). On the other hand, the current copyright system as a whole has been rather obviously corrupted in ways that are against the interests of society. Encouraging general disrespect for copyrights can be justified from that angle – if the general public perceives copyright laws as distinct from laws forbidding things that are actually bad, that will likely be a good thing overall. The industries creating blockbuster movies are also large culprits in the corrupting of the laws, so depriving them of money doesn’t seem particularly unjust (even if you could make a valid argument that paying for movies would be just by default in an alternative world where the companies involved were not otherwise causing major societal harm).

    Copyright already seems on a rather less solid foundation when applied to computers than what it was when applied to things like physical books. You can easily make a million copies of a book on a hard drive – applying copyright literally to this leads to completely absurd results. Whether something “creates a copy” on computers in a meaningful sense is also quite arbitrary. Encouraging a social norm something like “copying data around on general-purpose networks and storage devices cannot be a significant crime by itself in copyright-law sense” seems potentially useful.

  38. Sangfroid says:

    Donald Knuth – computing scientist and professor emeritus at Stanford University – wrote a letter to the editorial board of the Journal of Algorithms back in 2003, when they were acquired by Elsevier. Some highlights:
    1) Typesetting and proofreading were provided by the journal, a process that was especially difficult and time consuming for mathematics.
    2) The author is now responsible for this, and the advent of publishing software further reduces the cost of producing a journal.
    3) Despite this, the cost of the journal doubled.
    4) Furthermore, almost all of the work going into the journal is done pro bono – with the possible exception of the journal’s editors.
    5) For-profit publishers are binding libraries into multi-year contracts with confidentiality contracts to avoid scrutiny

    The entire letter is well worth reading, and has references to a number of other pertinent papers and information.
    https://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/joalet.pdf

  39. theodidactus says:

    Hello Scott,
    I’m a former academic librarian and a current law student, so I wish I had something more to add to this article than “you should write an explainer or something about why academic publication is a mess”…but you should do that.

    I know there are lots of good explainers out there, but I think you have the capability to net an audience others cannot reach, and you might have a really good perspective on the issue. About a year ago, you wrote an excellent article on how everything is getting crappier and more expensive*, a fact which is readily apparent to many, but your article was much more accessible and less political than most on the topic and for those reasons alone I thought it added a lot to the discussion.

    In my former line of work I was continually surprised by the sheer number of smart, open-minded, eclectic people who failed to see the scholarly publication process for what it was. You correctly identify the problem as being fundamentally one of coordination, so even if vast swaths of academia realize the publication process is terrible, we can’t defect out…but we can’t even start to fix the coordination problem until we convince people a problem exists to defect out of.

    Some things that many of you doubtless know already, but I should mention in case I’m reaching some of you for the first time with the fires of knowledge and whatnot:

    1) People outside academia tend to conflate the “academic publishing is bad” argument with the “the US copyright regime in general is bad” argument. When I have conversations about this, I have to expend a truly extraordinary amount of effort explaining how this isn’t strictly about napster or mickey mouse.

    2) People within academia tend to not really understand, or care, how copyright works in other fields. In my experience they often do not appreciate what they are selling or trading away…or if they do, they fail to realize that this process is fundamentally different from what a fiction writer sells, or trades away, when they publish fiction.

    3) There appears to be a belief both within and outside of academia that the scholarly publication process performs some vital quality control function. When I press academics on exactly why the journals themselves must perform this function (and charge so much, and continually raise the price) I see either:
    A) “Yeah, that’s true, we could do it ourselves, but that would be very hard…or we could have some other arm of the university do it, but that would also be very hard, now go away.”
    B) “Well yes IN GENERAL journals are rent seekers, but IN MY FIELD, things are different because of [some quirk of my hyperspecialized field that you couldn’t possibly understand]”
    C) “You’re one of those open access freaks that want to turn everything into a blog post, aren’t you.”

    * Truthfully, academic publication is a niche manifestation of this phenomenon, but perhaps the most dramatic one.

    • Aapje says:

      There appears to be a belief both within and outside of academia that the scholarly publication process performs some vital quality control function.

      The replication crisis makes this an even more ridiculous argument. Quality control is really poor, right now.

      • theodidactus says:

        and there is no reason, at least none that I can understand, for why performing this function would cost more and more every year, with costs increasing at such a predictable rate.

  40. blacktrance says:

    It leads to a world where there is no overarching moral principle preventing anarcho-communists from seizing cars, and where we have to do politics to decide whether they get arrested.

    Even if there were an overarching principle, you’d still have to do politics to do politics to get people to recognize and follow it – e.g. the meta-level arguments for free speech aren’t universally compelling. And since you have to do politics anyway, and there’s no meta cushion or crutch here, you have to do what’s actually right and resist those who do wrong, even if they think they’re right (and are sometimes backed by armed men calling themselves “the law”). Sometimes people with moral disagreements can still agree to some neutral procedure (maybe because they think it promotes truthseeking), but sometimes that’s not possible and then you can only follow your object-level theory. Kind of like how in science or medicine, there are truth-seeking principles that are analogous to the moral meta-level, but if I say that cyanide makes for a great vitamin, you can reject it on the object level without feeling confused.

  41. alef says:

    I don’t see that using sci-hub really harms Elsevier much financially, so how does it help bring down the system?

    Let me seriously propose the contrary: it helps maintain the system.

    The system only really stops when researchers stop publlshing within it, and we are a bit stuck at this equlibrium. We need to make defection more palatable. And one nudge in that direction would be if it were truly the case, and widely recognized as such, that publishing in such removes precludes widespread dissemination and appreciation of your work – in an important sense, you are not effectively adding to the stock of human knowledge.

    We want researchers to be bombarded with frustrated requests “I head about your work on X, but I don’t work for a wealthy university, how can I read it?” and not have to answer “Well, for $30 per article, there’s this official site…”. We want researchers to be forced to make a hard and conscious choice each time they submit to an Elsevier journal.

    But that’s not really the case now – for the most part, your audience can find your articles if they are a bit creative. E.g. by using sci-hub. And researchers know this.

    It’s nice to think that a questionable action which solves a personal need (as in ‘I really do want to read such-and-such article’) also contributes to a desirable social goal, but it’s fair to be suspicious of how convenient that is. Your argument is that if everyone did it, the system would be destroyed, but it does not follow at all that if any one person does it they are advancing that destruction to even the tiniest degree.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      I agree: it helps maintain the system by acting as a safety valve.

      Elsevier is always going to sell subscriptions to universities, and universities are always going to have the subscription to show off before someone publishes a paper that you are only supposed to get from Elsevier.

      So much of higher education is a giant mess, we shouldn’t be surprised that journals are, too.

    • Aapje says:

      @alef

      I think it works the opposite way: because of sci-hub people are realizing what they were missing out on and if it goes away, people complain way harder then if it never existed in the first place.

      Also, sci-hub enables defection by universities. They can cancel subscriptions and researchers can still secretly read the papers.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Also, sci-hub enables defection by universities. They can cancel subscriptions and researchers can still secretly read the papers.

        Secretly, yes. But it’s not much use to secretly read a paper if you are a researcher at a university. Those researchers are writing papers, too, and are going to have to reference the papers they supposedly don’t have access to.

        • 10240 says:

          I don’t think anyone is going to check if your university has access to the article you cite. I wouldn’t have any qualms about citing a paper I read on sci-hub. In the beyond unlikely event that I get sued, I could still claim that I went to the library of another university that has it, or something like that.

          • Ketil says:

            Well – if Elsevier can sue the university for a zillion dollars for copyright infringement, I wouldn’t bet on them not checking. (Tried to google for possible amounts, but couldn’t find anything definite)

            Edit: WP says statutory damages of “up to” $150K “per work”: So easily millions, probably not billions.

          • 10240 says:

            @Ketil do you have a link about this? I can’t find it on wikipedia or google. I found some cases where they sued researchgate, or sent takedown notices to researchers, but those were cases where they distributed the articles.
            I still don’t think that citing an article can be taken as evidence of copyright infringement, as there are several ways you could have legally accessed the paper. Also, you could’ve cited the paper without reading it, knowing that it contains a certain information from indirect sources (another scientist, another paper that cites it) or the public abstract.
            Also, it’s the individual researches who commit copyright infringement, not the universities, so they would have to sue them one-by-one.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I still don’t think that citing an article can be taken as evidence of copyright infringement, as there are several ways you could have legally accessed the paper.

            It’s absolutely evidence. It isn’t 100% proof positive. But we don’t need 100% proof, or even beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case you need preponderance of evidence.

            Also, you could’ve cited the paper without reading it,

            “Hey this paper is a major piece of my career and my future livelihood depends on it no I didn’t read the critical thing I build my paper on you believe that right.”

            knowing that it contains a certain information from indirect sources (another scientist, another paper that cites it) or the public abstract.

            You might get away with this once or twice, but soon enough the evidence is going to be too hard for a jury to believe without thinking you are bullshitting them.

            Also, it’s the individual researches who commit copyright infringement, not the universities, so they would have to sue them one-by-one

            This is true.

          • 10240 says:

            In mathematics, the critical part you use is very often the theorem, not the proofs, and it’s often accessible from other sources. Or very often I hear theorems or proofs from colleagues. In mathematics it’s mostly moot anyway, because almost everything is on arXiv, but in other sciences, too, it’s often the conclusions that matter. Sure, out of a lot of articles chances are you’ve read some of them.But also, most articles have multiple authors, so they would have a hard time proving which author committed the infringement.
            Are you aware of any lawsuit based on such indirect evidence? It would be much like the police saying that the majority of people occasionally speed, so by preponderance of evidence we fine everyone for speeding. Probably there are differences by jurisdiction in how much such strategy would work. Or maybe you’re right, and they could win such lawsuits, but I don’t think most researchers think about this possibility.
            And if publishers started suing individual researchers, chances are it would make them so unpopular as to give the final impetus for journals to ditch them. Even RIAA has stopped suing file sharers (and they found it had little effect) AFAIK.

          • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

            Note that the publisher has to sue a researcher but the university has every incentive to provide supporting documents (and even create false ones if that cannot be proved).

            The scientist needs to cite much fewer articles than to read when selecting which articles are relevant. For the articles actually cited, they are either old or new; for old ones, the universities can collude to create records of interlibrary requests of paper copies of specific articles, for new ones there are preprints (especially in formal sciences) and there are datasets and lab journals in experimental sciences. It is easy to create a proof trail that this was requested and obtained, together with the desired citation. Reading is optional.

            Bonus points for summoning an expert witness who testifies that some citations are added based on the abstract+citation in an article you did read.

            Forbidding pre-publication of prepints before submission, or requiring assignment of datbase copyrights on datasets (which currently are not even published) is a large enough change to be a risk for the publisher. There is a coordination problem in question that is being slowly solved, and an abrupt change may help creating solutions.

            As for cited articles being a critical piece… Hm, a good topic for research: does meta-analysis quality suffer if you use abstracts instead of actual articles. Single articles cannot be trusted anyway. Not even in formal sciences: there are articles that are cited for some of the theorems but are known to also contain some false ones.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Research institutions could start operating like Uber, I guess, where everything is built to anticipate and resist the legal system and they delete all their stuff every day and start manufacturing a second set of books.

            I mean, it wouldn’t violate the laws of physics.

            But when we’re discussing research institutions turning into Uber, that’s a much more drastic change than trying to defect from Elsevier.

          • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

            Universities already have PR offices that explicitly and obviously lie about their own publications. Why not lie about something else? You don’t need to change anything in how research is performed. Look at the posts about IRBs in this blog — there is a lot of liability-avoidance paperwork.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Administrators currently:

            * have a job
            * have assets
            * are not in jail.

            No matter how bad Elsevier is, administrators aren’t going to risk those things to save the college money by engaging in some crazy “well here is how in theory someone could do it and I bet it’s totally legal” plan.

          • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

            Do colleges ever come close to bankruptcy? After all, administrator is not even personally breaking the law when ordering the researchers to only base their work on things available on arXiv/biorXiv/SSRN/PLoS.

            Of course, such a const-cutting measure is unlikely to be taken when a college boasts perfect financial stability.

      • alef says:

        So why haven’t essentially all universities defected? There’s big money at stake. (To be clear, I don’t dispute your argument which makes sense, but I have to suspect it’s missing something – but can’t see anything compelling. I don’t find the ‘secrecy’ argument so.)

        And it’s not just sci-hub. There are pre-prints, copies on personal web-sites, etc. Some years ago, I found experience of reading an abstract but not being able to get the paper very common and very frustrating. I felt that people with access to a real academic library were significantly better off than I. Now, at least practically, not so much.

        • Protagoras says:

          Inertia. I think they’re moving in the direction of defecting, at least based on librarians I’ve talked to (or indeed who have spoken up in this discussion).

        • Aapje says:

          @alef

          I suspect that the universities fear that their researchers will get blackballed from journals. I think that the power of Elsevier will be gradually broken down until some critical mass has been reached and then universities will ‘flip.’

          • 10240 says:

            AFAIK the editors decides what to publish, not the publisher. The editors are generally academics with little interest in the publisher’s profits.

          • alef says:

            Not a lawyer, but wouldn’t this threat or action (blackballing researchers if their institution doesn’t subscribe) be clearly illegal under U.S. anti-trust laws? (Not to mention, getting editors and reviewers to quietly go along with it?)

  42. alwhite says:

    I wonder if there is more room for action if we question the destruction part of “Universalized it would destroy the system – but the system is bad and needs to be destroyed.” The system certainly needs to change and probably fixed. The arguments for SciHub lead to destruction and perhaps that should clue us in that we’re on the wrong track.

    I guess where I’m going is, what are the merits and benefits of a destructive path over a potentially harder but non-destructive path?

    • Aapje says:

      Destruction is not bad when it is creative destruction: a better solution is ready to take over.

  43. Roger Sweeny says:

    The short and wildly insufficient summary is that it looks like we backed ourselves into an equilibrium where eg tenure committees consider journals the sole arbiter of scientific merit, anyone who unilaterally tries to defect from this equilibrium is (reasonably) suspected of not having enough merit to make it the usual way, and coordination is hard so we can’t make everyone defect at the same time.

    That sounds remarkably like Bryan Caplan’s argument that we have backed ourselves into an equilibrium where everyone has to have a college degree if they want a decent job, even though they rarely learn much useful to the job, but anyone who tries to “defect” is seen as a weirdo, and you can’t coordinate everyone to say, “I’m not going to spend four years not learning much of anything useful.”

  44. John Schilling says:

    You’ve got the consequential argument pretty well nailed down, I think.

    From the virtuous point of view, Team Copyright loses the fight when they call copyright violations “piracy”. That’s right up there with crying “Rape!” because someone copped a feel, or claiming that Milo giving a speech is “violence”. There is no virtue in grossly exaggerating the alleged crimes of another, and doing so weakens the general claim that the behavior in question ought to be considered criminal or even unvirtuous in the first place.

    Copyright infringement has approximately nothing in common with seizing treasure galleons by force on the Spanish Main. It doesn’t even meet the usual definition of “stealing”, insofar as the original owner still has everything that wasn’t a highly artificial legal construct in the first place. It may still be a violation of property rights, but only in the sense that e.g. trespassing is a violation of property rights.

    What makes copyright infringement a violation of property rights is, in most cases, the implied contract involved. Obviously nobody was going to let you anywhere near a DVD of “Black Panther” without either charging you $bignum^2 or securing your agreement not to widely distribute copies, so we can reasonably take your purchase of a “Black Panther” DVD for $11.99 as constituting an implied agreement not to make copies or to let anyone else make copies. The blanket “No copies of Black Panther” rule simply substitutes for an elaborate web of notarized contracts and DRM verification and mandatory home DVD safes, etc, to everyone’s benefit.

    But there’s never been an implied contract of scientific papers not being freely copied and distributed. Elsevier’s lawyers can insist on using a set of laws built around the requirements and customs of e.g. “Black Panther” DVDs, but it has always been the general rule of the scientific community that the scientists who create these works want them to be as widely and freely distributed as possible and will hand out copies to anyone who asks. And really, until quite recently Elsevier was fine with you making photocopies in the university library.

    So if there’s a case to be made for scientific-paper “piracy” being morally wrong, it’s got to be a deontological one. And since it isn’t the traditional rules of the scientific community that are being violated, you’re really stuck with the worst form of deontology: mindless obedience to statute.

    • Jiro says:

      Obviously nobody was going to let you anywhere near a DVD of “Black Panther” without either charging you $bignum^2 or securing your agreement not to widely distribute copies,

      That proves far, far, too much–it basically says you should follow all the rules that the copyright owners want whether they are part of the law or not. You can replace “agreement not to widely distribute copies” with “agreement not to give the movie a bad review”. The companies no more want you to do that than they want you to pirate the DVD, and if they were were using an explicit contract, they’d certainly prohibit it.

      • John Schilling says:

        You can replace “agreement not to widely distribute copies” with “agreement not to give the movie a bad review”.

        Trivially disproven by the fact that Disney does allow people to watch “Black Panther” without signing a non-disparagement clause. The standard isn’t “what copyright owners want“, it’s what content producers can obviously get away with demanding because every content producer that doesn’t get it goes bankrupt. Copyright or the equivalent, is going to be demanded by every non-bankrupt producer of blockbuster motion pictures.

        • Jiro says:

          Trivially disproven by the fact that Disney does allow people to watch “Black Panther” without signing a non-disparagement clause.

          Disney also allows them to watch it without signing a no-copying clause.

          And you can’t say “well, they don’t need to because no-copying is enforced by the law” because that’s circular reasoning–you’re using this argument to justify the law, so if you say that you’d be using the law to justify itself.

          • John Schilling says:

            Disney also allows them to watch it without signing a no-copying clause.

            But they do insist on explicit and restrictive contracts with the theaters that get their film. And in the world you would create, those theaters (with “no cameras” policies enforced by criminal tresspass laws) will be the only place you can ever watch Black Panther.

            And you can’t say “well, they don’t need to because no-copying is enforced by the law” because that’s circular reasoning–you’re using this argument to justify the law, so if you say that you’d be using the law to justify itself.

            There’s no circular logic in saying that, since [transaction X] will almost never be agreed to without [condition Y] being enforced somehow, that Y can be presumed unless explicitly waived and enforced in a more consistent and less obnoxious fashion. This assertion may be false, as in the case of your “no disparaging reviews” strawman, and if it is false it can be disproven by common examples of transaction X being agreed to without any enforcement of Y. But if it is true, or even in doubt, it is not disproven by chasing specific enforcement methods in circles.

            And it is true. You can have exactly two of: expensive-to-produce movies like Black Panther, widespread digital distribution, and unrestricted copying.

          • Jiro says:

            And in the world you would create, those theaters (with “no cameras” policies enforced by criminal tresspass laws) will be the only place you can ever watch Black Panther.

            And if selling used DVDs was illegal, you could argue “it is wrong to sell someone a used DVD, because if that became common practice, the only place you’d ever be able to watch Black Panther is in a theater, where you can watch the movie but you can’t resell it.”

      • You can replace “agreement not to widely distribute copies” with “agreement not to give the movie a bad review”. The companies no more want you to do that than they want you to pirate the DVD, and if they were were using an explicit contract, they’d certainly prohibit it.

        Then the reviewer who has not gotten permission to watch the movie because he refused the agreement publicizes the fact that Disney only allows people to watch the movie who agree not to give it a bad review, and people draw the obvious conclusion.

        • Jiro says:

          That’s only because companies have a collective action problem. One movie with a nondisparagement clause leads the audience to conclude that the movie is bad. But if every movie had a nondisparagement clause, the fact that a particular movie had one would not lead to this conclusion.

          If the implicit contact is assumed to contain what the company would put in an explicit contract, I don’t think “the company won’t put it in the explicit contract because of collective action problems” should mean it doesn’t count.

          • I don’t think it’s a collective action problem. If they all had a non-disparagement clause, viewers would know that reviews could not be trusted. Good movies would do worse, bad movies might do better, movies as a while would do worse.

          • Jiro says:

            I don’t think it’s a collective action problem. If they all had a non-disparagement clause, viewers would know that reviews could not be trusted.

            It’s a collective action problem on the part of the movie companies. Having one such agreement makes the customer distrust the movie company; having many such agreements does not. What you describe happening when there are many agreements makes the reviewers less trustworthy, not the movie companies (at least on the average).

          • Having one such agreement makes the customer distrust the movie company; having many such agreements does not.

            Having many such agreements means that the customers know they will not find out in advance if a movie is any good. That inability makes going to a movie a less attractive gamble, hence reduces people’s willingness to pay money to to movies.

          • Jiro says:

            That’s possible, but it’s a much smaller and less direct effect than a straightforward “if one movie company requires such a clause, their movies must be bad”.

            If we’re going to count effects like that, I could point out that the things you think do go in the implicit contract have similarly small and indirect bad effects and that doesn’t stop them, so it shouldn’t stop non-disparagement clauses either. (Certainly the fact that Disney has bought extended copyright laws reduces people’s opinion of Disney and people with bad opinions about the company are marginally less likely to watch their movies.)

    • SEE says:

      I was recently reading some 1980s issues of computer magazines, and in it was a letter complaining about calling copying and distribution of copyrighted material “piracy”. You know why?

      Because it glamorized the sordid activity of cheating creators out of their earned reward by invoking images from Hollywood adventure films.

      Anyway. As it happens, the use of “piracy” for “The appropriation and reproduction of an invention or work of another” dates back to at least 1771 (per the Oxford English Dictionary), which would make it at this date simply long-established English usage, not a nonce analogy to activities on the high seas being used by either side to try to sway emotions.

  45. artifex says:

    Another response to the first argument is that the incentive to produce intellectual goods can be provided with dominant assurance contracts—there is no need for any law to solve the free-rider problem. The assumption that Black Panther would not get produced without copyright law is wrong because you can make it a dominant strategy for people who want it to exist to coordinate to fund its development.

    • Hard to do. Are you assuming a world where contract enforcement is perfect and costless?

      A thousand of us agree to jointly fund a movie, with each of us getting to watch it but not to distribute copies. Copies appear on the market at a price much lower than our per capita contribution. We have no way of knowing which of the thousand put them on the market or whether one of the thousand got careless and someone else copied his CD without his knowledge.

      Since each person expects this to happen, it is not in anyone’s interest to join the original contract.

      One way of viewing copyright law is as a mechanism for enforcing the outcome that would come by contract if only the contract were adequately enforceable.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        It’s the patron model. A group of people who want the thing to get funded join the contract.

        It works for things where you know the end product, like a kickstarter, or a specific drug. It doesn’t work for movies, because the people who actually do the work of making it have no need to make a great movie. They just need to make something that legally counts as “a movie.” There are those who think you can contractually write-up what makes a great movie, and just smile and nod at them.

        • IrishDude says:

          It doesn’t work for movies, because the people who actually do the work of making it have no need to make a great movie.

          Adam Carolla crowd-funded his movie Road Hard. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 52% critic/76% audience, which doesn’t make it a great movie, but seems above just “a movie”. Not sure how generalizable this model could be for producing other movies, but as society becomes wealthier there’s more capacity to engage in producing these types of luxury goods with small but loyal fan bases.

          • Murphy says:

            Kung Fury turned out pretty well.

