The Disconnect: The law, Human Intuition, and the Internet – by “Matthew C”

There’s a lot of talk about how copyright laws do not fit with the digital age – and a lot of the talk is quite convincing.  It does seem strange that with a few clicks a suburban teenager can commit six figure copyright infringement, or that artists like Girl Talk can be lauded as visionaries by some and common thieves by others.  It certainly is true that a disconnect exists, but I would argue that the greater disconnect is between human intuition and internet, not the law and the internet.   And this disconnect goes a long way towards explaining why our common sense notions of property fall apart online.

The internet is fundamentally beyond the scope of human intuition.  That’s because biologically, we’re no different from cavemen who didn’t even have a system of writing, let alone Facebook accounts to waste it on.  As a result, we don’t feel a natural connection to our actions online.  It’s like how snakes, which have always been around, make me shudder, yet the sight of a much more significant but modern danger like a gun provokes no such visceral response.  Similarly, antisocial behavior online does not provoke a guilty visceral response.  I can download songs and movies all day without really feeling too bad about it and I know that I’m not even close to alone on this.  Sure I know the intellectual arguments against those actions, but I don’t feel those arguments.  On the other hand, if I were to steal physical property, even from someone who had so much that my theft was insignificant I would certainly feel something.

The internet further disconnects us from our actions by means of scale and anonymity.  If no one knows what we’re doing and what we’re doing is only a tiny drop in an ocean, it becomes a whole lot easier to do all sorts of things that might not be so easy in the physical world in front society’s judging eyes.

The result of all this is that violation of property rights becomes so easy that it doesn’t feel wrong.  We don’t have to go through any of the steps that our ancestors did to commit many of the same crimes and our consciences are not naturally programmed to connect clicking a mouse with any sort of moral transgression.

But then what’s the point of all this?  It leads to the question of whether we can actually allow our intuitions about property to shape our laws and values.  On the one hand remix artists are violating property laws but they do so without any of the physical visceral experience of taking.  And, although I can’t remix, if I could, I doubt my conscience would put up much of a fight. This is where things get a bit dicey.  If it doesn’t feel like a crime, then shouldn’t we treat it differently? After all we have a criminal code that makes huge distinctions based on intent.  It becomes necessary to look at why the other side is so upset.

Obviously it comes down to profit. If record companies are losing profit because people are remixing songs then I believe they have every right to be mad.  But in fact I would say that they are not losing profits.  Not from the act of remixing, at least.  Record companies hold onto traditional notions of property that do not function in a digital setting.  They believe that because remix artists use their products without authorization, they must be subverting the system and therefore a part of the problem.  Girl Talk, as extraordinarily biased as he is, has claimed that he is constantly asked the source of some of his samples which naturally leads to people purchasing the source songs.  Or maybe they know this and that explains the lack of a lawsuit?

Of course my novice economic analysis is highly flawed and it is a product of my intuitions on the subject – intuitions which I’ve claimed are also flawed.  Ultimately I think the connection needs to be made between physical property and digital property.   Although we may not feel the effects of our online actions, they do have consequences in the real world.  The laws on the books ought to reflect the real world consequences of online action, not the feelings or self-interested opinions of actors.

5 thoughts on “The Disconnect: The law, Human Intuition, and the Internet – by “Matthew C”

  1. As I was trying to figure out something to write about I realized how ignorant I am of remix culture and I didn’t want to just write about girl talk so I went for something a little different. Hopefully I didn’t miss the mark.


  2. If the internet becomes less “anonymous” in the future, perhaps we will start to have visceral, guilty feelings about the illegal actions we commit in the digital world just as we do in the physical world.


  3. I definitely think Ryan has a point, the internet’s anonymity has long a safe haven for legal ambiguity. But I think we need to take this one step further. Without the ability to truly criminalize our actions on a consistent basis, legality becomes irrelevant. If there is no one to give you a speeding ticket, why not speed? Upsides seem to outweigh the possible downsides by an incredible margin. Once it becomes more enforceable (or more highly enforced), this disconnect will start to shrink.


  4. I agree that there’s a great disconnect between the ease of an action and the potential import of its result, and I think the more fundamental problems have to do with the underlying assumptions in the laws that have become so easy to break. If modes of distribution (the legal ones) are antiquated, I don’t feel bad about subverting them. I think our shifting intuitions about property do shape our values; it remains to be seen whether the laws will change accordingly. Perhaps Ryan is right, but then again, perhaps our definitions of legality will shift radically, and our vague feelings of guilt will dissipate even further!


  5. In the sociology class I’m taking this semester, we learned that the deterrence factor is based upon 1) the likelihood of being caught, and 2) the severity of the punishment. In this case, the severity of the punishment is quite high, but the likelihood of being caught is very low, so we aren’t very likely to be deterred. There’s a much greater likelihood of getting caught when you steal physically rather than virtually, which makes us view the two categories very differently.

    I definitely agree that there’s a disconnect between the action and the result. When you’re stealing something from the store, you’re taking the physical item and walking out from the store with it. On the internet, you’re just clicking your mouse and receiving a stream of ones and zeros that gets placed on your hard drive, but may never take on a physical nature. This disconnect makes it much easier to download music when we wouldn’t never even consider stealing a CD from a store.


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