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Interview: Cory Doctorow

June 21, 2004. 3:00 PM PDST / 6:00 EDST

EM: This issue of English Matters focuses on Copyright and Its Alternatives, and the entire issue will be released under a Creative Commons license. I've been talking about copyright and Creative Commons with others here (in the English Department) and having some difficulty trying to explain what this is all about. I've been looking at your work, in particular your novels which you're placed under a Creative Commons license. So the first question I would have is what was the impetus for doing that, for putting Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom under a Creative Commons license?

We're supposed to be looking towards the future, and it's pretty clear to me that the future involves electronic text.

CD: On the one hand it was that, as a science fiction writer, we're supposed to be looking towards the future, and it's pretty clear to me that the future involves electronic text. It's very hard to imagine that we'll read fewer electronic words or more paper words as the years tick by and so I wanted to be involved in that practice; I wanted to be one of the people who was a pioneer in that practice, because I'm a science fiction writer and it's what I should be doing.

By the same token, I was pretty sure whatever the future of electronic text looked like it wouldn't be distorted in a way that was intended to maximize the degree to which it resembles traditional, non-electronic text – which is what DRM technology does. The objective of DRM technology is to make bits act like atoms. To embrace that as the future of electronic text is to say that the Luther Bible will finally give us a proper Protestant Reformation once they can make the Gutenberg press run on fetal calfskin instead of paper, because everyone knows that a real Bible is on fetal calfskin. Once they can be sure that the Luther Bibles are only printed in Latin and read by priests, then we'll have a proper Protestant Reformation underway, and not until then.

The signal virtue of the piano roll, of the radio, of the television, of the VCR, of the computer, is all the ways in which they're different from the media which they displace, not the ways in which they are similar to the media they displace. We can say that what makes them a success is being good at the stuff that the other stuff was bad at, and at the same time generally being bad at the stuff the other stuff was good at. When you say, well, we can just make the electronic text act like the paper text, what you end up saying is "we're going to have something that doesn't smell as good, doesn't look as good, is harder to read, you can't take in the bathtub, and you can't copy it, paste it, send it around the world for free." Well, that's not a success; that's doomed to failure. Unsurprisingly, that fails.

So it seemed like the right thing to do. At the same time, my Guild, the Science Fiction Writers of America, was freaking out over what they called e-book piracy. They said, "well you know there are people out there scanning books, people who love a book so much they go out and buy another copy, cut the binding off, scan it, scan the other side, run it through optical character recognition software, edit it by hand, and post it. I once tried to do this, just to see exactly what kind of exercise this was, and it took me like 80 hours to do a good-sized novel. Now I'm sure that they're better at it than I am, and the tools have probably improved, but at the same time this strikes me as a lot of effort, whether or not the writers want it, to promote the writers' work. There's only one reason to do this: it's because you love a book, and you want other people to see it. Hand-to-hand book promotion is the single best way of selling books. We've always known that; we've always known that if you write The Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and you get the people who enjoy it to go to their friends and say "If you read this book, which I'm putting into your hand now (which the author won't see a nickel for), if you read this book, it'll change your life." That hand-to-hand kind of promotion, despite the fact that the writer doesn't see any revenue from it, in the long run, that's what makes writer's careers.

And at the same time it's important to recognize that writers who have careers as writers, middle-class or better income as writers, are sui generis; each one makes his or her living in a way that is totally distinctive from all the others, and is only passingly associated with getting royalties for every copy of their book sold. They consult, they speak, they write magazine articles, they are given writers-in-residencies, and so on. All of those things follow from having wildly successful books, but even very wildly successful books tend not be the things that pay the royalties and make the full middle-class living. Even for writers who have substantial royalties, like Stephen King, they pale, I suspect, beside things like their film revenues and their licensing revenues.

So I figured that this is another thing that electronic text can do; here you have fans who press books into their friends' hands – the most important thing a writer could wish for – and in order to do so they have to first spend 80 hours turning a paper book into an electronic book. Why don't I just save them the step? And a lot of my colleagues were worried: "Oh well these books tend to be of very low quality, because of all the errors introduced by optical character recognition, and so on. As though human beings were some sort of XML parser, and if they found a typo they would break. [Laughs]; to use XML terms, it's not well formed, there are missing commas, and so on. Well, I can deliver a higher quality product than you can deliver through OCR.

So for all of those reasons, and for the political reason that the response to the P2P wars from the arts community in general, and in particular from our publishers (music publishers in particular), has been to systematically dismantle due process, freedom of speech, and privacy in the name of stopping infringement.