            Rotten tomatoes: 86% and IMDB score of 8.1 putting it near the top of the curve.

            https://qph.ec.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-2d61205d0cc78a0051571adebec2a023

            Keep in mind “Sturgeon’s Revelation” for these things. sure, 90% of kickstarter funded things are crap…. but 90% of everything is crap.

          • John Schilling says:

            The record for crowd-funded movies is Veronica Mars, at $5.7 million. That was almost five years ago, and I don’t think anyone has done even half as well since. And that one was supported by the fanbase of a TV series that was able to invest tens of millions in brand-building content whose distribution was protected by copyright.

            For a different non-profit distribution model, there’s Hillary: The Movie, probably in the same range. If you add all of these together, you’re still an order of magnitude away from Black Panther.

            If you want to see Wakanda as more than cheap animation, you need copyright law. If you’re satisfied with Mars, Hillary, Carolla, and maybe a Ralph Bakshi level animated Panther, you don’t.

        • baconbits9 says:

          This would only be true if the film makers only wanted to make 1 movie ever. Putting out some terrible ‘technically a movie, now give us our monies’ final product would functionally end their legitimate career as a movie maker.

      • artifex says:

        Enforcing an agreement not to distribute copies is costly. But who said such an agreement was necessary? The movie gets funded anyway, why does it matter if people redistribute copies? Dominant assurance contracts do not require expensive punishment of free riders.

        Say 1000 people would get some number of hedons in aggregate, equivalent for them to $15000, from the production of the film Black Panther. An entrepreneur agrees to create the film in exchange for $7500, which includes the production costs and a profit, but none of the 1000 people would be willing to pay the entire $7500, though they are willing to pay far more in aggregate. A third party agrees to give $7500 to the entrepreneur to produce the film but only if he obtains $8000 from 800 people who must each contribute $10. If he does not get enough, those who pledged $10 keep their money and he additionally gives $3 to each of them.

        If enough people pledge money, the film gets produced, 800 people, and possibly also some free riders there is no need to punish, get a good at a price they were willing to pay, the entrepreneur makes a profit, and so does the third party (who may have been the entrepreneur).

        If not enough people pledge money, between 0 and 799 people get free money to compensate them for their time and wasted hope, the entrepreneur does not care, and the third party does not care much because he actually only loses $15 because he purchased insurance in case this would happen.

        Of course the superhero fans calculate that it is in their best interests to give $10 regardless of whether they expect the contract to succeed, they do so, everyone expects this and so the second scenario never actually happens, and the insurance is not because this scenario might actually happen (if you were wondering about the low $15 price for the insurance) but only because the third party might have been wrong in his prediction in this one case whereas the insurance company is virtually guaranteed to make money from this type of business over many deals. Of course in a sufficiently adequate civilization prediction markets would not be illegal, dominant assurance contracts would be similarly common as publicly traded companies, entrepreneurs would have experience with public goods and how much people are likely to value them, and those who prefer private arbitrators or smart contracts would not be forced to pay taxes to fund a less efficient judiciary.

        What if the entrepreneur creates a film that is not good or not what the 800 people wanted? Of course the 800 superhero fans are not stupid and are not going to give money to just anyone who has no reputation for producing acceptable superhero films. A part of the money that is given to the entrepreneur after the production of the film can depend on reviews of the film made by people who have a good reputation for reviewing films. Such reputation tracking can be done with smart contracts too, thanks to oracle services. There are many solutions to this problem that are apparent upon thinking about it for five minutes.

        So why have dominant assurance contracts not already solved most of our civilization’s problems? My guess is that our judiciary is not able to arbitrate this kind of contract at reasonable cost and that implementations of smart contracts are too recent and dominant assurance contracts not known enough. Give it time and, if no artificial intelligence brings our civilization into a state that is unrecognizable and of low value to us, dominant assurance contracts might create a better world order with no government.

        • 10240 says:

          The probability that your decision whether to contribute $10 tips over the outcome is negligible. (Just as today the chance that any single person’s choice to torrent a movie instead of buying it will make a company not make a subsequent movie is nil.) Also, assume that the movie, if produced, will most likely leak out, so you can watch it as a free rider even if you don’t contribute. So (assuming you’re selfish) you will determine whether to contribute almost entirely based on monetary utility.

          Assume that in situations like this, the probability that the movie will be made is p. If p>3/13, then your expected utility from contributing is negative. (Plus if the film gets made, you get to see it, but then you also get to see it if you don’t contribute.) The expected utility of the third party is more complicated, since not only whether the film gets made matters, but also how many people contributed. But if p<3/13, it seems likely that his expected utility will be negative. Intuitively, if people, in expectation, make a profit by contributing (without counting the hedons derived from seeing the movie), then the third party must make a loss in expectation, even without counting the $7500 production cost of the movie.

          There is no pure symmetric Nash-equilibrium: if everyone else contributes, the optimal strategy is not to contribute, and vice-versa. I think there is a weak mixed-strategy symmetric Nash-equilibrium where everyone contributes with some probability q very close to 0.8, such that p=3/13. Then the third party has a 3/13 chance to make $500 (or little more), and a 10/13 chance to lose almost $2400, for an expected utility of $-1730.

          Curiously, in this case the expected number of contributors is likely to be close to 800, so the chance that a single person’s decision tips it over is not so negligible. So it may become advantageous to contribute, and/or a small number of selfless people are enough to ensure that the film gets made. But if this factor becomes well-known, then selfish people won’t contribute (or rather, q their mixed Nash-equilibrium decreases so that p stays 3/13).

          • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

            I think you can shift the calculation for utility of contributing in case of success by providing early access (the leak will take some time, and seeing the movie on the day of the release seems to hold at least some value), list of patrons attached to every copy (a patron can opt-out, of course), and some mildly personalised digital memorabilia.

            Also, to increase the number of success/failure cutoffs you can use stretch goals.

          • artifex says:

            The third party foresees everything you have said and decides that actually the contract will require 990 people to pledge $8, which makes a total of $7920, which is still enough for the third party to be satisfied with the deal. The superhero fans calculate that the guarantee of not having to pay $8 is not worth the risk of never seeing the movie.

            What if at least 11 people are irrational and do not pledge, or 990 is not enough for people to calculate that they should contribute? The third party foresees this and changes the parameters. What if the third party is irrational and makes an incorrect prediction about what people will do, or if there does not exist a quorum N such that N people would be rational enough to pay if it were in their best interests and simultaneously the same N would calculate that the possibility of not paying $8 is not worth the risk given that N pledgers are required? If the former happens, the third party takes a loss and some other contract provider makes a better prediction. If the latter happens that’s too bad and apparently we won’t get Black Panther.

            However, this happens to the same extent under copyright, so these outcomes do not rescue the first argument in the post. Entrepreneurs may make an incorrect prediction and produce a movie that turns out to be unpopular and never recoups its costs. Third parties who provide funding for the movie may similarly make incorrect predictions and fund a movie that is not a good investment. 11 superhero fans out of 1000 can be irrational and not pay for a movie they would have been willing to watch for $15, and the entrepreneur may foresee this and decide that as a consequence producing the movie would be a loss, and then the movie never gets produced. Dominant assurance contracts make a better use than copyright of the rationality that is available, unfortunately neither can create rationality out of nowhere.

            (Also, how did you calculate the 3/13 probability?)

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Just because everyone has incentive to defect doesn’t mean everyone defects.

            To be clear, I think current IP laws are more-or-less fine (I think the terms are too long, but when I bring this up I get a lot of shit, not from Disney corporate, but from the pirates, so fuck it) and functional and preferable to weird multi-party contracts as far as incentives go. But if you go to patreon dot com you can see that the patron model really is working for a number of things. They could free-ride, but they’d rather have the thing for a cost instead of nothing for no cost.

          • 10240 says:

            > I think you can shift the calculation for utility of contributing in case of success by providing early access […]

            Just like today: if you want to see it on the first day, or if you want to see it on the big screen, you have to go to the cinema.

            > The third party foresees everything you have said and decides that actually the contract will require 990 people to pledge $8,

            The problem is this requires them to find a large set of people (millions in a practical situation) who all want to see the movie. If some of them actually don’t care for the Black Panther, they won’t pay.

            > Also, how did you calculate the 3/13 probability?

            3/13*(-10) + 10/13*3 = 0

            > Just because everyone has incentive to defect doesn’t mean everyone defects.

            Just like today: some people buy the movie because they want to support the studio, or for moral reasons, even if they could get away with downloading it illegally. My point is that assurance contracts don’t significantly change the calculation compared to today’s system.

          • artifex says:

            > The problem is this requires them to find a large set of people (millions in a practical situation) who all want to see the movie. If some of them actually don’t care for the Black Panther, they won’t pay.

            Another contract provider foresees this problem and creates a company that specializes in studying demand for movies and funding entrepreneurs who have a good reputation to produce them. This is funded through dominant assurance contracts, and of course the contracts can be specific to movies or superhero movies just as they can not be, depending on what the contract provider company predicts is going to work best. Since the fixed costs are distributed over a large number of movies, and possibly public goods other than movies if that turns out to be necessary, it is easier to get interest from a large set of people.

            Soon other people realize the potential and start companies that compete on their overhead, their selections of funded movies, and the compensation amount they provide when the quorum of the contracts is not reached. Of course smart contracts and software (free and open source, development of which is also funded with dominant assurance contracts, needless to say; no copyright trolls or DRM anywhere in sight) exist that make it easy and cheap for movie fans to contribute to such dominant assurance contracts. There is also no agency problem because the interests of the superhero fans and the contract providers are aligned. There is no positive network externality either, though such can be solved with dominant assurance contracts too.

            Since entrepreneurs and their employees with a good reputation for producing superhero movies need to arise from somewhere, there are schools that provide training and organizations that certify the skills of such people.

        • Jiro says:

          To be clear, I think current IP laws are more-or-less fine

          Seriously, you’re okay with DMCA?

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Like I said, every time I suggest weakening IP laws, I get a massive amount of shit, not from people who are concerned that my new proposed terms weaken property rights for creators, but by absolutists on the other side. I don’t know how they became so poorly socialized but it’s not my job to fix them, and there are other things in the world that also need fixing where I won’t have to spend all my time dealing with attacks from my “allies.”

            Like, I’d want the laws about penalties for false DMCA takedowns to actually be enforced, but, eh, whatever, I’m too burnt out.

  46. Angra Mainyu says:

    This is sort of a pop-Kantian/rule-utilitarian argument: if everyone were to act as I did, our actions would be self-defeating.

    That sounds like a weak argument to me. For example, if every college student in the world decided to study math in order to be a mathematician, the result would be catastrophic, as there would be no engineers, doctors, nurses, phycisist, etc.) – just plenty of mathematicians, or people attempting to be mathematicians! (feel free to add more people to “college student”, if necessary), but that’s no good reason to think it’s immoral to study to be a mathematician. The same applies to a lot of other things.

    The reason I don’t pirate Black Panther is because, if everyone pirated movies, it would destroy the movie industry, and we would never get Lego Black Panther IV: Lego Black Panther Vs. The Frowny Emoji, and that would make people sad.

    That is not a good reason in the general case (see above). Do you think it’s a good reason in the case of movies? At least, I see no good reason why it would be. There might be other reasons that are good, but this one does not seem to be it.

    Second, and related, the laws have their own moral force that has to be respected. With all our celebration of civil disobedience, we forget that in general people should feel some obligation to obey laws even if they disagree with them.

    That’s a much better reason, though I’m not sure it’s related. Incidentally, if Kazakhstan did not have copyright laws, people in Kazakhstan could legally (under Kazakhstan law) and freely copy Black Panther, and that would not destroy the movie industry, just as the fact that there are no copyright relations between the US and Iran and Iranians in Iran copy software, books, and movies openly and legally (well, not always the movies because of Iranian censorship, which is another matter) does not destroy those industries.

