Law in the Internet Society
I just read the article about "cooking-pot" markets, which happened to comment on my "altruism" critique (last paragraph), so I will go ahead and provide a block quote, followed by a response:

"The workings of this system of trade stem from the same motivation of "fun" present when Colin Needham developed the Internet Movies Database - which, built upon newsgroup discussions, is half-dynamic. It is Needham's need to "put back" into the Net after having "taken out" so much that drives most trade in dynamic resources. It is the cooking-pot market of a seemingly altruistic value-in-giving norm that drives the economy of interacting people.

If it occured in brickspace, my cooking-pot model would require fairly altruistic participants. A real tribal communal cooking-pot works on a pretty different model, of barter and division of labour (I provide the chicken, you the goat, she the berries, together we share the spiced stew). In our hypothetical tribe, however, people give what they have into the pot with no guarantee that they're getting a fair exchange, which smacks of altruism.

But on the Net, a cooking-pot market is far from altruistic, or it wouldn't work. This is thanks to the major cause for the erosion of value on the Internet - the problem of infinity [21]. Because it takes as much effort to distribute one copy of an original creation as a million - and because the costs are distributed across millions of people - you never lose from letting your product free in the cooking-pot, as long as you are compensated for its creation. You are not giving away something for nothing. You are giving away a million copies of something, for at least one copy of at least one other thing. Since those millions cost you nothing you lose nothing. Nor need there be a notional loss of potential earnings, because those million copies are not inherently valuable - the very fact of them being a million, and theoretically a billion or more - makes them worthless. Your effort is limited to creating one - the original - copy of your product. You are happy to receive something of value in exchange for that one creation."


The concept of altruism as it is used in the quote above is too narrow. What the author believes is not a prerequisite of participation in the cooking-pot is better described as "economic altruism," where economic loss "from letting your product free in the cooking-pot" does not inhibit the creator. Even if the creator/participant receives some alternative form of value, thus getting rid of the "altruism" requirement, there are a variety of other self-serving motivations that might inhibit a participant from letting his creation go free and multiply in the pot. Some people are inherently protective of their creations for a variety of reasons that to some may appear irrational. To overcome such a variety of "irrational" or narcissistic barriers would require altruism at much higher levels of social and emotional sophistication, far beyond the economic altruism that the author describes. Reputation, or "fun," as the author mentions, might not ever enter one's mental calculus.

  • This is true, but entirely irrelevant. It would be better to understand what Rishab is saying before deciding either that he's responding to some idea you've already had or that he's wrong and you know better.

-- JonathanBoyer - 24 Sep 2009

When considering incentives for inventions/creations, it is important to understand and accept that humans are rational in that they act in any given situation in a manner that they subjectively believe benefits them. This process involves a balancing of the costs and benefits of any given action and a choice of the action with the greatest perceived benefits compared to the costs. The perceived benefit can take many different forms.

As touched on by this post an action may appear altruistic in one sense, e.g., lack of immediate revenue generation but in fact may not be an altruistic action. For example, according to the reading for last week, the creator or Linux was apparently motivated by the idea of building his resume as much or more than benefiting society by the creation of free software. Consequently, he was not even acting altruistic in an economic sense, he was simply sacrificing short-term revenue in hope of generating more revenue at some point in the future—a similar choice to that which is made by law students.

