Cory Doctorow: "We're all sharecroppers in Google's fields for the rest of eternity"

The novelist talks about the totalitarian perils of copyright law and how the Internet is changing art

Published November 6, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

Cory Doctorow        (flickr/<a href=''>Paula Mariel</a>)
Cory Doctorow (flickr/Paula Mariel)

The way some pundits frame it, you're for copyright or against it. Either you frolic in an endless bounty of free (i.e., stolen) media without a care for its creators (doomed to receive less than a pittance for their hard work and talent), or you stand by the corporate entities who, however futilely, battle pirates and intellectual-property thieves. If you're an artist, you must side with the heavies or resign yourself to keeping that day job forever because these days no one is willing to shell out for your books, music or films unless they're forced to.

The novelist and journalist Cory Doctorow, a longtime critic of zealous copyright protection, advocates a middle way, which may come as a surprise to those only superficially acquainted with his writings on technology. Doctorow's new book, "Information Doesn't Want to Be Free," is part handbook for artists and writers wondering how they can make money in the emerging creative economy of the Internet era, part primer on the evils of DRM -- digital rights management, or copy-protection locks, placed on most of the digital media purchased today.

In "Information Doesn't Want to Be Free," Doctorow challenges a few common artist gripes -- by, for example, claiming that the royalties musicians get from streaming music services are so paltry because record companies take a huge cut upfront. He describes six methods artists use to get paid for their work and he breaks down the players in the arts economy into creators (musicians, painters, writers), investors (publishers, record companies, movie studios), intermediaries (retailers and distributors, like Amazon or Netflix) and the audience. Disturbingly, he also warns that DRM, which requires our devices to perform operations their owners can neither see nor control, represents the thin end of the wedge in possible government and corporate intrusion into our privacy. I reached Doctorow by phone at his home in London to find out more.

It seems like every time I turn around I hear an artist of some kind sounding the alarm about an abrupt drop in their incomes, whether it's from advances, royalties or commissions. Most blame this on the Internet, but you don't agree with that, do you?

Artists have traditionally gotten a rotten deal from the entertainment industry, but I think that the rottenness of that deal rises and falls based on the amount of competition there is for our services. If you are in the catbird seat, if you are lucky enough to be one of those superstar artists who has negotiated a really good share of that money, then your fortunes rise and fall with the fortunes of the investor class.

But I don't think that's true of the majority of artists. I think the majority of artists get the least that the investor class can get away with. They are, from the perspective of the investor class, largely interchangeable. That is to say, if you plan to publish 15 fantasy novels this month that are going to be primarily aimed at people who are buying them in airports to read on an airplane, then really what matters is that you just have 15 novels that are of readable quality. And there's far more than 15 people willing to write you a novel this month for it.

What happens when the number of "channels" increases?

There's more people competing to buy your stuff. And when there's more people competing to buy your stuff, then they can be played against one another. You can shop around for a better deal. I think what's happened, not just in the arts but everywhere around the world, is that we've had incredible waves of concentration in industry, where we have policies that favor extremely large entities at the expense of smaller and medium-size ones.

For example, giant multinational entertainment and technology conglomerates can register their tax bases in Ireland and locate their fortunes somewhere in the Irish Sea and declare that it's not within the taxable jurisdiction of anybody anywhere in the world and just sort of stick their hands in their pockets and walk away. Compare that to the folks down the street who might be paying 20 to 30 percent of their gross receipts into the tax coffers.

So despite the sense that the Internet offers a lot more outlets for the work, big companies are able to stifle smaller businesses that might eventually challenge them?

That has meant that generally speaking we have a lot less competition for our work, but it's not the Internet's fault. Our best chance for getting any kind of justice in this world is to have more places where our work can be enjoyed. All of the stuff that we've done so far to bring the Internet giants to heel has just made them more like the existing publishing giants. What we really want is for them to be like Internet companies -- which is to say, chaotic, short-lived, heavily competed with, and slightly harebrained and here today and gone tomorrow. There is no space that belongs to Google forever or to Facebook forever. There is investment and all kinds of companies and all kinds of different ways they're trying to make money. And every one of them is trying to fill their stables with interesting artists and interesting art because their theory is that they know how to make money from it better than the next guy.