    This is the force that keeps libertarians from evading taxes, vegetarians from sabotaging meat markets, and doctors from giving you much better medications than the ones you consent to – even when they think they can get away with it.

    It’s one of several forces, and not always the strongest (fear of enforcement plays a stronger role in many cases).

    The reason I don’t pirate Black Panther is because, if everyone pirated movies, it would destroy the movie industry, and we would never get Lego Black Panther IV: Lego Black Panther Vs. The Frowny Emoji, and that would make people sad.

    But if that’s the reason, it seems to me it’s very probably not a good one (see above).

    As far as I can tell, the movie industry is capitalism working as it should. No one animator can make a major motion picture, so institutions like Marvel Corporation exist to solve the coordination problem and bring them together.

    Are you assuming that copyright laws protect some intellectual property, rather than being restrictions of freedom (in a way akin to taxes) intended to promote something?

    My point is that corporations can’t do it profitably, either, without copyright laws, and the laws in question seem to be a case of government interference on the market, if there is no such thing as intellectual property (and I think there isn’t, by the way; there are patent, copyright and trademark laws, but without the laws, there would be no such rights, at least for the most part and not in a form similar to their present one).

    I think this fully addresses the first argument against science piracy.

    Perhaps, but I think that is not needed, because the argument fails on its own in the general case.

    If I steal scientific papers to destroy the journal system, doesn’t universalizing that decision process lead to anarcho-communists stealing cars to destroy capitalism?

    I don’t think illegally copying is stealing (it’s more akin to tax evasion than theft), but the problem I see with that argument is that the “universalizing” sort of argument seems to be, in general, pretty weak.

    But an important starting point is that endorsing “civil disobedience is sometimes okay” doesn’t lead to a world where anarcho-communists steal cars and nobody stops them. It leads to a world where there is no overarching moral principle preventing anarcho-communists from seizing cars, and where we have to do politics to decide whether they get arrested.

    Suppose a nomad hunter-gatherer sees another one he’s never seen before. In fact, their tribes (or bands, etc.) haven’t had previous contact, and have no relations. The first caveman likes the design of the axe, sees its functionality, so he takes the axe by force from the second one, and runs away. That’s theft, and immoral, even in absence of positive law.

    But suppose instead, the first caveman takes as close a look as he can at the axe, realizes how it’s made, and then (with some effort until he gets it right) makes a copy. That’s neither theft nor immoral.

    My point here is that there would still be an overarching moral principle against the actions of the anarcho-communists. They of course would fail to realize that there is, but their actions would still be immoral, and others would want to punish them for that. Copying scientific papers does not fall into that category (movies is a more complicated matter, even though there is no intellectual property).

    Stealing cars would be (in general) immoral even if it weren’t illegal. Copying things without authorization (in general) wouldn’t be so (though there are cases in which it would be).

  47. Oleg S. says:

    A fun thing to consider is to what extent Elsiever holds copyright to the scientific data itself. Is it ok to repost the methods in their entirety? What about supplementary data, can I share it on my website? Is it ok publish replication of the study or that would violate copyright somehow?

  48. Questioner says:

    “Civil disobedience can be justifiable”

    Sure it can. But where you’ve gone wrong is in claiming that “Civil disobedience can be justifiable” == “people should not be punished for engaging in civil disobedience.”

    If the law you are violating is really morally wrong, then seeing you punished for violating it will help build the support necessary to change the law.

    If changing the law is not worth the punishment for violating it, then you’re a moral poser, not a serious individual.

    Martin Luther King violated bad laws, and went to jail for violating them, in order to prick people’s consciences and build support for changing America. His intelligent enemies were the ones who fought hard to keep him out of jail (going so far as to pay the fines themselves).

    You want to protest against “X” by blocking the roads? That’s fine, so long as everyone agrees that the proper response is that you get arrested, tried, convicted, and hit with the maximum possible sentence for your crime.

    If “X” is really horribly unjust, then people will see that, and demand their elected Representatives change “X”.

    And if you’re just a criminal thug trying to bully the rest of us to get your way, after losing the vote? Why, then, we’ll all point and laugh at you. And the world will be a better place, because you’ll be in jail, not out here harassing the rest of us.

    If you’re not willing to face that risk, then don’t violate the law.

    But the current situation, where politically approved thugs get to violate with impunity the laws the rest of us have to follow? That’s not a sustainable state. That’s an invitation for the rest of us to decide that the only laws is what’s enforced with the policeman’s gun, and that or proper goal is to make sure the police can’t threaten us.

    So, you want the destruction of civil society? Keep on allowing one side to violate the law with impunity

    • Jiro says:

      If “X” is really horribly unjust, then people will see that, and demand their elected Representatives change “X”.

      That makes justness dependent on how well one side controls the media.

    • YehoshuaK says:

      If changing the law is not worth the punishment for violating it, then you’re a moral poser, not a serious individual.

      I don’t quite agree with you, because I don’t think that “disobedience to an unjust/immoral law” is solely meant to change the law.

      Suppose that morality is not actually a thing that exists. That is, let us imagine that the world is such that “morality” is just a word for arbitrary popular or appealing behaviors and attitudes, but not actually an existent reality that can properly claim the loyalty and obedience of human beings.

      In that case, no law can be immoral, nor can any form of lawbreaking be immoral, because if morality does not exist then nothing can be immoral.

      On the other hand, suppose that morality does exist. In that case, either a particular law accords with morality or it does not. If it does accord with morality, then it would seem to follow that everyone has a moral obligation to obey that law.

      If it does not accord with morality, then it is simple banditry, the exertion of power by the powerful upon the less powerful, and of course exerts no moral force. If that is the case, then how can I, or you, or anyone, be morally obliged to obey that law? We can’t, I think. We can only be practically compelled, by the threat of the (in the case, immoral) exertion of police power.

      Now, one may choose to disobey an immoral law publicly and accept the (immoral) punishment, perhaps in an attempt to gain public support for a change in the law. But how can there be a moral obligation to accept punishment for disobedience to a law, when that law itself violates the laws of morality (which we presently assume actually exist)?

      As far as I can tell, there can’t.

      Incidentally, when I speak of an immoral law, I mean a law that violates the assumed laws of morality in any way. It might be immoral in how it was passed, or in its purposes, or in how it is to be enforced, or in its consequences. In any event, if the law is immoral, then it can have no moral claim upon me to obey it. That seems to me self-evident.

  49. Levin says:

    Even though this is somewhat orthogonal to the issue, I’ve always had a hard time evaluating Sci-hub neutrally ever since finding out its creator is a big fan of Stalin and totalitarianism in general. Oh yeah, she also thinks that ALL copyright should be abandoned.

    For example here‘s a post from official Sci-hub vk group polling people on their opinion of Stalin. The options are 1) Positive 2) Neutral 3) I am an enemy of the state and am leaving the group. The admin would often ban people who tried to argue against her stalinist views.

    Another illustration, from wikipedia:
    Following this event, and in the context of her long-running tense relations with the liberal, pro-Western wing of the Russian scientific community, she blocked access to Sci-Hub for users from the Russian Federation.[28] Sci-Hub access was later restored to Russia and Elbakyan said in an interview that many fans contacted her and convinced her “that the opinion of the so-called ‘science popularizers’ who attacked me on the Internet cannot be considered the opinion of the scientific community.”[29]

    It’s weird that the niche for a service like Sci-hub was occupied by an unknown weirdo with radical views, rather than a reasonable scientist who would justify doing this with an argument alike the one Scott outlines here. But then it’s pretty rare that we see rational consequentialist baeysians break the law to set things right, and I suspect the reason is that being uncertain psychologically makes it really hard to take radical action.

  50. pjiq says:

    I think you are making a false logical dichotomy here- between the law and the enforcement of the law. I think how a law is intended to be enforced is as critical a moral question as what the law’s purpose is. without law enforcement, there are now laws- the law IS the point of the gun on the south pole. everything else is morality, which differs from person to person.

    so the north Pole is a place where the government somehow can dictate morality because it doesn’t have to use guns- eg the North Pole is a very disturbing place. I’d definitely live on the south pole. it doesn’t mean there have to be armed guards everywhere- it just means the risk/reward is enough of a deterrent for most crimes. a 0.1% chance of 20 years in prison is a risk many people are not willing to take, because the stakes are so high. for that sort of thing you don’t need a morally brainwashed north Pole culture- you just need logical people.

    also, regarding Kant, there are many issues with this kind of universal approach to ethics. if everyone were a farmer or everyone were a doctor, we would have terrible health care or no food, but this doesn’t mean no one should exclusively farm or practice medicine (and everyone should try to do literally EVERYTHING). you can make more general categories with lots of qualifications to get around this sort of thing, but that IS cheating and allows you to say things like “I will only pirate movies as long as I’m poor and the movie studios are making lots of money- bc if everyone did this wed still get tons of black panther sequels.” this is obviously just rationalization but it WORKS in a kantian sense, which means this logic is much less foolproof than the “we can derive all morality from this thing Kant came up with!!” voices like to claim.

    thanks for the interesting post-

  51. Thanatos says:

    Scott, you should do a review of “against intellectual monopoly” by Boldrin and Levine. They make a pretty convincing argument against all kinds of intellectual property.

    TL;DR : Developing new technologies is profitable even without patents, because the inventor enjoys a massive advantage from beeing technologically ahead of the copycats and beeing the first to market the technology. Musicians make lots of money through secondary sources of income like live concerts.

    http://levine.sscnet.ucla.edu/general/intellectual/against.htm

  52. “If everyone did it, our institutions would collapse. But I hate our institutions. Therefore…”

    Does it trouble anybody else that this is a nice summary of why some millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump?

    Not all Trump voters saw things that way of course. Far from it, if anything I’ve come around to the conclusion that his true “fuck ’em all/blow it all up” vote has been exaggerated by the MSM and a lot of never-Trumpers like me. But even so, even if only ten percent of Trump voters saw things that way, that would be millions. And they definitely do exist, I know some personally. (Had I taken certain acquaintances’ grumbling two to four years ago more seriously I might not have been so amazed by the election result.)

    Not that I’m someone who’s ever argued that American institutions are fine and dandy [both my wife and my ex-wife just laughed out loud without knowing why]. But, damn.

    Perhaps Scott’s formulation above could better be phrased in the singular: “If everyone did it, this institution would collapse. But I hate this institution. Therefore…”

    • Matt M says:

      Does it trouble anybody else that this is a nice summary of why some millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump?

      I don’t think that’s quite right – for Trump voters, or for Scott. They hate some of our institutions, but clearly not all. Scott hates the institution of academic publishing, but that doesn’t mean he wants to blow up the university system completely.

      Conversely, Trump supporters hated a lot of “our institutions.” The media, education, the deep state, etc. But they don’t hate, for example, the police. Or the military. They didn’t want those things blown up, nor did Trump for that matter, he promised to strengthen them!

      • John Schilling says:

        Trump supporters, generally speaking, want to destroy enough of our institutions that only naive ignorance can explain their belief that the institutions they favor will survive the process. Scott, I think, is on somewhat stronger ground in his belief that scientific discourse would survive the loss of for-profit scientific publishing.

        • YehoshuaK says:

          Trump supporters, generally speaking, want to destroy enough of our institutions that only naive ignorance can explain their belief that the institutions they favor will survive the process.

          That is quite a statement. Do you have any evidence for it?

          Incidentally, I started off as a Never Trumper, a critic of then-Candidate Trump from the right, and have now become much more supportive of him. He is uncouth, egoistic, and decadent at a personal level, certainly, but his policies are much better (that is, more conservative) than I expected. Not perfect, but better.

          Personally, I want to fix our institutions, not destroy them. In many cases that means dramatic scaling back of institutions that have become primarily a means of funneling wealth and power from the people of the country to the people running the institutions, or the removal of personnel that use those institutions in ways that I think harmful to society.

