Cory Doctorow knows the future.
And he is it
BY Alex Aylett
Photography by Bart Nagel
It’s hard to overestimate Cory Doctorow’s significance. Particularly if you’re Cory Doctorow. “I don’t know if there’s anyone else who has distributed half a million copies of a book electronically,” he says. “If we’re talking in terms of electronic publishing, I am it.”
As well as being perhaps the most widely read internet author writing in English, Toronto-born Doctorow also helps edit the world’s most popular blog, boingboing.net. He regularly contributes to Wired and Popular Science, and is a devoted eactivist defending freedom of communication online. In the ongoing battle against harsher copyright regulations, Doctorow is one of the Davids to Disney’s Goliath. But he’s also a huge fan of the mouse and his friends. He even set his first novel in Disneyland. “I think that it’s possible to create great art and still be an asshole,” he says. “And that is Disney in a nutshell.”
The battle over copyright has a familiar cast. On one side, demanding longer, broader and stricter regulations, are entertainment megopolies like Disney and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), joined occasionally by disgruntled superstars like Madonna and Metallica. On the other side are celebrity pirates like Napster creator Shawn Fanning and an increasing number of college students facing lawsuits for sharing files on campus networks.
It’s clear who’s winning. The United States has increased the maximum copyright term to 70 from 50 years. This thanks mainly to the Sonny Bono Copyright Act, passed—after huge lobbying by Disney—two years before Mickey Mouse was set to enter the public domain.
Manufacturers are embedding digital-rights management technology (DRM) into software, hardware, CDs and DVDs to prevent all but the most basic access. And every few months, it seems, another American undergrad has her computer subpoenaed. So far, we’ve been spared these types of lawsuits in Canada, thanks to two Supreme Court decisions that clear the downloading and uploading of songs. But an appeal by the recording industry is waiting in the wings.
One central figure gets left out of this polarized version of the copyright wars: the artist. Putting aside the few vocal stars who have already made their millions, we seldom hear from actual creators. Enter Doctorow, guns drawn. “The copyright industry talks about how it needs to engage in further education of the general public so people understand more clearly what copyright does and doesn’t allow you to do,” he says. “If you need to understand copyright to listen to music or read a book, it’s like having to understand banking and securities law to withdraw five bucks for lunch. It’s nuts, and it tells you that the law has overreached.”
Doctorow’s answer? Give it away. And he does. More than 500,000 copies of his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, have been downloaded for free from his website. In his view, free digital distribution allows authors to edge out the competition and acquire an audience. It seems to work. The paper run of Down and Out, published by Tor Books, sold 35,000.
Doctorow is merciless when it comes to authors too timid to distribute their work online. He likens it to that famous scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Chased to the edge of a cliff, Butch and the Kid have to decide between dodging bullets and jumping 100 feet into a stream below. Sundance finally admits he can’t swim. “You damn fool,” Butch says, “the fall will kill you long before you drown.” “That’s where we are now with online publishing,” says Doctorow. Other authors can wait at the edge of the cliff; Doctorow jumped years ago. He dismisses the doomsday scenarios of artists driven into poverty the same way Lawrence Lessig, the pre-eminent American free culture lawyer and fellow Wired columnist, does—by reminding us this has all happened before.
When the phonograph hit the US market, conductor and military composer John Philip Sousa claimed in front of Congress that, along with hurting his business, it would deprive us of our ability to speak: “We will not have a vocal chord left. The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape!” In 1982, Jack Valenti, then spokesman for the MPAA, stood in front of the same body, calling the VCR “the Boston Strangler” of the American film industry, alleging it was quietly killing American filmmakers.
But Americans are still making movies, and we all still have our vocal cords. The catastrophic crash in creativity that was supposed to result from the phonograph, radio and VCR never materialized. “In fact,” Doctorow points out, looking intently through thick-rimmed, geek-chic glasses, “in all these cases, the opposite has happened. The fact that more people are reading more words and listening to more music and watching more movies than ever points to the fact that creativity is alive and well.”
But Doctorow admits he doesn’t know what the future holds for artists and the ways their works will be distributed and consumed. The simplest course, for most, would seem to be establishing reliable pay-per-use systems on the internet that, coupled with hefty DRM technology, would transform the online world into an extension of the standard marketplace. Call it mallware.
For the long term, however, Doctorow, like many in the community, pans mallware on two fronts. First, from a technological point of view, no DRM system has proved solid enough to resist hacking. Second, running online exchanges this way is similar to charging admission to a radio show—it tries to regulate a new technology as if it were simply an extension of the old, and so prevents artists and the market from evolving to take full advantage of it.
As the European affairs coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Doctorow, who’s based in London, UK, has argued in front of audiences as diverse as the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization and Microsoft R&D teams about the social costs of DRM technology and promoted the use of something called Creative Commons licensing.
It used to be you had to register a copyright for it to exist. Not anymore. All works in the US are now presumed to exist under copyright. The once ubiquitous C-in-a-circle symbol is now obsolete because it is assumed of all things. As a result of this and the massive extension of copyright terms, less and less material enters into the public domain to be freely used. A few copyrighted works are still generating income for copyright holders; the rest are simply in limbo—neither in use nor available in the public domain. They are known as orphan works. Their rights holders are often nearly impossible to track down, and there’s a real concern that overextended copyright will remove this large body of work from circulation for so long that it will be forgotten and effectively lost forever. Once again, Canada has set itself apart by enacting a compulsory licensing scheme for orphan works. But it’s unclear how this applies to works created outside of Canada.
The Creative Commons—with the motto “some rights reserved”— offers a variety of flexible alternatives to the standard copyright system. Many versions of the license exist, tailored to various applications. Some—for example, those that Doctorow used to license his books— prevent commercial exploitation, but permit a wide variety of other uses. Others, like the Public Domain Dedication, remove works from copyright protection entirely. It reads in part: “The Dedicator recognizes that, once placed in the public domain, the Work may be freely reproduced, distributed, transmitted, used, modified, built upon, or otherwise exploited by anyone for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial, and in any way, including by methods that have not yet been invented or conceived.”
The key is that closing line—methods not yet invented or conceived. That, above all else, is what Doctorow, Lessig and others like them are fighting for: the future. While copyright advocates hope to reform new technology in the image of what came before, those on the copy-left are trying to make sure that the technology, and our relationship to it, have a chance to develop to their full extent and to take full advantage of the new processes of creation and consumption now possible.
Doctorow has high hopes. “If you go into a classroom where they’re teaching kids how to be productive members of society, the thing they’re teaching them to do is to take the stuff around them, write about it, internalize it, remix it, share it with their peers—to do all of those things that, broadly speaking, are part of what culture is,” he says. “That’s what it means to be a human being. It’s not to be the animal that uses tools; it’s to be the animal that tells stories. I think we will just see more humanness around as a result of this. That’s my utopian vision.”
Doctorow isn’t just looking forward. He’s also looking back. One of the great ironies of this debate, he points out, is that the cartoon that made Walt Disney famous, Steamboat Willie, was a spoof of a Buster Keaton flick called Steamboat Bill, Jr. In fact, the majority of Disney’s great works are derivatives of stories that exist in the public domain. Where would the company be if the tales of the brothers Grimm had still been under copyright? The creative freedom Doctorow is defending belongs to all of us, even Walt.