Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

Cory Doctorow (English version)

Mosaic: You have described yourself as an activist, a writer, a lecturer, a man of technology. What would you say is the most important part of your activity, if any? And how did you get there?

Cory Doctorow: I don’t think these are really divisible. I see them all as expressions of the stuff that I’ve been doing all along. My life’s pretty much been about looking at technology, understanding technology, writing about technology, doing stuff with and about technology. Pretty much my whole life. I was raised by geeks, my father is a programmer and mathematician.

Today it’s very common that children grow up with computers, but when I was growing up it wasn’t this common, but we did have computers around the house when I was a kid. I was the first one on my block. We had a VT100 terminal in the house when I was six, in 1977, and graduated from there to an Apple II+ and then a series of machines and, like a lot of people of my generation I grew up with the stuff.

Like a lot of science fiction writers, I’m someone who believes in… not technological determinism, but at least a technological dialectic, where technology and the way that society works are intricately linked to one another, and you can’t consider society without technology, nor can you consider technology without considering the social dimension. So, I think that all these things add up to a kind of practice that has a time to involve activism, a time to involve entrepreneurship, a time to involve authorship, and a time for a little bit of all three, that’s pretty much what I do. I think that, in some ways, the distinction between activism and technologies, and the rest is somewhat artificial.

Mosaic: How did you start collaborating with the Electronic Frontier Foundation?

C.D: I founded a software company with two other people. The company was called Opencola. We made open source peer to peer file sharing software, and our investors got really freaked out when Napster was sued. Actually, not when Napster was sued, but when Napster’s investors were sued for having made an investment in Napster. So they were very much worried. I think I was that was the point of actually naming the investors of Napster in the suit was to show all the venture capital that had gone into peer to peer companies like ours and others that it was dangerous. And it worked for us: our investors went nuts, and started making all sorts of crazy demands, and we needed to get really savvy about the law quickly.

Mosaic: That would bring us to… I saw you at Copyfight, in Barcelona, some time ago, and you were talking about the Grokster case. If I got you right, you were saying that the Grokster decision could be considered a defeat to technological innovation, but that it would not be a victory for the record labels, because it’s not going to have any effect on peer to peer file sharing.

C.D: That’s right. It’s a pretty telling example. Let’s go back to Opencola: I ended up leaving the company to work for the EFF. EFF had become a real critical resource for us in understanding the way and being able to answer investors’ questions intelligently but, for me, the naked injustice of having a technology company becoming prey to the studios in this way really really fired me up so much that I left the company that I’d founded to work there.

Eventually the company was sold to Open Text without shipping its product; they shipped some products, but not the file sharing product. And, yes, peer to peer goes on, and on and on and on. There are lots and lots of individuals, companies and systems out there involved in peer to peer, and no amount of Grokster suits is going to change that, you know. Peer to peer software is really very much here to stay.

What the record companies have achieved with Grokster is that, in the future these technologies will only arise as the result of a non commercial effort, which means that there will never be someone with whom you can negotiate, there’ll never be a market that can be regulated, and there’ll never someone they can compromise with… From now on, this is a matter of them versus their listeners, them versus their customers. There won’t be any proxy for them to negotiate with. I think that they really signed their own death warrant with Grokster.

Mosaic: You are a science fiction writer, and one of your achievements is that you have been able to distribute your books freely through the internet, in a wide variety of formats, but you also make money off their sales in bookstores simultaneously, something we could not have thought of not long ago. So, do you think that’s a victory, or a demonstration of the qualities of free distribution of culture?

C.D: I think so. Tim O’Reilly, the publisher of O’Reilly and Associates, the largest tech book publisher in the world, says that the biggest threat to any one of his books isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. If you think about the total pool of people who might someday give me money for my books, 99% of them, the reason they will not give me money isn’t because they’re getting the books for free, it’s because they’ve never heard of the books. And so, if a few of the people who get the books for free decide not to buy them because they were free, as well, because they could get them for free and they didn’t need to buy the print edition, that’s more than offset by what I get by bringing my book to the attention of so many people, who represent a potential audience that was previously unreachable in any cost effective way, through internet redistribution. So, you know, for me that just makes a lot of sense.