So for you, the deciding trend is consolidation. Have you read Tim Wu's "The Master Switch"?

Yes, I've read "The Master Switch," and I think Tim has really got something there. I think more than Tim's book, though, Thomas Piketty's really nailed it: Basically, giant, dynastic fortunes that favor investors over the people who do real work have acted to distort policy outcomes so that every industry has become financialized. The most important thing that they can do is fiddle with balance sheets and not make a product that anybody wants or needs.

What about the idea that the Internet is somehow degrading the quality of the art people make these days?

The right way to think about the way technology and art interact is that it creates and it takes away opportunities for different kinds of artists -- some of whom are improbable until the technology comes along, and then they seem inevitable. The performer who likes making music but who doesn't like being in front of an audience: That was a contradiction in terms before the vinyl record and the radio. It was unimaginable, like a swimmer who didn't like being wet.

Now, in hindsight, it seems like one of those weird beliefs of old-timey people -- like leeches and humors -- that we just can't understand. How could you not know that there would be shy people who made great music? It just seems weird. But if there's no opportunity for that kind of work to emerge, there will be no opportunity for us to know that work like that is lurking in potential.

The question of copyright is often posed in an all or nothing manner. There's the idea that people are either for copyright as it is currently imposed by large rights holders and corporations. There is a tendency to frame it as either you buy into their view of copyright or you don't believe in copyright at all. But you make a distinction in this book, between the industrial exercise of copyright and a private exercise of copyright.

Well, I don't think there is such a thing as private copyright. I believe there is industrial action and cultural action. They represent two poles and there's probably some fuzzy stuff in the middle. Finance is a really good way to understand this. There are some things that are unequivocally the finance industry, like banks. And there are some things that are really not the finance industry although they involve money, like me giving my kid pocket money. And then there's stuff in between that's kind of bank-like. Like, if your employer has a relocation package that gives you a loan to help you get a down payment on a house. That's starting to look a bit bank-like, and maybe some of those rules would apply to that situation.

But we know that there are at least some actions where you are not a banker or a bank, and banking laws shouldn't have to apply to you when you do them. That's stuff like loaning a friend 10 bucks until payday, buying lunch, all of those things are not the finance industry, right?

Likewise, we know that there are a bunch of things that are unequivocally part of the entertainment industry: making a movie for theatrical distribution, displaying that movie at a theater, making a CD, recording an album, writing a book and publishing it, charging money for a concert. These are all really clearly in the entertainment industry. And then there's a whole lot of stuff that we know for sure is not in the entertainment industry: writing fan fiction, reading a book, watching a play, talking about a play, loaning a book to a friend. These are not in any way industrial. And then there's some stuff in the middle, and that may be where it gets weird.

But that's not the stuff that we normally argue about we talk about how lawless people are or call them pirates. In those cases, largely, we're talking about stuff that's pretty clearly cultural: like fan fiction, like lending books to each other, sharing creative works with one another. And if you insist that people have to abide by industrial copyright regulations in order to participate in the cultural world, then we know a couple of things will happen. One is that the industrial rules will probably not be followed. If you have to understand banking law in order to give your kid pocket money, then everybody who gives their kid pocket money except for a few weirdos is going to be on the wrong side of banking law. We also know that everybody is going to be a crook. Everybody is going to be liable to some kind of selective enforcement. That's the risk when everybody's on the wrong side of the law: that somebody will be punished for doing the thing that is illegal but that everybody else does.

What sort of copyright laws do you favor?

I'm totally in favor of copyright law in the sense that I think that an industry as big and as complicated with as many moving parts as the one that I'm in, where I earn my living, should probably have some rules that determine which contract terms are conscionable and which ones aren't, which accounting standards of practice, what is licensable and what isn't, defining statutorily what a territory is, and even what a license is. I think there are some good copyright laws that we can make and some bad copyright laws. In my view, the bad copyright laws give the whip hand to the investors and the good ones give the whip hand to the laborers, the creators. The more important principle is that our customers should not be bound by our industry rules. For the same reason that you're not a bank even though you use a bank.