          In some cases, the fundamental mission of the institution is harmful or ill-conceived, or the benefit that it seeks can only be achieved at an excessive cost, if at all. In those cases I would support the abolition of said institution.

  53. dark orchid says:

    Most European research grants require you to make your research output available freely online – or at least the ones I’m familiar with. ArXiv is one way to do this; quite a few universities over here host their own repositories for the same purpose. Because you make the paper public before submitting to the journal, you avoid the ethical implications of sci-hub, and those of making your research unavailable to anyone unable to pay for an Elsevier subscription. In the long run that (and a few Elsevier boycotts by mathematicians) will hopefully solve the journal problem for us, without breaking any laws.

    As to how we got into this mess, this is not particularly deep but the way I see it, journals traditionally served two functions – the first was as distributors and publishers of content, which is why we have the whole title/authors/journal/volume/issue etc. way of indexing things – there was a time when the way you read up on the references in a paper that you had been given to read, if the journals weren’t to hand, was you sent a cheque and an order form to the publisher and got a copy mailed back to you, weeks later. In that sense proto-Elsevier was doing science a valuable service.

    The second function of a journal was quality control. This was never that much better than you’d expect a human-run system to run, but it did (and does) have some value: “consistently getting publications in top journals” in an area is pretty good as far as metrics go, if the research area itself meets a certain standard.

    The problem we have is that we invented a much better way to fulfil the first function. That doesn’t mean that journals can’t still stick around to fulfil the second one, but this would mean giving up their role as “gatekeepers” (which the EU is pushing against quite heavily anyway). I personally think the whole green/gold/blue/etc. color model of open access is bull****, starting with the fact that “gold” – an applause light if there ever was one – is reserved for the model in which the journal gets money for doing what you could otherwise do for free.

    Something else I’m not sure about the ethics of – journals live off academics providing their reviewing services for free to a commercial organisation. If I spent any of my university-paid time on work for any commercial organisation except a journal, I’d probably get in trouble. One of the many ways Elsevier would collapse is if reviewers demanded to be paid at market rates.

    I see the hiring-committee problem more of a case that when you have lots of applicants and only weak signals, you pick whatever metric is quickest to compute (at least for the first round), although I know especially in CS that it’s a known problem when you get an applicant who has spent their last decade in industry instead of academia then you can’t evaluate them just by looking at the H-index. I’d say journal publications are definitely not the sole arbiter of scientific merit though, quite apart from the fact that in some areas of CS it’s conferences not journals where the top results are presented. The UK Research Excellence Framework has a separate category for “impact”, which is roughly defined as “everything except conference and journal publications” and you can certainly use that instead of or alongside publication record to justify yourself and your institution.

  54. kybernetikos says:

    One approach I’ve read about that some people take is to say that civil disobedience is only acceptable if you are prepared to publicly own what you did, and accept any punishment that society levels against you. While I’m not sure I agree with this (especially in the limit – society can impose arbitrarily harsh punishments), it does provide that line that you were looking for – that you will only disobey laws you feel extremely strongly about.

    Under this approach, ability to get away with it is never a component of valid civil disobedience.

  55. This discussion suggests an ethical issue that I don’t think has been discussed, although I may have missed it. Suppose we ignore the issue of whether IP is morally legitimate. Consider instead the question of when preventing a clearly suboptimal outcome justifies doing things we normally consider wrong.

    Assume, what is at least roughly true, that Elsevier gets its power because university departments use publication in a “legitimate journal” as the rule of thumb in evaluating the academic output of faculty and would be faculty. No rights are being violated, from a libertarian point of view. Some alternative institution could provide the same functionality without making it much harder for people to get at scientific information, but there are coordination problems that prevent the switch to that institution. Is it then legitimate to treat Elsevier in ways that we would normally consider wrong–pirating articles if we believe in copyright, going to work for them and covertly leaking articles to pirate sites if we don’t believe in copyright but do believe in obligations of employee loyalty, some other actions for other beliefs?

    To take a clearer case than Elsevier, consider the US News and World Report evaluation of law schools. It is enormously influential because it provides a single measure used by applicants in choosing schools. Its effect is arguably negative, since it encourages law schools to do expensive things that don’t improve the education they provide but do raise their rating—such as bombarding law faculty at other schools with printed puffery designed to increase the chance that a professor polled by USNWR will say something positive about the school.

    Suppose you have hacked their algorithm well enough to find ways of misreporting your school’s data that will raise your rating and are unlikely to be detected. Further suppose that you honestly believe that, because of the low quality of the algorithm, your school is currently underrated. Are you morally entitled to do it?

    • Matt M says:

      If you want this to sound shadier, replace “school” with “company” and “USNWR ranking” with “stock price.”

    • benwave says:

      Yes, that’s the most interesting question in this! In my reading of this post, it was the greater part of what Scott was discussing. He’s written before around the idea of obedience to the law having a moral weight to it regardless of the morality of the particular law itself, and this feels like a refinement of his thinking to me, incorporating the next-level-up counterargument. Further towards a conclusion, but definitely not really there yet.

      I think fundamentally, the problem is that humans have not come up with workable [social technologies? processes? organisational forms? I don’t have a perfect word for this] which allows us to replace certain kinds of harmful/inadequate collective structures with better ones (eg – academic journals, credentialism, housing and health cost disease, arguably global warming). Can we envision such a [process]? I guess that’s the engineer’s approach – try to find some better solution such that the existing contradiction between wanting to improve the world and wanting to obey the norms of civil society dissolves. It’s certainly the approach that I’m most attracted to.

      (I notice that I am struggling a lot with vocabulary. Are there useful standards I can adopt to make this discussion easier?)

    • eccdogg says:

      Suppose you have hacked their algorithm well enough to find ways of misreporting your school’s data that will raise your rating and are unlikely to be detected. Further suppose that you honestly believe that, because of the low quality of the algorithm, your school is currently underrated. Are you morally entitled to do it?

      An aside, but didn’t Clemson do exactly that.

      http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/06/03/rankings

      When President James F. Barker took over the South Carolina institution in 2001, he vowed in his initial interview to move Clemson into the top 20 (a distinction that many research universities covet, but few can achieve, given that most of those already in the top 20 aren’t eager to relinquish their spots). Although many people on the campus were skeptical, Clemson has pursued the goal almost single-mindedly, seeking to “affect — I’m hesitating to use the word ‘manipulate,’ ” Watt said — “every possible indicator to the greatest extent possible.” She added: “It is the thing around which almost everything revolves for the president’s office.”

  56. Matt M says:

    To me, the biggest issue with piracy is that someone involved is implicitly breaking a contract that they voluntarily agreed to.

    No transactions are truly “no-strings-attached.” When you buy a DVD of Black Panther, you are agreeing not to copy and distribute it for free. We know this because it is obvious that Disney would not sell a DVD to any person who announced their intention to copy and distribute it without paying them the appropriate licensing fees.

    Now, you might say, “But I, the innocent downloader, have made no such agreement with Disney.” Which is true. But the copy you downloaded was uploaded by someone who did. You are, in a certain sense, aiding and abetting something that is unethical – a breach of a promise.

    There may be certain situations in which a breach of a promise is ethical, but downloading Black Panther is clearly not one of them. Sharing key scientific knowledge with the world… might be. I’m kinda neutral on that one.

    • Jiro says:

      We know this because it is obvious that Disney would not sell a DVD to any person who announced their intention to copy and distribute it without paying them the appropriate licensing fees.

      This proves too much, just like it did when John Scholling suggested the same thing above. I’m pretty sure that Disney also would refuse to sell a DVD to any person who announced their intention was to engage in legal, fair-use, copying, or to write a bad review of the DVD, or to rent the DVD, or to resell it as a used DVD, at least without demanding something analogous to a license fee first. Why do we assume a “no piracy” implied contract, but not a “no reselling” or “no fair use” implied contract, when any of those things would cost the company money and the company would therefore want to prohibit them?

      • Matt M says:

        I disagree with your premise. Disney willingly sold DVDs to Blockbuster, Netflix, Wal-Mart, and Target for years. They knew what was going to happen with them.

        Similarly, I think they would willingly sell to someone who said “I am going to give an impartial and unbiased review that may be positive or negative.” As far as I can tell, they never made any effort to ban Roger Ebert from seeing their films – nor did they enter into some sort of shady agreement with him that he would only provide positive reviews.

        There are various good reasons why companies might support re-selling, renting, reviews, etc. There are no such good effects of piracy, or, if there were, the companies would openly encourage it (as some musicians occasionally do).

        • Jiro says:

          I disagree with your premise. Disney willingly sold DVDs to Blockbuster, Netflix, Wal-Mart, and Target for years. They knew what was going to happen with them.

          They willingly sold the DVDs because they had no legal way to prevent the things I described, so they had to choose to either sell the DVDs with resales, rentals, and fair use, or not sell them at all. Selling them without those things would have made them more money just like selling them without piracy makes more money, but the law wasn’t on their side, so they had to take the financial hit.

          Companies have certainly tried to prevent such uses in the past; they just lost in the courts. If they had won, we’d be sitting here putting resale of DVDs in the same category as piracy and pointing out that companies have implied contracts with you not to do either one.

        • John Schilling says:

          I disagree with your premise. Disney willingly sold DVDs to Blockbuster, Netflix, Wal-Mart, and Target for years. They knew what was going to happen with them.

          Right. They knew that bootleg copies would show up at street vendors in poor countries where almost nobody pays $10 to see a movie, and that eventually digital downloads would be available from the sort of web site whose de facto risks and transaction costs would make it cheaper for 95% of developed-world moviegoers to just pay the ten bucks or whatever. And they knew that if anyone did anything to change the latter part of the equation, the FBI would arrest and imprison them.

          The things lumped under “fair use”, don’t threaten any great part of their revenue stream (but do require that pricing for DVDs etc be on roughly a per-household rather than per-viewer basis). What happens at a street vendor’s stall in Sierra Leone, doesn’t threaten their revenue stream. And making the movie freely available to everyone who knows “Dread Pirate Roberts” as more than a movie reference, doesn’t threaten much of their revenue stream.

          Their core revenue stream, does depend on certain assumptions about what will happen w/re those DVDs that are A: correct and B: enforced by copyright law.

  57. cornflour says:

    For the typical impoverished student in India, Egypt, Cambodia, etc., using SciHub would be ethical.

    For the typical American university student, using SciHub would not be ethical, because there are viable alternatives.

    In between those types are the in-between arguments. Copyright isn’t part of a universal moral code. Of course, the applicable law can sometimes be determined, but that’s a different kettle of fish.

    The longstanding crisis in scientific journal pricing developed because publishing has been required for faculty advancement. Journals published by scientific societies could not accommodate the ensuing flood of papers. Elsevier, and a few other high-priced publishers, stepped in to meet the demand. Instead of paying for overpriced Elsevier journals, universities should work with scientific societies to expand their journals’ publication volume. Universities could help with staffing, distribution, archiving, and funding. Elsevier, and similar extortionists, would be starved out. Both universities and scientific societies know that this is feasible, but they’ve done nothing about it. Change is hard and involves risk, but universities and professional societies have failed to meet their own ethical standards, so we get SciHub, and loose talk about the ethics of copyright.

  58. darawk says:

    This is also the true argument for limited police/surveillance power. If it were possible for governments to enforce drug laws with 100% reliability, marijuana laws would never have liberalized. Same with sodomy, adultery, abortion, etc…All of these things came about, in part, because of civil disobedience.

  59. Joseph Greenwood says:

    As an incoming PhD student, I would like to know–what are quality open source journals that I could publish in without significant opportunity cost to my reputation?