And then, the other piece of this, I was actually talking to a colleague today, who works for a large media institute about his company’s experiments with putting things on the internet, and they’re worried that if they do this they’ll stop making as much money as they used to, so… Ultimately, though, the thing you need to come to grips with is, whether or not you put things on the internet, your audience will put your things on the internet. You have to ask yourself, are you prepared to get into a war with your costumers? Or do you want to enlist their support? Do you want to give them a legitimate means by which they can do this stuff, so that you become a partner of your costumers? And he said, maybe they won’t put our stuff on the internet. I said well, in that case, all you will have done is succeed in making your stuff so irrelevant that no one cares enough about to pirate! I mean, this is a lose-lose situation, right? Either you end up suing your customers, or your lock works so well that your customers just go away and stop caring about what you have to say and do. Neither of those is a good outcome.

So for me, I thought, you know what, even if I don’t know, in the end, how this stuff is going to work out, whether or not this will cost me sales, whether or not I’ll come up with a way to recoup sales that I lost, and so on, ultimately, I’m either going to have to fight my users over that, and threaten them, and sue them, and be kind of a jerk, or I’m going to have to come to grips with the situation. The alternative is that no one will care enough about my books to pirate them on the internet, in which case I won’t have the problem of piracy, I’ll have the problem of the fact that no one cares about my books. So, one way or the other, it’s going to be a real disaster.

Science Fiction Writers of America, a trade organization I belong to, get really really worried about e-book piracy, they go on and on about it, and they have a ‘snitch line’ where you can turn in your friends for trading e-books. They have tried this technology that poisons file sharing networks with copies of e-books that have been degraded so that people who download e-books get a really bad experience, and they hope that will make the not interested in e-books, and so on.

Whenever I talk to other science fiction writers about this I say, look, you know, the only genre of fiction that anyone cares enough about to pirate on the internet is science fiction. You know, guys, I’d be really happy about this. The alternative to this isn’t that people would not be pirating us because, you know, they’d be buying our stuff; it’s that people would be not pirating us because they didn’t care about our stuff, you know. And between making my living from the genre that people care enough about to pirate, or trying to make a living from the genre that people don’t care enough about to pirate, I know which one I’d choose. So for me it really makes sense all the way around. You know, luckily my publisher sees eye to eye with me on this. The editor of my publishing house feels like this makes perfect sense to him as well.

Mosaic: Which is not the regular fare…So you are a great defender of the free circulation of intellectual work, your own, mainly, and have given proof of that with facts, so it’s only natural your position collides from time to time with societies like the MPAA or the RIAA. Do you think they are adapting to the new times, and what are their main mistakes, if any?

C.D: Well, I want to go back a little bit.

You said that it wasn’t usual for publishers and editors to see all that way about this stuff. I actually think that’s not entirely true. I think that in many instances publishers have taken the view that, for them, any single one individual book represents not a tremendous risk. If the book gets recirculated on the internet without their permission, and it turns out to be a commercial dud as a result, that, for them, isn’t a business killing thing.

However, I think a lot of writers are very conservative about their work because some writers write one book every five years so, for them, sacrificing their book to an experiment with internet distribution seems like a really scary proposition. So, I think that in many instances you actually have publishers who say “we’d like to take the electronic rights to your books, and experiment with them and put them on the internet without DRM, and let people play with them and put them out for free, and so on” and the response from writers and writers groups has been complete panic and refusal.

And I think that that is not as clear cut, in book publishing anyway, as it is in other places, where it’s the greedy corporations versus the writers who want to make their stuff available in the open. I think that in many instances it is the scared writers versus the corporations that understand they don’t have a future unless they begin experimenting now.