Indeed, while I will concede that there may be not a measurable and statistical way to prove this assertion, from my life experience, I believe that humans, like other animals, are generally incapable of acting in a truly altruistic manner. I suppose that I could make “Assumptions,” randomly assign them “Values” and present “Model Results” supporting my conclusion, as Terrence A. Maxwell apparently did in “Is Copyright Necessary?” but for now I will rely on my own observations and life experience for support of this conclusion. While humans act in a way that they subjectively perceive benefits them, some may value certain things more than others, and thus make different choices under the same circumstances. I believe, however, that even when a person does a purportedly altruistic act—he is driven by self interested considerations. Of course charities utilize this by acknowledging and publicly recognizing donors—creating an incentive to give money away—a purported altruistic act. If the person giving the money, however, is driven by the recognition that she will receive as a result of the economic donation—that is not an altruistic act—it is a rational act based on that person’s subjective belief at that time that the money that she gives is less valuable to her than the recognition that she will receive from the act. Even if a person chose to donate to a charity in an anonymous manner, I would still argue that is not an altruistic act. I believe that person is making that decision because he gets to experience a good feeling of being a noble person and that feeling is worth more to him than the money that he donates to the charity (which balancing of course varies depending upon, among other things the economic needs of the person at that time). Sometimes people are motivated to act in a seemingly altruistic way by a belief that they will be rewarded for that behavior by some higher power—in another life—in heaven, or however one wants to articulate it. There are many examples, but the foregoing examples illustrate my point.

The fact that human beings act rationally—or in other words in their subjectively determined best interest—not in an altruistic way—in any given situation does not mean that they are inherently immoral, unethical, or evil. Humans are animals and as with other animals evolution will quickly eliminate any truly altruistic propensities because a truly altruistic act by definition does not benefit and may harm the actor—causing that actor to survive less frequently and to pass on less of the altruistic genes (the one exception—which does not seem relevant to our discussion—being the sacrifice of one’s own well being for the benefit of her offspring—which behavior ultimately passes on more of those protective genes). Until very recent history, an altruistic act by a human—say giving away food without receiving a benefit of equal or greater value in exchange would seriously reduce the chances of survival and the chances of dissemination of that individual’s genes with that propensity into the gene pool.

I believe that this understanding and acceptance of human behavior—the inability to act against one’s self interest—is critical to understanding incentives for creation of artistic works and inventions. Even in a zero marginal cost world, there must be incentives for the initial creation of the first product. Traditionally, that incentive comes in the form of monetary compensation and inventors/creators rely on being compensated from multiple copies being distributed. Thus, the initial costs are recouped from sales of copies—even at zero or near zero marginal costs—rather than from the sale of the first product—the monetary value of multiple copies being created by copyright and patent protection. Generally, the sale of the first product provides far less monetary compensation than the fixed initial cost of inventing/creating the product—resulting in a net monetary loss for the invention/creation should zero marginal cost copies be given away.

I am not yet going to take a position about whether incentives other than economic incentives could be sufficient for continued creation/invention. I understood that Professor Moglen took the position in class that he will show that monetary incentive is not necessary—that sufficient incentives could come from other sources. I am open to listening to the arguments on that issue. The important part I believe is understanding and accepting that whether the incentives come from monetary reward or other sources, human beings are rational, i.e., incapable of being altruistic, and will always act in their perceived best interest. Rather than fight this and idealistically say humans should be altruistic and give copies away for free, we must continue to provide sufficient incentives for invention/creation—from whatever sources.

If inventors/creators do not subjectively believe that it is in their best interest to create/invent such will be severely reduced or even stopped. I am not willing to stop advancement at this point in time in the interest of sharing whatever has already been created with everyone. Looking at the technological advancements during the past century I am willing to take the position that we, as a society, are better off continuing incentives for further advancement than stopping advancement at this point in time to share what has already been invented/created with everyone free of charge—if that is in fact the trade-off. I agree that providing access to everyone is a desirable goal but if it comes at the expense of reducing or stopping technological advances the price for such is too high.

-- BrettJohnson - 25 Sep 2009

Deep thoughts, by Jack Handy. Just kidding.

Brett's thoughts are undoubtedly rational. For some reason, though, the proposed co-mingling of subjectivity and rationality ("humans are rational in that they act in any given situation in a manner that they subjectively believe") doesn't quite compile fully, at least for me. It seems like you could replace all the above instances of the word "rational" with the word "irrational" and the argument remains essentially the same. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that humans are calculating; behavior is not random. Personally, I think many kinds of human emotion transcend the predictable inexplicably, which makes it difficult to forecast how people might react to a global sharing regime.

-- JonathanBoyer - 26 Sep 2009



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r4 - 23 Aug 2014 - 21:55:31 - EbenMoglen
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