  60. mtl1882 says:

    There is so much material locked up in these databases that it drives me crazy. Imagine all the connections that could be made were it more available. Somewhat related: I’ve been really into Civil War research, and there are so many documents lying around in archives and historical societies — if we could digitize them and crosscheck them, it would solve so many historical mysteries. I’ve already found so much new information that academic researchers have missed, in part because of lack of curiosity/awareness, and inability to make connections. People who have been in fields for a while often don’t question sources enough, IMO, and we need more eyeballs on the material. The interest in genealogy research has at least allowed a bunch of newspapers to get digitized, which has helped a lot. But while the Library of Congress has spent $20 million and 2 years trying to digitize The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a retired engineer without a college degree digitized the entire run on his own time and money, on his quirky site that looks like something out of the 90s (Fulton Postcards). The existing institutions are not doing a great job making this stuff accessible – there is so much room for creative destruction. If we all went to our local institutions and read through the letters and diaries, we could probably figures a heck of a lot out that has been overlooked.

  61. Jaskologist says:

    I have seen the term “Irish Democracy” used to distinguish private resistance from the type of public, accepting-of-punishment civil disobedience practiced by Reverend King:

    One need not have an actual conspiracy to achieve the practical effects of a conspiracy. More regimes have been brought, piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called ‘Irish Democracy,’ the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.

    It may be a useful distinction to keep in mind. Also bears a striking resemblance to passivism.

  62. nbouscal0 says:

    Your metaphor is remarkably similar to the underlying premise of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.

  63. fortaleza84 says:

    Putting aside the issue of intellectual property, consider the issue of access to weapons. For someone with guns, it’s much easier to take the law into one’s own hands. And in fact that’s one of the founding principles of the United States — that the citizenry has the right and duty to violently resist the government if it gets out of hand.

    One could say that by design, the laws of the United States are supposed to keep us pretty far from the North Pole. And it’s not just the Second Amendment. Also, the right to a jury; the right to be free from unreasonable searches; and probably other things I am forgetting. All of this has the purpose and effect of giving people the ability to resist the law.

    Anyway, for me, the decision of how far to live from the North or South Pole would be influenced pretty heavily by the demographic makeup of the society. In a place like New Hampshire, I’m pretty comfortable with the idea of giving the average citizen a lot of latitude to take the law into his own hands. Not so in a place like Israel.

    • Murphy says:

      Ya, the company of people who choose to live at various latitudes would almost certainly be a big part of the decision. My prefered social group is a hackspace where they try to keep the number of rules to an minimum and rely on people being mostly reasonable most of the time. Which worked well when the community was in an out of the way location and the only people who found it were the kind of people who would google for local hackspaces.

      After a move to a more public location we had far more problems with assholes who saw the place as an easy mark.

      On an island near the south pole with the kind of people in the former location it would be quite appealing. On an island near the south pole with a massive concentration of the kind of people who might want to move to the south pole purely because they want to get their murder-fucking on it would be horrible.

      But then the kind of people in the former group could probably also live fairly happily near the north pole by writing very few laws for themselves. Laws/rules are mostly for dealing with unreasonable assholes.

      • fortaleza84 says:

        But then the kind of people in the former group could probably also live fairly happily near the north pole by writing very few laws for themselves

        Yeah, it occurred to me that if you have a good group of people, it doesn’t really matter all that much how far North or South you are. An honor system will work pretty well as will strictly enforced rules against cheating, stealing, etc. On the other hand, if you have a bad group of people, life will pretty much suck no matter what.

  64. fwiffo says:

    Usually, you can find an economist to enter in an argument like this and say, “firms like this are actually adding value in ways X, Y and Z that people don’t directly observe, and the world would be worse without them.” See for example, discussions of middlemen, stock traders, malpractice lawyers, payday lenders, etc..

    I went through all the first level comments, and found it striking that nobody appears to have made this argument. This is pretty damning to Elsevier and suggests we might be right to cheer its inevitable demise.

  65. ksvanhorn says:

    the laws have their own moral force that has to be respected… in general people should feel some obligation to obey laws even if they disagree with them.

    That’s a pretty extreme position. The implication is that the king / president / Congress / faceless bureaucrat can change the moral character of an act by decree. Even in a democracy, that’s a “might makes right” position — those with power determine what is right or wrong.

    I would argue that the morality / ethics of an act must be judged on its own merits, and not on the pronouncements of any authority figure — and the criteria of judgment should be universally applicable, no “respecter of persons”. Ethical prescriptions should not contain proper nouns.

    This is the force that keeps libertarians from evading taxes

    You really don’t grok the libertarian position, do you? For a libertarian, taxation is literally robbery/extortion — to claim otherwise you have to carve out a special exception for the government — and there is no moral obligation to cooperate with a robber. You could even make a case for a moral obligation to minimize your taxes as much as you can, given the amount of harm the government does. So it is only the threat of governmental violence that keeps libertarians from evading taxes.

    • Murphy says:

      >You really don’t grok the libertarian position, do you?

      For many a pro-lifer abortion is “literally murder” but most don’t go around executing abortion doctors or kidnapping people who look like they might get an abortion.

      Just because someone holds a philosophical position doesn’t mean they entirely reject the entire society around them to follow it absolutely.

      • 10240 says:

        > most don’t go around executing abortion doctors or kidnapping people who look like they might get an abortion.

        Because they don’t want get caught and go to jail.

    • You really don’t grok the libertarian position, do you?

      “Libertarian” gets used to describe a substantial range of positions. That includes anarchists, for whom taxation is robbery, minarchists such as Ayn Rand, who want a minimal state funded by some mechanism other than taxation, and minarchists who accept the classical liberal position that the state is entitled to collect taxes for its minimal functions:making and enforcing law and defending against other nations.

      • ksvanhorn says:

        It seems to me that the term “libertarian” has been considerably diluted in recent years. When I was first introduced to libertarian ideas in the mid-to-late 80’s, the Non Aggression Principle defined libertarianism. Even the minarchist libertarians I talked to insisted on finding ways of funding the “night watchman” government without taxation. To quote L. Neil Smith,

        “A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim.”

        • John Schilling says:

          To quote the original (1972) platform of the Libertarian party, “we therefore support … a reduction of both taxes and government spending”

          Emphasis mine, but clearly there were Libertarians who from the start were OK with the continued existence of at least some taxes in a libertarian state. And if L. Neil Smith and the actual Libertarian Party disagree with what it means to be a Libertarian, I’m going to tell Smith to take a hike. The reason we even have “libertarian” as a political term, is because the people who would go on to form the Libertarian Party needed something to distinguish themselves from 1960s-style liberals.

          Also, the Non-Aggression Principle does a really crappy job of defining anything, because the terms “aggression” and “initiation of force” are themselves too ill-defined to be of any use at the margin.

  66. pelebro says:

    For me the biggest difference between scientific article piracy and movie piracy is that for the former the main costs associated with it are traditionally typesetting, editing and distribution, which new technology has a clear and direct bearing on. Typesetting and editing is often done by scientists using Latex which was only available relatively recently, and distribution is done fairly well with repositories like the arxiv using the internet. This is most clearly illustrated by the point that “arxiv overlay journals” which have the same functions (peer review and useful signaling for employers) can now operate at ~ 1/100 the cost of a traditional journal (even one without the predatory practices of Elsevier). For movies it seems that the main cost was and remains the production so I’m more skeptical in this case. It’s the same reason I’m skeptical of Uber, though maybe this is just me underestimating their contribution to coordination.

    • Kindly says:

      Suggesting “arXiv overlay journals” as an alternative seems much more palatable to me than suggesting that arXiv as-is can be an alternative to traditional publishing, as Scott does in the original post. The latter seems like dangerously missing the point. (See Philip Gibbs, the founder of viXra, on the difference between viXra and arXiv, which can be summarized as “you’re right not to trust an article because you found in on viXra, but it’s also stupid to trust an article just because you found it on arXiv”.)

  67. P. George Stewart says:

    The magic device at the North Pole is a cute metaphor for race. Dog whistling to the Alt Right again are we? 🙂

    But seriously, it is. When you say “it bottoms out in power” and the types of power are “interchangeable” – well, that would be the case, if it weren’t for the Schelling Point of race/ethnicity (or rather, the outward, visible manifestations of race/ethnicity, which are signs of different clusters of all sorts of traits averaged across groups) – which pans out in psychology as the natural inclination to trust people who look more like you, more than you trust people who look less like you.

    Another way of putting this might be: the more racially homogeneous a society, the more obeying laws feels to everyone in the society, collectively and psychologically, like, “This is how WE do things around here.”

    In an atomized, alienated society, on the other hand, the weight is put more on the individual and individual rationality, so pure rational calculation and naked power then come to the fore. The question then is only, “What must I do?” There’s no sense of being in it together with others.

    It’s also the same dynamic at play in things like Prisoner’s Dilemma, soldiers breaking ranks and routing, etc., etc.: race/ethnicity is the thing that enables the system as a whole to work rationally where the implementation of rationality at a purely individual level would have led to market failure. It’s like an invisible meta level where there’s an already-extant hidden conformity that provides the necessary tacit pre-agreement to avoid market failure at the operational level.

    And again, it’s the same thing when it comes to the justification of the legitimacy of government: without the natural Schelling Point of race/ethnicity, governments are not justified at all, there’s no grounding for the legitimacy of State coercion (something anarchists of all kinds have pointed out for centuries). But once you introduce that sense of “we”, once you have a group of individuals each one of which feels like they’re part of something bigger (the family, the tribe, the nation, the race) then you have the legitimacy of government, because then you have something like Rousseau’s “General Will” as a reality.

    Of course rather than there being a single North Pole, it’s like there are many Poles all over the world, with their own “pull” to distinct ways of life. The pull for White people is a largely abstract-rule-governed order; the pull for Brown people is largely kinship-governed order, the pool for Yellow people is largely clan-governed order, the pull for Black people is largely tribe-governed order, etc., with all sorts of variants and mixings down to the micro level. (And of course it depends partly on context what the natural Schelling point is: an alien invasion would naturally induce auld enemies to shelve their grievances and turn their combined efforts on the interloper.)

    Another caveat would be that because there are always outliers (people from one ethnic group who can fancy or see sense in the ways of life of another), there’s always a bit of mixing and cross-fertilization – keeps things lively, keeps things moving. But the bulk of a population will tend to stick by its “Pole.” (Which is the root cause of all the problems surrounding mass immigration in the West today.)

    I think that, just as disgruntled Marxists realized that there’s no naturally-appearing international working class solidarity that could form the vanguard of the revolution, but that there is such a thing as naturally-appearing national workers’ solidarity, and became Fascists; so classical liberals are about to discover an analogous thing: classical liberalism, libertarianism, are fine and lovely ideologies, but they depend on a racially relatively homogeneous White society, they are not universally attractive (even if they can be demonstrated to be rational, as the idea of market failure shows, they’re only rational in a context that’s already gotten a high-trust foundation from relative racial/ethnic homogeneity – bit of a Gödel thing going there actually, come to think of it).

    But then once you realize that, you become Alt Right, and there’s no going back for Childe Roland.

    In this context, what you’re talking about is like the leeway given to a naughty child in the family – they’re given a bit of elbow room for mischief, because they’re in the in-group, but if they stray too far, the hammer will come down. Given that most people will stick with the over-arching “harmonic” of their race/ethnicity, the presence of a few rule breakers doesn’t matter, because it’s not actually like a signal that would induce the several rationalities of all the other individuals in the group to go against the natural “Pole” to which they’re attracted (of obeying “our” rules).

    • uau says:

      I think you’re exaggerating the role of race there, or at least failing to acknowledge other possible divisions. AFAIK historically the movement of people has been slow enough that major race divisions within a single geographic area have been rare, but people have still divided into different tribes that can be hostile towards each other.

      Of course, if people now explicitly base their identity on race and embrace things like “black culture”, then this does ensure that racial divides will be tribal ones too.