The issue that cultural investors constantly raise is piracy. To introduce a personal vexation, this has been a big obstacle to the adoption of digital galleys -- the advance reader's copies of e-books that publishers distribute to reviewers, which tend to be copy-protected in a way that makes them unusable. I'm assuming what they mean by "piracy" is something more than just me saying to a friend, "I've got a copy of this e-book. I'll email it to you." They're afraid I'm going to post it on an Internet site and a bunch of people I don't even know will be downloading it. Doesn't that seem to you to be a legitimate concern?

I'm not going to try to imagine what the entertainment industry thinks it's going to get out of that, or what they're afraid of. But I can talk about the realpolitik of it, which is that DRM doesn't work. All the DRM that they use on those e-galleys is already broken. So by using it, they're not really affording themselves any particular protection.

Now, from the wider social perspective, that may seem like kind of a harmless folly. If they want to do something superstitious that doesn't work but is just a form of security theater, then why not let them do it? That would seem to be like one of those middle cases that fall somewhere between culture and industry.

The problem with DRM is not what it does to consumers or to reviewers or even to the relationship between the industry and the intermediaries. The real problem with DRM is that the only way it can kind of sort of almost work is if you make it illegal for people to know about flaws in their devices.

So the real problem with DRM is that it is a spider you're swallowing to catch a fly. It implies a whole chain of other things you're going to have to do, other regulatory interventions you're going to have to make, in order to give it any kind of claim to doing what it's supposed to do. We know what those are. It's now a felony to tell you that the device you're reading your book on -- which very likely has a camera and a microphone that knows everywhere you go and who all your friends are and how to log into your bank account -- it's against the law to tell you that there is a flaw in it because you might use that flaw to read e-galleys in the wrong way.

That's the real problem, when we accept that DRM is the right and proportional solution to this really bizarre problem of how you trust the reviewers you send books to. Which from the perspective of the whole wide society, is not everybody's problem. This is a problem for a tiny number of people, honestly. And even the publishers would probably admit that it's not a problem for all of their titles, just for their new J.K. Rowling releases and a few others. If that's the problem we're solving with DRM, we have paid a terrible price to solve that problem. We now have this weird rule that it's against the law to know what your computers are doing and we've changed what is understood to be a proportional way to solve our problems.

So now we have the FBI saying, "We demand that all iPhones ship with a program that allows us to rummage through them and listen through their microphones and watch through their cameras undetectably. And we want it to be against the law to remove that program, and we're going to use all the same legal and technical mechanisms that we got through for DRM to do it." It seems to me that if you're the FBI and you go to Congress and say, "Remember when you gave publishers the right to put someone in jail for telling someone how to share a galley? Shouldn't we be able to put someone in jail for telling someone how to avoid an FBI wiretap?" I suspect that that argument would be pretty compelling. That's my real concern.

DRM has also turned out to be an Achilles' heel for e-book publishers because so many readers get locked into a single format, namely the Kindle. Their libraries can't be transferred, which makes them disinclined to consider Amazon's competitors.

The TL;DR of the book is: 1) The more the publishers lock up their stuff with the proprietary technology of the platforms, the more the platforms own the publisher's business. 2) All that stuff that the publishers have asked the artists to back them on, such as penalizing intermediaries who host stuff that has been uploaded by third parties, makes it harder to nurture intermediaries to compete for our business. And the worse the deal we'll get.

The third part is: Get over yourself. Most people are not artists or in the arts industry and the major problems of the world are not the fortunes of people who, after all, have no reasonable expectation of an income anyway in any kind of rational economic analysis. The real problem is that we're infecting the nervous system of the 21st century with the long-lived pathogens that can be used to attack us in every single way from asshole to appetite in the name of helping artists. And we're not even helping artists!

This was the big revelation for me in this book. I came over to the anti-DRM side when I learned that DRM was acting to concentrate too much of the book business within the control of a single large corporate entity: Amazon. As you point out, the publisher's insistence on DRM is one of the things that has made them the most vulnerable to that retailer.