EM: Your other "job," besides as a writer, is as the EFF Outreach Coordinator, is that right?

CD: Right, although I conceived of this plan before I went to work for EFF. In fact, you can say that both of those events (conceiving this plan and going to work for EFF) were part of the same trend in my life, which is figuring out which way the wind was blowing, which is towards more electronic text and towards needing new ways to protect our interests as writers. Copyright is a great thing to protect you from sleazy commercial operators and publishers. People who would exploit you. Copyright is not a very good tool for defending you against your audience.

Copyright is a great thing to protect you from sleazy commercial operators and publishers. It's not a very good tool for defending you against your audience.

EM: [Laughs] As if they're someone you need defending against.

CD: Well, you may in fact need defense against your audience. But copyright isn't the tool that will defend you against them. Fire extinguishers are great at putting out fires; they're not so good at fighting off muggers. And so the fact that this tool has served us very well in many instances where we have been badly treated by our publishers doesn't mean – even if you admit that you believe your readers are treating you badly by expropriating some of your copyright interest – that doesn't mean you can do anything about it with copyright, or that copyright will solve those problems. Copyright tends not to solve problems with your audience because the fundamental problem with your audience isn't finding something to charge them with. It's that calling your most devoted readers crooks means that you don't sell very many books anymore.

EM: Or many CDs . . .

CD: CDs, DVDs, what have you. Treating your readers like criminals, treating your fans like criminals, ultimately backfires. That's the big problem with copyright enforcement against your audience. Let's leave aside whether or not your audience should be enforced against. Even admitting that – stipulate that the people who think that their readers are crooks are correct – you won't fix the problem by suing them.

EM: You made some of these points in your speech to the Microsoft Research Group on DRM. How did that go over? You went to Microsoft, I guess in your capacity as EFF Outreach Coordinator.

CD: Well actually they invited me over as part of their Writers/Speakers series, and I showed up and gave them an EFF talk [laughs].

EM: How did that go over?

CD: It went over really well. They're not fools at Microsoft, and they very often develop very good products. So they recognize, I think, that they're embroiled in doing something that is foolish and produces bad products, and they're trying to figure out how they can get out of it. Maybe the best outcome that comes out of that is, it's hard to imagine, I agree, that Steve Ballmer, and Jim Allchin, and Bill Gates are gonna hear this or read it and change their minds, but maybe a bunch of engineers who work there go, "you know, my company is doing something that's so stupid that it will doom it – it can't figure out how to not do this – and I already know how to make a media player. I'm going to go work for another company, or start another company." And maybe that's how we end up solving this problem.

There are a lot of IBM engineers who left IBM to go to work for Microsoft when they realized that mainframes were doomed and that personal computers were the future. IBM had a serious brain-drain when it decided to stick to its guns despite the fact that the future had caught up with it, and had indeed overtaken it. Maybe some of those engineers at Microsoft will find themselves looking for work elsewhere.

EM: Why would companies like Microsoft, or Sony (which is you also mention in the Microsoft presentation), why would they be attracted to DRM schemes when there doesn't seem to be a consumer market for them?

CD: Oh. well, Sony because its letting its music business run its electronics business. You can see this tiny little division of Sony, which comes out of a much more competitive culture than the consumer electronics culture in Asia – personally competitive: the culture of people who work in entertainment involves a lot of shouting and personal abuse. We've all seen The Producers and so on. There's a lot of really loud and furious interpersonal relationships that characterize the way work gets done in entertainment. And I think in electronics it tends to be a lot more "engineery" and kind of borderline asperger-y and conflict-averse. And so because of this you have these, in terms of fitness, these much more fit organisms, which are the studio executives, who found themselves among relatively easy to boss around gentle engineers, and who've completely eaten that company up from the inside.

They're pursuing suicidal business strategies. They are pursuing millions if not billions of dollars in engineering for products that no-one wants, and throwing away major categories that they dominated, like the Walkman – the Sony Walkman is dead in the water. The fact that Sony just voluntarily just gave up on Walkmen, essentially, said "ah yeah, well, we've looked around and we've seen that the only market demand left is for no-DRM solid state players, but we just can't do that. And as a result we'll allow Creative Labs and Apple to take over the market." That tells you something about the way those two cultures interact, and which one is more fit.

Its kind of like the L.A. hills bursting into fire once a year, because they imported all this Australian foliage which is highly evolved. The eucalyptus tree's survival strategy is to drop oily leaves around its base until it spontaneously combusts and burns the entire forest down around it, because its seed-pods can survive a fire. And they grow in the ashes of the trees that have been burned by their ancestors. That's the kind of highly evolved organisms that Hollywood executives are: Hollywood executives are the eucalyptus trees, Sony electronics executives are the California native foliage that's being burnt to the ground once a year to keep it going.