      • P. George Stewart says:

        The key point is the natural fact that there’s strength in numbers.

        Given that, then it depends on what numbers matter in which context, and also the scale of purview the people have. If all you know is the next hill, then the people over there who look a bit different will be the natural enemy.

        But then along comes someone with a larger overview, along comes the king and unites all the clans who look only a bit different from each other, against people who look even more different.

        Then from the other side, that bunch’s sense of being a people is awakened by the king’s attack, they drop their tribal squabbles and unite as a “we.”

        But “strength in numbers” has its own breaking point, rather analogously to economies of scale, and for similar reasons (difficulty of co-ordination of a large enough number). But difficulty of co-ordination is relative to the complexity of the goal. With a simple goal, you could still unite a vast number.

        IOW, what it would really take to unite humanity as humanity and usher in the Star Trek dream of a multicultural future, would be the proverbial alien invasion.

        • Your description maps quite neatly to the traditional institutions of Somaliland.

          Each individual is embedded in a nested series of coalitions, defined in part by kinship, in part by contract. The coalition is responsible for enforcing the rights of the individual member, helping pay damages that the individual member owes, sharing in the receipt of damage payments owed to him. These are sometimes referred to as “diya paying groups,” diya being the Arabic equivalent of wergeld—I presume the term was invented by scholars who were already familiar with Bedouin institutions.

          The size of such a group is limited from below by the need to have enough fighters for conflict and enough assets to share in damage payments agreed to. It is limited from above by the vulnerability of larger groups to internal conflict.

          If interested, the main scholar in the field was I.M. Lewis. I have a longer description of the system in the chapter on it in my legal systems book.

          If there is a conflict between A and B and A’s diya paying group is enough larger than B’s to make enforcing B’s claims difficult, B shifts up to the next larger group in the nested series he is a part of.

    • David Shaffer says:

      Which are you, Black or Yellow? Dividing the world up by race is surely a tribe/clan governed order.

      More seriously, why is race the Shelling point? Certainly there have been people who used it that way, but others have used nations, languages, religions or simply our common nature as sentient beings as similar in-group/out-group Shelling points. The concern that classical liberalism could become unsustainable under a demographic shift is a reasonable one, but what makes you think that race is the deciding factor? It is worth noting that Japan and South Korea are doing a fairly good job of Western-style civilization, so it’s clearly not something limited to Whites.

      • P. George Stewart says:

        Race is a natural Schelling point because it’s just an extension of the family – it’s people who look more like you vs. people who look less like you.

        It’s instinctive for an infant to prefer those who look more like it (and of course an infant doesn’t yet understand a mirror or what they look like); race is just an extension of that.

        (And to some extent the trait of disgust at the other, the alien, is probably partly derived from avoidance of strange diseases. People who instinctively kept away from people who looked too different probably survived to pass on their genes more frequently.)

        • David Shaffer says:

          True as far as that goes, but that doesn’t explain why that particular extension is the one that “really matters”. If people throughout history viewed the world in terms of White vs Black or Brown vs Yellow, one might be tempted to conclude that this is a natural, instinctive Schelling point. In reality, we see circles of concern drawn all over the place, from the Arabic “me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the stranger” (many circles of concern based on different levels of relatedness), to the British “for King and Country” (ingroup based on nationality, and often English ethnicity), to Hitler’s “Aryan purity” (ingroup based on any nationality the Nazis considered White, except for Jews and Slavs), to the cosmopolitan “do you keep your business deals?” (ingroup extended to anyone from anywhere, so long as they are honest and reliable).

          Also, there’s a bit of is/ought fallacy in arguing that race is instinctive, therefore we ought to base important decisions off it. Absolutely fear of disease is a part of why we evolved xenophobia, but in a world where fewer people have disease, disease is usually treatable, and if nothing else one can screen/quarantine strangers to prevent disease transmission without needing a blanket policy of hostility or isolation, much of the justification for xenophobia is gone.

          Accepting different races is much like going to the gym-it’s something that might have been a bad idea in the ancestral environment (disease risk/burning calories you can’t necessarily replace), but it’s generally good in the modern world (now that we have better hygiene/enough food), and makes us stronger (since now we no longer have to reject people who could have been friends and allies/minimize muscle to save calories).

          • P. George Stewart says:

            “True as far as that goes, but that doesn’t explain why that particular extension is the one that “really matters”.”

            Shared genetic interests. The saying you quote reinforces that, and what I’m saying – and I agree it’s about nested circles (plus elective affinities, ideas, contracts, etc., are part of it too, I’m not denying that). It’s all relative, but generally speaking you trust people who look more like you and you’ll naturally be inclined to help them. We have that feeling, that urge, because of strength in numbers and relative genetic closeness: people who didn’t have those kinds of feelings didn’t become our ancestors.

            Now is that like some sort of moral ideal? If the world is a naturalistic accidental world, then it’s the closest thing we have to a moral imperative (to reproduce and look after our own kind, bearing in mind the relativity of that – alien invasions again). If the world is in some sense fundamentally spiritual, then there are real (Platonic) ideals beyond that, but they don’t negate it, it’s still a good rule, and there’s no particular reason to be suspicious of it any more than we’re suspicious of the fact that people prefer their own kids to others, and cherish their own family more than other families.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Hmm, you are actually making a good point. I will need some time to think this through and update.

          • David Shaffer says:

            After thinking this over, I’ll half concede the point. If we value parental love, then we have to value shared genetic interest, which in turn get us racial solidarity, all else equal. On the other hand, we still have to look at the effects in the real world. Most forms of racial solidarity have historically led to very bad consequences, from loss of potential friendships all the way to genocide. Perhaps we should say that we have racial solidarity insofar as it doesn’t produce bad consequences, but that we abandon it as soon as it does, much like parental love is encouraged, but parental nepotism is considered immoral.

            Yet in a world where most forms of cooperation benefit everyone, and most forms of “my group first” conflict harm everyone, that’s going to look an awful lot like full cosmopolitanism. Perhaps we decide in favor of our people when there’s a real trade-off and all else is roughly equal, but for trade, friendships, business associations and (usually) immigration, one would still be left with the cosmopolitan position, right?

            Still, that is not a concession I expected to make.

    • without the natural Schelling Point of race/ethnicity, governments are not justified at all

      I’m not sure what “justified” means here. So far as people accepting governments and mostly obeying them, that does not require homogeneity of race or ethnicity–ethnically uniform states as the norm is a relatively modern pattern.The Roman Empire was not racially/ethnically uniform. Nor were the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. Nor the United Kingdom. France didn’t have a single national language until recent centuries.

      • David Shaffer says:

        This. Exactly this.

      • P. George Stewart says:

        I’m talking about the moral justification for the State. Obviously a government can rule any gerrymandered bunch of human beings simply by force and intimidation if the cost/benefit calculation works out, but there’s a problem justifying the moral legitimacy of the state to the individual (I’m thinking particularly of Michael Heumer’s arguments in The Problem of Political Authority).

        With all those examples, you have a core constituency of a single ethnic “guardian” group that feels very strong solidarity. What’s the internal justification for government, for the individuals within that ethnic group? There is none, none that’s rational in terms of individual instrumental rationality. Ethnic fellow-feeling, the sense of “we,” is what binds them and prevents defection in the “guardians.”

        And on a milder level, it’s similar with an ethnostate per se.

        I’m not saying that binding by means of abstract ideas is totally absent or irrelevant – obviously that mixes in with this to some extent, but this is an element that works regardless of intelligence.

        • John Schilling says:

          but there’s a problem justifying the moral legitimacy of the state to the individual

          “We are a bunch of individuals of various races, creeds, and colors who don’t like being murdered, and so would benefit if there were way we could all resolve our disputes in an authoritative fashion without resorting to private violence. Also, there’s a mob of damn dirty collectivists over there that want to collectivize all of us too, and we’re going to need an actual army to hold them off. Here’s a Charter or Constitution spelling out the details. All in favor…?”

          There you go. Most actual human beings find this sort of thing to be morally authoritative, and it’s been working well for various multiethnic nations for a century or two now.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Exactly. Human nature being what it is, this probably does work better in monoethnic groups, but it’s not necessary, and doesn’t seem to work so much better that it’s worth giving up the benefits of cooperation and integration with people of other races.

    • Aapje says:

      @P. George Stewart

      Cultural nationalism (a strong shared culture with and sense of being part of the same ingroup as others with the same nationality) was the solution to tribalism in the past, which allowed different ethnic groups to coexist.

      Unfortunately, many progressives seem to have decided that nationalism is merely evil (rather than something with up- and downsides) and reject it, choosing instead to very strongly celebrate dissimilar cultures (aka multiculturalism). There seems to be an assumption that there is an overriding sense of humanity that will bind people (inter)nationally, but as you correctly argue, that seems to be as illusory as international working class solidarity.

      The most extreme leftists even seem to have decided that it is multiculturalism that must be enforced along ethnic/race/etc lines, where people must partake in the subculture that supposedly belongs to people with their traits, while people with other traits are not allowed to partake. This extreme variant certainly seems to require ethnically/racially homogeneous societies, so that this multiculturalism de facto becomes nationalism.

      However, if one abandons multiculturalism and instead adopts a humanist/liberal nationalism, then there is no need for the nation to be ethnically/racially homogeneous. Then the white man, the black man, the brown man and the green man can cooperate successfully, based on a strong shared culture.

      • P. George Stewart says:

        I think the problem is that for some ethnic groups kinship and clan feeling is stronger than “shared culture,” and the general culture will go the way the majority pushes it, and that’s likely to be away from “shared culture,” if the majority is non-White. It’s really only Whites that en masse naturally go for the “shared culture” thing. (Again, obviously there are outliers, but will they be enough to persuade their own ethnic majorities? Maybe sometimes.)

        The Alt Right worry is that majorities of other ethnicities will naturally drift towards group-bonding by means of kinship and clan structures, and all that nice classical liberalism and “shared culture” will fade from the world.

        Even if you think about Islam: in a way Islam is in a similar position to liberalism, as being a form of bonding by means of abstract ideals. It’s a universalist vision of black, brown, yellow, etc., all in this together, bound by worship of Allah.

        But it doesn’t work out that way: Islam’s history is full of what is basically ethnic conflict, the shared culture didn’t do much in the way of keeping the peace.

        • David Shaffer says:

          What is the evidence for this? We’ve already seen that Whites will often buy into shared culture, and there have been similar successes in East Asia. The Middle East was enjoying similar benefits until the Abbasid caliphate crushed Arabic Humanism under Islamic nihilism. So historically, we’ve seen that people can do this from Reykjavik to Baghdad to Tokyo. Further south, there has never been this type of indigenous civilization, but the most pessimistic interpretation of this would be “Whites, Asians and Middle Easterners are good at interethnic cooperation; maybe sub-Saharan Africans and some indigenous peoples are not”, not “only Whites can do this, and we’re screwed if we get too many non-Whites”. And if three races have already been confirmed to be capable of interethnic cooperation, why assume that the others aren’t?

          And before you start laughing at the “Middle Easterners are good at avoiding ethnic conflict” part, consider that virtually all the violence we’ve seen in the region has been stoked by extreme Islam; extreme Christianity caused the exact same results in Whites during the Dark Ages.

        • Islam’s history is full of what is basically ethnic conflict

          Lots of conflict, but why do you describe it as basically ethnic? Both the Shia/Sunni conflict and the Umayyad/Abbasid originate as divisions among the Arabs. There is one major black slave revolt and there is a black military unit that plays a significant role in Fatimid conflicts. On the other hand, you have high status black figures in a basically Arabic culture—Ibriham ibn al Mahdi is the son, brother, and uncle of caliphs, himself an unsuccessful pretender to the caliphate, and a notable cultural figure. Ziryab is important as an arbiter elegantarium for western Islam.

