Cory Doctorow: Essential Readings on Content and Copyright

Every now and again, I like to publish book reviews on titles relating to music, the content industries, copyright reform, and the future of media. Recently a Joycean scholar recommended that I explore the writings of Cory Doctorow on these very subjects. I quickly realized I’d had a few of his titles on my reading list already, so I wasted no time and read two of his books this week. The first was CONTENT: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future from 2008and the second was the more recent Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age from 2014.

Cory Doctorow Portrait (Photo Credit: Jonathan Worth http://jonathanworth.com [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Doctorow is no stranger to the legal world surrounding digital content. A Canadian-British blogger, journalist, and science fiction author, Doctrow serves as co-editor of the blog, "Boing Boing." He is an activist in favour of liberalising copyright laws, and a proponent of Creative Commons, publishing many of his books under CC licensing. His writings and lectures focus on digital rights management, file sharing, and post-scarcity economics.

Doctorow worked in London as the European Affairs Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and helped establish the Open Rights Group. He was named a Fellow of the EFF and the 2006–2007 Canadian Fulbright Chair for Public Diplomacy at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. He’s served as a professor at the University of Southern California, was the first Independent Studies Scholar in Virtual Residence at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and is also a visiting professor at the Open University in the UK. In 2012, Doctorow was awarded an honorary doctorate from The Open University.

CONTENT features many of Doctorow’s essays and keynote speeches on digital media and copyright. It opens with a talk he delivered to Microsoft’s Research Group on the developing technologies of DRM, and outlines five key points:

  1. that DRM systems don’t work
  2. that DRM systems are bad for society
  3. that DRM systems are bad for business
  4. that DRM systems are bad for artists
  5. that DRM is a bad business-move for MSFT

The subsequent essays in CONTENT and the chapters of Information… expand upon and contextualize these ideas with discussions of copyright control at critical moments in digital content’s history, and outline the true costs and inherent ineffectiveness of anti-circumvention. Doctorow offers a brief history of copying technology, from the piano roll to the Luther Bible, to the Betamax Ruling, the proto-DRM of Discovision, RealAudio, OpenMG, Blu-ray, TIVO, the 3DS, and on through the present day. He calls attention to each of the industry’s attempts to suppress the usability of a technology, from the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group to the Copy Protection Technical Working Group to closed-door meetings of the RIAA and MPAA, noting that each attempt at anti-circumvention imposes critical security flaws into the affected components and greatly hinders further development of that technology.

But Doctorow is clear to differentiate the impact of DRM on technological revolutions of the past from its catastrophic effect on the current climate of the Web. In a chapter titled, “It’s Different This Time” he states:

We are remaking the world and everything we do in it. In the past, a regulation applied to VCRs would impact a few other industries or activities (making it hard, say, to record a home movie), but it wouldn’t have changed everything. You could regulate the VCR or the radio or the record player without regulating the automobile, the hearing aid, and voting machines along with them. That’s not true anymore. The stakes for getting copyright right have never been higher. There has never been a fight over entertainment-related technology where the consequences for everyone outside the entertainment industry were potentially more disastrous than they are now.

Later essays in CONTENT discuss the practicality and curious marketplace of e-books, the grand potential, but admitted caveats of metadata, and the world of fan-fiction in an age of rampant copyright litigation. While earlier chapters establish a contextual history of content sharing innovations, the book closes with advice for content creators and artists and speaks for the viability of Creative Commons. The essays are brief and written in simple plain speak, making the text a breeze of a read.

Information… picks up where CONTENT closes, diving deeper into the impact of ever-restricting copyright laws. Doctorow examines the draconian consequences of unfettered censorship brought about by the engineered renewability of DRM technologies, citing the example of Amazon removing Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four from all its Kindle users’ digital libraries in 2009 as just one case of potential abuse.

These texts also explore the consequences of The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and ruling surrounding The Pirate Bay, the Grokster decision, and other anti-piracy acts. He calls attention to the ramifications of these actions, adding some important context to the events:

In 2006, the Swedish police raided the data center that housed the Pirate Bay, an infamous BitTorrent tracker that had made a sport of taunting the entertainment industry. The circumstances surrounding the raid were contentious: it seemed the action had been improperly ordered by a government minister who was supposed to have an arm’s-length relationship with the police, at the behest of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

But what was more controversial in wider Swedish society was the collateral damage of the seizure: hundreds of websites went down at the same time as the Pirate Bay, as the police enthusiastically seized a data center’s worth of servers. These other servers—which hosted sites for businesses, nonprofits, and individuals—had nothing infringing on them, but the police couldn’t be certain of this at the time, so they took the lot. It’s like they decided that, since one store in the middle of town was carrying unlicensed products, they were going to shut down the entire shopping district while they figured things out.

Doctorow’s specific contextualizations always return to the broader global impact. In a chapter on the effects of copyright misuse on human rights, he describes the implications of the suit Viacom brought against Google and YouTube for not doing enough to keep their copyrighted works off their service. Viacom argued that YouTube was complicit in acts of infringement because it allowed users to mark videos as “private,” rendering them inaccessible to Viacom’s copyright-enforcement bots. He states clearly that:

Under Viacom’s legal theory—which was supported in amicus briefs filed by organizations representing all the major studios, broadcasters, publishers, and record labels—companies should allow the giant entertainment corporations to access all of our private files to make sure we’re not storing something copyrighted under cover.

Later chapters of Information… , such as A World of Control and Surveillance, and What Copyright Means in the Information Age, explore the present and future of copyright and cautions us of the consequences of unrestrained access in the hands of a few content distribution conglomerates. By this point, my note-taking consisted of highlighting entire chapters as every paragraph made a concisely-phrased, critical remark about the state of technology and copyright. Snowden is mentioned, of course, as is the state of the music industry – both for the limitations brought about by licensing restrictions crippling the art of sampling as well as the transformation of the industry in an era of file-sharing.

Doctorow points out that pivotal recordings like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique could have never been made in today’s copyright climate. He notes that “extending the scope and the duration of copyright doesn’t just criminalize a whole genre of music—it also puts the labels in charge of the only legal route open to musicians, effecting a massive wealth transfer from artists to labels.”

Doctorow’s writing isn’t all doom-and-gloom. He does propose that concepts such as blanket licensing have an incredible potential to benefit content creators, distributors, and consumers alike. And he is a tireless advocate for Creative Commons. He summarizes his position quite effectively when he states:

Content-blocking and surveillance are the province of book burners and censors, not creators and publishers. We have fought for generations for the freedom of conscience necessary to have a robust intellectual and creative sphere… …And since the Internet is likely to be a fixture in our lives and the lives of our children, we all have a duty to stop arguing about whether the Internet is good or bad for us and our particular corner of the world—a duty to figure out how to make the Internet into a force for helping people work and live together, with the privacy, self-determination, and freedom from interference and control that are the hallmarks of a just society. It’s not enough for creators and their industry to love free speech. We have to learn to share it, too.

The final chapter is a statement of great hope for the future. The internet provides the world with a potential for connectivity and collaboration, and a richly diverse domain of access for the history of creative works. Artists are empowered to distribute their content directly to their fans, and the relevance of the old world distributive intermediary is shrinking. There has never been a better time to be an artist or a citizen of global culture. Doctorow’s books inspire both an appreciation for that fact and a participatory role in the shaping of our world to come.

Cory Doctorow offers his books for free at http://craphound.com/. If you enjoy his writings, please consider purchasing a copy for your library.