And I wonder how many more business units will Sony let its entertainment unit destroy before some tipping point is reached? Before it hives off this terrible, crippling business unit that it accidentally acquired and that has been eating the company up from the inside ever since?

As to why Microsoft is playing along, I think the consumer electronics companies followed Sony, and that's a real problem. Especially the Asian ones. As to why the IT companies are following along, I think in Apple's case it's because Steve Jobs fancies himself an entertainment executive, and in some meaningful sense he is. And I think in Intel's case, it's because they hold a bunch of patents on DRM, and they hope that by teaming up with the CE companies and the entertainment companies that they can exclude all of their competitors.

That's what we saw with the broadcast flag, was a push to say that only DRM that Intel had a patent on, jointly with the Japanese consumer electronics companies, can be used in digital televisions from now on. Which means that anyone who makes a digital television, even if they're a competitor of Intel's, has to go and take a license from Intel. We can understand why Intel would want to that – it's a great way to exclude their competitors. It's not a great way to benefit customers in the long run; I think that all of us understand that a competitive market for the goods that we purchase give us better goods at a lower cost than a monopoly.

And Microsoft, I think, is caught betwixt and between. They think of themselves as an IP business; they've fallen into the trap of thinking of IP as monolithic thing, where it has to be consistent across the board: the same protections extended to this have to be extended to that, and so on and so forth. And I don't think it's true. In the field we have completely different IP rights for different kinds of invention and creation. If you do original medical research, you get six months. If you make a patent, you get 20 years. If you make a song, you get life plus 70. They're completely different. However, if you write a song, you can't stop someone from performing it, provided that they pay you a fixed fee. If you make a movie, you can't stop someone from VHS-recording it, even if they don't want to pay you a fee. We have completely different rule-sets for different kinds of IP, and the reason it's such a hodgepodge is not because we're indecisive or we made a mistake. It's because we are constantly refining IP laws to maximize creativity. And there's no indication that DRM is maximizing any creativity. In fact, quite the reverse: the P2P networks have created a world where virtually every song ever recorded is available at the click of a mouse. The commercial world, the copyright world, has produced an outcome where 80% of the music ever recorded isn't available for sale. Which one is maximizing creativity? It's pretty clear to me which one maximizes creativity. If we must compensate artists, we certainly can't do it at the expense of that 80% of music.

EM: So you see the things such as the Creative Commons license as a way of maximizing creativity?

CD: One of the ways.

EM: I noticed you re-licensed Down and Out [in the Magic Kingdom] under a much less restrictive Creative Commons license, allowing derivative works and such.

CD: Yeah, though not the least restrictive, because I didn't allow commercial derivative works

EM: What's been the response to that? What's happened since you've re-licensed it?

CD: There's a distributed audio-book project underway, and there's a solo audio-book project. There are translations into German, Portuguese (Brazilian Portuguese), Spanish (and that's interesting because it's a Latin American person and a Spaniard working on it together, so I'm not sure what the outcome will look like), French, and various other languages underway. I'm hoping to see like a student film, or something else, but I'm just happy that it's out there. I think that, most meaningfully in the context of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I keep hearing from people who do things like technology research on reading, who tell me that they want to do R&D, and they want to test how their stuff works. And so they need a book that they can use. They want to bring in a bunch of 12 year olds, and find out how the 12 year olds respond to electronic text on this kind of display, or with this kind of reader, or what have you. And there's three kinds of texts they can use: They can use something they wrote themselves, they can use a book from before 1928, or they can use my book. And, generally speaking, they're using my book. My book has become one of the ways, one of the benchmarks, for understanding how information technology and literature interact. That is solely and entirely to my benefit. There is no downside to that.

I will never write a scholarly essay about a book that I don't have an electronic version of again

Now, in terms of the commercial exploitation of the work, the traditional commercial exploitation is royalty-based. And we can divide up my readers into four pools: There's the people who would buy it except that I'm giving it away for free; there's the people who would buy it even though I'm giving it away for free; there's the people who would buy if they'd only heard of it; and there's the people who wouldn't buy it if they'd heard of it. And so of that third group is bigger than the first group, if more people will buy it because they've heard of it (because its available electronically) than won't buy it because its available for free, I make more money. And so far, that has just worked in my favor. So far, if you compare the emails that I get that say "Ha-ha, you dumb hippie, you made your book available for free, now I'll never buy it" to the emails that say "I never would have found your book, but for that it was available electronically, and now I have bought it," that second group outweighs the first group by orders of magnitude.