          There is conflict early on between Berbers and Arabs, and at least tension thereafter, but the forces that invade al Andalus include both, and I think the same is true for the later Almoravid and Almohad movements, although each starts with a Berber tribe.

  68. gbdub says:

    There’s been a fair amount of discussion about disobeying laws you consider immoral, and whether X counts as “civil disobedience”, much of it centered on whether willingness to accept punishment is obligatory. I think there are a few different kinds of uh, morally inspired disobedience:

    1) Apolitical disobedience of a law you don’t consider moral, for purely personal gain. Personal drug use probably falls into this. Piracy sometimes, although I think in a lot of cases people don’t disagree that that is wrong, they just don’t care. Sci-Hub probably falls here: you morally believe that “information should be free”, but ultimately you aren’t really trying to effect any legal change or stage a protest, you just want the data. You probably aren’t willing to face any serious punishment for this – you do it because you’re pretty sure you’ll get away with it.

    2) Disobedience designed to cause havoc / make a law unenforceable. Basically the Boston Tea Party. Clearly political protest acts, but again, you aren’t trying to get caught.

    3) Disobedience to achieve a certain moral good in spite of existing laws. Basically the Underground Railroad – while it was certainly staffed by abolitionists, the goal of the UR was not to change the laws. They just wanted to save as many slaves as possible by any means necessary.

    4) Gandhi / King style civil disobedience, where getting caught and facing punishment is the whole point. You want to visibly suffer unjust punishment to draw attention and sympathy to your cause. Unlike case 3) the thing you do in violation of the law is not really the end goal. Rosa Parks getting to sit farther up for a ride home was not the true point of her protest.

    So if you’re supporting disobedience I think it’s valuable to think about which of these buckets it falls into. All probably have their place but I think they are all morally a bit different. I would say 1 and 2 are clearly more morally problematic than 3 or 4.

    One problem with SciHub is that it’s a type 1 disobedience that could in some way exacerbate the underlying problem. Like a black market tacitly approved by an oppressive regime, it’s a “safety valve” that serves the needs of a few people well enough to keep them from getting worked up enough to risk attacking the regime directly. If “get free(r) access to scientific knowledge” is a coordination problem, SciHub makes that coordination problem harder by removing some of the incentive to solve it.

    • uau says:

      How would you classify marijuana use in the US? Obviously almost all individual acts of using it have been apolitical. But still, they have made legalization politically possible where it almost certainly wouldn’t have been without widespread use. So disobedience of law for personal gain (well “gain” in this case) has achieved political goals. How does this affect the moral calculus? Shouldn’t this have at least some effect? Encouraging maximally widespread copyright infringement does seem like it could help achieve political goals similar to marijuana use. Does this make encouraging it in general (most individual instances will still happen “for personal gain”) more moral? Does it make the individual instances more moral?

      • gbdub says:

        I would differentiate between “openly advocating for people to participate in disobedience” and “disobedience for purely personal use”. The former is political, the latter is not. It is possible (and probably extremely common) to be both an open advocate for legalization and a personal user, but those are separable acts. Unless you’re attending some sort of public event where everyone lights up as a protest against marijuana laws.

        “Encouraging maximally widespread copyright infringement does seem like it could help achieve political goals similar to marijuana use. Does this make encouraging it in general (most individual instances will still happen “for personal gain”) more moral?”

        I feel like this is closer to a subset of my 2) – you’re basically trying to force a change in the law by demonstrating that the law is unenforceable and/or the harms and costs of enforcing the law are worse than legalizing the activity. This actually lines up with the Prohibition-invoking arguments for mj legalization, as well as the line of argument that is something like “why fight so hard to stop this unstoppable thing, when legalizing and taxing it would make everyone happier”.

  69. jes5199 says:

    We had a car get stolen a few months ago, and the police recovered it, but they told us: this city doesn’t arrest car thieves – there isn’t enough room in the jail to bother keeping them, and the DA doesn’t think it’s worth the expense to try to prosecute them. The only way to stop a car thief is to wait until they commit some other crime – I think maybe the cop said breaking and entering actual houses was a common one – and then they might tack all those cars you stole over the last few years on as an extra charge.

  70. scottmauldin says:

    The fundamental problem of modern copyright laws is that they apply the logic of scarcity to an area of the economy that is post-scarcity: digital information.

    Theft is “wrong” because it deprives someone of a thing. But what is, morally speaking, wrong about taking something that does not deprive something of a thing?

    The capitalist would argue: it deprives them of they payment, to which they are entitled because they have expended their skill and labor on something, and that thing is their property to sell if and as they please for whatever price they please, and if demand does not match that price then they can adjust the price or not make the sale, etc.

    But the techno-utilitarian would respond to this by saying: the extent to which a content-creator “deserves” or is “entitled to” payment is the extent to which it improves their ability to make more content, and this clearly has diminishing returns at a certain point. Once a content creator makes enough off their creations to work on them full-time, it is difficult to get more such creativity out of them. But you can scale that up to a content company (Disney, Microsoft) and get much larger horizons before you reach diminishing returns, but reach them one ultimately will. The utilitarian might argue that once the person or company has recouped enough money to produce the Next Thing, plus a little profit to account for opportunity cost/investment/hedging/whatever, they need no more money, and the marginal value of that dollar is better invested elsewhere in the economy.

    The US legal system has, in some ways, not taken the purely capitalist approach to copyright enforcement. According to many US court rulings, a pirated whatever is not equal to a lost sale. Piracy is, thus, not exactly a moral-legal equivalent of theft. There is, clearly, and supported by these legal opinions, an entire market segment that is willing to “purchase” something via an investment of their time, but not willing to pay the price asked by the content creator/distributor. There are likely some marginal pirates who will pirate if it’s easy to do, but pay if they can’t easily pirate, but this is likely a small segment of the total pirate population for a lot of products. There is also the “soft-power” of some content where someone may pirate the core content, e.g. Game of Thrones episodes, but then shell out hundreds of dollars on Game of Thrones merchandise and through their fandom encourage some friends to pay for HBO. It would be folly to assume, though, that there are only two market segments: in all likelihood there is a continuum of market segments, with some willing to pay 3/4 price, some half price, some a quarter, some a tenth, etc, with these difficult-to-categorize groups thrown in.

    There are mechanisms for capturing these various segments, and really reconciling the capitalistic and the utilitarian views on copyright law, namely Crowdfunding and Pay-what-you-like models. Through these systems, users can pay what they think a product is worth to them, and if it’s not enough for the content to be created, well, tough luck for all. But if it is enough or more than enough, then both creators and consumers benefit according to both market and utilitarian perspectives.

    I have a hard time not seeing crowdfunding, patreon, etc., as the future of digital capitalism, if not all consumer capitalism. It just seems a better method than corporate-copyright-monopoly of aligning content supply with consumer demand. If Marvel Studios decided that they wouldn’t make another Avengers unless crowdfunders pledged enough for it, and they announced this worldwide, I imagine they would meet their target. Indeed, perhaps there can be reverse-crowdfunding and reverse-patreon systems, where consumers can pledge money for abstract ideas they want to see, and creators can come along and say, “I’ll try to make that”.

    • Aapje says:

      But the techno-utilitarian would respond to this by saying: the extent to which a content-creator “deserves” or is “entitled to” payment is the extent to which it improves their ability to make more content, and this clearly has diminishing returns at a certain point. Once a content creator makes enough off their creations to work on them full-time, it is difficult to get more such creativity out of them.

      Copyright extends beyond the creator’s death and it is hard to imagine how one can get more creativity out of a dead person. Having a company buy those rights and exclude others from making derivative works, seems mainly to be monopolist. Better content creators, that the market would reward the most, get excluded from being able to compete.

      Intellectual property also makes it harder for people to create partially unique works and makes it much harder to have a collaborative environment where people build on each other’s works.

      Furthermore, the sheer volume of existing works creates a cost as one may no longer be reasonably able to know whether works are unique, who to negotiate with if they aren’t, whether they will face a DMCA takedown, etc. So people may just give up on even trying, out of fear that their work will be wasted.

      Youtube creators now even face DMCA takedowns when creating videos with random static, which is the most original you can be, from a technical point of view.

      • Copyright extends beyond the creator’s death and it is hard to imagine how one can get more creativity out of a dead person.

        A failure of your imagination.

        Copyright is transferable. The fact that my copyright lasts beyond my death increases the amount I can sell it for while alive. The knowledge that if I create IP I can sell it for a higher price increases my incentive to create it.

        One of the attractive features of a system of secure property rights is that it gives an individual a selfish incentive to take account, in his decisions, of benefit that will not appear until after his death. At sixty I can plant hardwoods that will be harvested after my death, knowing that at eighty I can sell the stand of trees for a price reflecting their future value.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          It really should be a flat term of X years, unrelated to how long the creator lives. Tying it into the lifetime of the creator just opens arguments like the one you just had.

  71. Gerry Quinn says:

    But we do live at the South Pole, unless we think of culture as the magical artefact. Maybe it is. Law itself would have to be a magical artefact too, then. Maybe that’s how it all works.

  72. jrgarrett says:

    Reed-Elsevier or whoever it is now could care less what individuals do to find articles they publish, but they care a great deal about libraries and institutions (mostly academic), which are nearly their only source of revenues. So if we want to make a difference we have to convince universities, which with the risk of litigation ain’t gonna happen.

  73. bumpermeat says:

    Kind of a long-winded argument for rationalizing his behavior re: sci-hub.tw. I don’t like something, therefore I’m going to do what I want. Why? Because it would be too hard to create an alternative to the existing publish or perish methodology, so I’m going to cheat at the edges in the hope that somehow that changes their behavior? That’s not rebellion or civil disobedience, it’s whining.

  74. Worley says:

    A somewhat similar case happened in computer networking standards between ANSI, the CCITT, and the IETF. Traditionally, computer standards were developed by “standards development organizations” that were part of a recognized, bureaucratized system of such SDOs. What actually held it together was that documents were distributed in printed form, which meant that somebody had to assemble a nicely-formatted form, print up a bunch of copies, and keep them in inventory. Since almost everybody who cares about computer standards works for a tech company, the SDOs could charge quite a bit for the documents without inconveniencing the tech companies — they were paying the engineers a lot more to read the document than they were paying the SDO for the document itself. The profit from document sales paid for the central bureaucracy of the SDO as well as the face-to-face meetings where the standards were decided upon.

    The IETF used the Internet to operate a new model: The documents were put on an FTP server, so distributing them became essentially free. The face-to-face meetings were replaced with long-winded discussions on e-mail mailing lists, which was also essentially free (at least to the IETF, no doubt billions in engineer-hours has been wasted). In effect, the SDO bureaucracy was eliminated because the critical benefits that the SDO bureaucracy provided were no longer needed, at the same time that the Internet destroyed the business model that supported that bureaucracy.

    Of course, the IETF does have some bureaucratic functions that can’t be eliminated. They are more or less paid for by getting sponsors for major meetings and such. Also, the central committee of editors/technical experts (the “IESG”) are subsidized by tech companies — they generally hold full-time positions with tech companies while actually spending almost all of their time on IETF business.

  75. Hamish says:

    I think a fair chunk of the content industry doesn’t really contribute anything of value. Plus consuming content reduces the amount of time others have for producing value. So based on that I think it’d be fantastic if making (particularly fictional content) was much harder than it currently is.

  76. Byrel Mitchell says:

    If you want to read a book on this idea, Bruce Schneier’s Liars and Outliers talked a lot about this balance. His concept was slightly broader: his ‘defecting’ included breaking things like social conventions as well as laws, but he also acknowledged the need for a certain amount of defecting to find the right equilibrium.

    He also talked a lot about the mechanisms of trust that are our ‘north pole’ artifact, and keep us as a mostly trustworthy society. A good read.