Hachette gives Amazon a whip to beat them with and then acts really surprised when Amazon takes them up on the offer. Another example of that intermediary liability problem doing the same thing is: Do you remember when the Authors Guild sued Google over Google Book Search, which is basically the right to make an index of stuff in books? They said to Google, "If you're going to do this, you're going to do it on our terms, and you're going to have to give us a whole $70 million. And we want to establish that we're not saying that it's legal to do this for anybody. You have to come negotiate with us first, and next time the price might be higher!" Google said, "$70 million? Let's shake the sofa and find some change for you." Meanwhile, you are guaranteeing that nobody else in the future history of the world will be able to afford to index books, which is one of the ways people find and buy books. Now Google owns that forever, for a mere $70 million! Nice work, Authors Guild. You've just made us all sharecroppers in Google's fields for the rest of eternity.

One of the things that you talk about in the book are the ways that people can make money off of their creative work in the Internet era. Could you run through those?

The fact is that almost everything that almost everyone has ever done to make money from the arts -- including the old ways of making money from the arts -- mostly didn't work. We always look back on artistic incomes with what economists call survivor bias. We look at the people who succeeded and not the people who failed.

The way that artists used to make money was -- say, if they were a writer -- to write books until a publisher published them and the publisher's salesforce convinced the multiplicity of book-selling channels to take their work, and so on. What you have to acknowledge is that almost nobody succeeded at doing that. And of the people who succeeded at finding a publisher, almost none of them made any money from it. And of the people who made money from it, almost none of them made very much money from it. And of the people who made some money from it, most of them didn't make money in the long term.

So, effectively, making money in the arts is and always has been something that happens to almost no one. As far as I can tell, the way artists make money today, although there are some high-tech wrinkles to it, is pretty much the way they've always made money from the arts. They sell stuff, so they embody their art in some physical thing and ask people for money for it. They sell things around the thing they've done -- in other words, merchandise. They sell tickets to performances or displays of their work. They seek out patronage. Of course, that last is the one that has shifted most since the pre-Internet days. That, and advertising.

How so?

Now that we have crowd-funding platforms, we've seen that, for a certain kind of artist -- the kind of artist whose charm and personality carries through their work in a way that makes people want to fund them, which is a minority of artists, for sure -- patronage has become radically simpler to obtain. This is coming back to that idea that before the era of radio it was silly to talk about musicians who were great performers but shy. Technology created a niche for a kind of performer who wasn't even thought of as a performer before. Literally, a performer who was great but shy was someone who never performed, so they weren't a performer.

Someone like, say, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Or Leo Kottke, who actually goes out on tour, even though when he goes out the only time he speaks to the audience is to note that he hasn't made eye contact with anyone. Technology changed the landscape so now it's considered almost demeaning to tell people that they have to go out on the road. We've had this total reversal in a human lifetime -- in 80 years, a total reversal of what we think of as a legitimate way of profiting from this stuff.

That's what Kickstarter has done, for artists like Amanda Palmer, who is able make a personal connection with people at a distance and continuously in a way that is enormously pro-survival in the 21st century. And it's pro-survival because it connects you so well to that distributed patronage model. Which is great. I'm not that kind of artist. If there are artists who can't earn a living because they're not good at seeking out patronage, I might end up being one of them. But there will be lots of artists who will earn a living because they're good at it.

As someone who is primarily interested in books, this idea does trouble me. The form of the book hasn't changed. It might be delivered electronically but it is still a text narrative, good or bad. I don't really care whether a novelist is charming or is adept at pitching their work in a video or website. When it comes to the David Foster Wallaces of the future, what I want is their books. That's it. I'm concerned that I won't get those books if the authors also have to be good at marketing themselves to have any career at all.

But that's always been the case. It's just who you're marketing yourself to, and how you conduct yourself. My one certainty is that there is and always have been so many people who want to make art for reasons that are innate to the human condition. Whatever factors favor which artists, there will be more art than I can ever consume that I will love and that will uplift me. That just seems axiomatic to me. There is more beautiful, wonderful work being published today than ever before. And I can access it more readily than ever before. My concern as a working artist and someone who cares about the fortunes of the people who make the art that I love is that whatever money is in the system preferentially is diverted to them. And that in the process of making marketplaces for art we don't set up the conditions for totalitarianism.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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