EM: I'll be using the book in a course that I'm teaching here this Fall, a Cyber-Lit course. Of course, the students will have the option of buying the book, or downloading it. How many do you think will download the book?

CD: I think 100% of them will download it.

EM: How many do you think will actually buy the book?

CD: Some of them will also buy it. But my expectation is that 100% will download it because one of the best ways you can use an electronic text is in a scholarly context. Because you can search it, and you can paste it into scholarly work. You can build concordances and things. That is always good when you're doing electronic research. In fact, my first experience with electronic text was when Bruce Sterling released Hacker Crackdown electronically, and I was doing a term paper on that book. And I read it, and then I downloaded it. And I swear to God, I was like, I will never write a scholarly essay about a book that I don't have an electronic version of again.

EM: I can see that; for cutting and pasting, finding the quote you're looking for, bringing it into the essay you're doing . . .

CD: Oh, yeah. There's an academic who studies my work who introduced a reading I gave in Washington this week, and part of his introduction was a lengthy quote from one of my books. And the way that he got the lengthy quote into his speech was he copied and pasted it. He would have given a less-lengthy quote, or he may not have given a quote at all. It was great.

So I think that some of them [the students] will buy it, and I think some of them will buy it because they expect to read it off of paper. But honestly, if we were living in a world before there were electronic texts, I expect that most of my sales would be displaced by used copies. I mean, we're talking about students, right? The people who eat ramen noodles and Kraft Dinner and drink 99 cent draft. They don't do out and buy $25 hard-covers, and they rarely buy $12 paperbacks, unless they have no option. But on the other hand, they're University students; they will someday be the most affluent people in America, because they'll be educated. And when that happens, they'll be the people who are the 1-in-10 Americans who buy novels in a year. And their experience will have been of my book.

EM: So it's like software publishers selling deeply discounted copies of software on campus?

CD: And even more important, just turning a blind eye, which they do. You know, at the end of the day if everyone knows Photoshop, there is bigger market for Photoshop operators from commercial players who will buy Photoshop licenses. If there are fewer people – if Photoshop is a black art – it's harder to sell Photoshop.

EM: If you were giving a speech here [at George Mason University], either in your role as an author or as Outreach Coordinator for the EFF

CD: Actually, my title is now European Affairs Coordinator.

EM: European Affairs Coordinator, OK. What are some of the points you'd hit for an academic audience?

Yesterday's pirates are today's publishers

CD: It depends. What I would probably talk about, the thing that I often talk about for academics, is that yesterday's pirates are always today's publishers. The film industry is in Hollywood and not in New Jersey where film was invented because the film producers wanted to get as far away from Thomas Edison's patent agents as they could, because they were enthusiastically violating Thomas Edison's patents. We have a recording industry today because they were enthusiastic digital pirates of music; they were digitally converting sheet music to zeros and ones on a long roll of paper tape that you'd feed into a player piano. Television and the VCR and radio and so on all started out as pirate enterprises, because unsurprisingly the people who control the industry you're about to displace, the industry whose lunch you're about to eat, are reluctant to cooperate. And traditionally the courts and the Congress have decided that its in their interest not to outlaw the dominant form of entertainment in America and allow incumbents to exclude innovators.

So what we're facing today is traditional. What we're facing today is what always happens. The only difference is that this time around, instead of changing copyright to accommodate technology, we're changing technology to accommodate copyright, which will not succeed. And the outcome of that, in an academic context, is stuff like universal wiretapping, where you have universities wiretapping every bit on their networks to try and find infringing works.

You know, if Tailgunner Joe [McCarthy] had shown up at the University of Wyoming in the 1950s, during the Red Scare, and said we want to make sure there are no communistic messages going back and forth, so we're going to make a copy of every letter and phone call that traverses the campus and investigate it for Communism. And if its not there, we'll just ball it up and throw it away. I'm pretty sure the President of the University of Wyoming of the day would have given him his marching papers. But a couple of years ago, the President of the University of Wyoming was more than happy to spend good University money, not on books, not on libraries, not on faculty salaries, and not on reducing tuition, but on buying wiretap software to find infringement on his network.

That's the fallout that we're facing. And at the end of the day, no amount of wiretapping, no amount of incursions onto freedom of expression and due process, has put one penny more in the pocket of any artist or made one small dent into the practice of infringement on the Internet. We trade everything and we get nothing.

EM: One of the things that I think is striking about academic publishing, in particular, is there's very little money involved. If you write a book on 19th Century British novels, its not going to be a bestseller.

CD: Yeah, sure. I think a better example is some of the open science publishing, where you have journals like the Public Library of Science and, in the UK, BioMedNet, saying, well, there are a lot of ways you can try to make this happen. You can go out there and say OK we're going to earmark $50,000 a year for The Obscure Journal of Neuroscience and get our papers peer-reviewed in it, or you can say that every time we have a paper we want peer-reviewed, we'll pay Public Library of Science, or BioMedNet, the money that it takes for them to hire the jury and peer-review it. And then we'll get the outcome of that for free, as will all other researchers.

And its not about whether Elsevier makes too much money; Elsevier should make as much money as they can figure out how to make. The question is: if you're a science institute, and you have N dollars to spend, what is the best way to do the most science?

EM: Yes, it seems that the sciences have caught onto this already, whereas in the Humanities, we haven't yet. One of the articles in this issue is by one of our Science Librarians, writing about the open science journals.

CD: You know, in some way the difference between Alchemy and chemistry is that Alchemists didn't tell people what they were doing; they didn't publish. As a result, if they ever actually got anything right, no-one knew about it. They took it to their grave, and the next guy along had to do it all over. So 500 years of Alchemy produced no tangible results. As soon as publishing started, we had the science of chemistry within a century that had outstripped those 5 centuries' previous accomplishments. And the only thing different about it was publication.

EM: One more question. In your novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, would you agree with your main character Julius that not all innovation is good? He seems more traditional, in a sense, than some of the other characters. That is, he wants to maintain Disneyworld, at least parts of it, historically. Would you say that not all innovation is truly innovative? And if so, what literary or artistic technologies today do you think really are innovative?

Not all innovation is aesthetically pleasing

CD: I'd say that not all innovation is aesthetically pleasing. Julius is a reactionary, and I think one of the interesting things about his reactionaryism is that what he's saying is that we have found a way to make art more democratic. The reason that Julius' ideological opponents are outcompeting him in Disneyworld is because they are producing work that more people can experience. They've got better throughput than he does. That's the same thing that's true about a Gutenberg Bible, and its the same thing that's true about radio broadcasting. Its the same thing that's true about an electronic edition of text. He's saying "but its a lower quality experience that's experienced by more people." And he's correct. The same was true about Gutenberg Bibles and so forth. The difference is that, over time, we came up with radio broadcasts that are sui generis of radio. They were uniquely radio-like. We had literary forms that were uniquely mass-publication-book-like that were every bit as good as the art that they displaced.

In fact, if you read the sequel to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a novelette called "Truncat" [published in Salon] one of the things that's happened is that it has in fact formed a new aesthetic that produces work that's as good as the work its displaced, but its new – different – distinctive. It doesn't ape the old work.

I think a more interesting social question raised by Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is "how does a reputation economy protect unpopular ideas?" That's the first duty of a democracy – to protect minority opinions.

EM: OK, but what literary or artistic technologies today do you see as particularly aesthetically pleasing then?

CD: Well, I'm quite a fan of something called machinima, a form of computer-generated animation where instead of writing your own animation, doing your own polygons and your own inverse kinematics and then painstakingly animating cel-by-cel a new work, you take a video-game engine, you make new skins for the characters, essentially costumes, you make a new level, which is like a set, and you walk the characters around the level and do a screen-movie of it. And then you go into a studio and record the audio. And then you layer one on top of the other and you end up with an unbelievably cheap, fast, and dirty way of doing animated movies. So far, mostly being done for serialized comedic shorts. There's one called Red vs Blue that I think is absolutely brilliant. And that really appeals to my aesthetic sense – it really tickles me.

EM: Are there literary forms which you think are sui generis of the Internet, like weblogs and such?

CD: Well, sure. Certainly weblogs are sui generis to the Internet, but I suspect that serials are as well. That's one thing I'm going to be working on more next year: serialized novels that are Dickensian in that they are written very shortly before their publication. They run at a one or two week lead in the same way that an editorial cartoonist might, like Gary Trudeau. They incorporate the news of the day into the serial story . . .

EM: . . . since you no longer have the long lead time that you would with print publication . . .

CD: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that's happened to technology publishing in magazines is that glossy magazines have six to eight week lead times, and they're just having the shit kicked out of them by websites like Gizmodo which have six to eight second lead times.

EM: Well, I think that's all. Thanks for the call back

CD: Not all. My pleasure.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.