So, in terms of what the MPAA and the RIAA are doing wrong, if you heard my speech, I think you got the jest of it, but basically, there’s a funny cartoon show in America called South Park, and one of the best episodes of South Park deals with these characters called the Magic Underpants Gnomes, who come into your room at night and steal your underwear, and there’s a character who sees them doing this and follows them away, and follows them to their Underground Lair, where they have a mountain of underwear, and he puts them on the spot, and he says, “Why are you stealing all this underwear? I don’t get it”. And they point to this sign on the wall that says “Plans for world domination. Step 1: Collect underwear. Step 2… Step 3: Profit”. And he says “OK, I understand Step 1, and I understand Step 3, but I don’t understand what Step 2 is. It’s just blank. So how do you get from step 1 to step 3?”. And they just say, well, Step 1 Collect underwear, Step 3, Profit”. And he says “Yeah, but what’s Step 2?” And they don’t have an answer, they don’t know what step 2 is.

I think that kind of thinking is what prevails at the motion picture and the recording industry. What you have are recording industry executives and motion picture industry executives whose thinking goes like this: Step 1, Take everyone who used to be a customer of ours and has since moved to the file sharing networks and sue them for their life’s savings, and take everyone who remains a customer of ours and alienate them by treating them like crooks by loading the music and movies that they buy with digital rights management locks that prevent them from using their movies and music in ways that are lawful and customary. Step 2 is blank. Step 3 is, somehow, this results in everyone going back to the shopping malls and giving them money again. And I don’t know how you get from systematically alienating your customers and suing your former customers for their life’s savings to turning these people back into your customers. And for me it’s as simple as that: there’s no route from lawsuits and DRM to happy customers. There just isn’t.

Mosaic: So, that’s one very important point you made at the beginning, your working in an industry, book publishing, that would be very different from records or movies, in that aspect. Because, especially movies, can be very expensive to make, and one failed movie can be a very big risk to a studio.

C.D: Well, that’s a failing of the studio’s business model, right? They have come up with a business model that has forced them into it. They have optimized for a business model where very small mistakes can be industry destroying. I mean, I don’t know if you followed the lateness of Coldplay’s album this year. BMI moved from a projected profit to a projected loss for an entire quarter. When one record in the catalog can cost you that much, it means that you’ve made a mistake with your business model. You concentrated your risks. Imagine if any other industry worked this way. Imagine if the failure of the commercial success of one car in Ford’s line could endanger all of Ford’s business. Ford used to run that way, and Ford got its ass kicked by Japanese automobile companies precisely because it didn’t have any kind of risk management or risk containment strategy, and instead it allowed risk to concentrate around their couple of best selling products. What the motion picture industry and the record industry fail to recognize is that the best selling works that they have been able to live on, they got a free ride on them, they have been allowed by a market failure to allow their risk to concentrate in a way that no other industry would support. And now the market is correcting that.

I just read an article in Wired magazine about the making of this movie, “War of the Worlds”, that came on the July the 4th weekend, which is the single biggest weekend for film openings in America, because it’s a national holiday. The movie was made in an unscheduled hole of two of its principals, I think it was Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. They had to make the whole movie in a hundred days, it was the only window that they had for it, and if they flipped by as little as 3 days, movie screens on six continents would have been dark, on the single biggest weekend for film openings. So, what would have happened if there had been rain on 3 consecutive days? Or if someone had had a burst appendix, or if there had been a critical failure, if a courier had lost an important package… Hundreds of millions of dollars on a schedule that can’t afford a three percent flip, that’s bad business. And so, when you hear them saying, “Oh, well, you know, our business is failing, our business is dropping off, and no one will be able to afford to make movies the way that we make movies today, if we can’t reap these enormous rewards for these gigantic investments that we make,” the answer should be “Yes, you’re absolutely right, you won’t be able to have this much concentration of risk, in a world in which there’s a more competitive market, because running your business like this isn’t sane.”

So you hear people say “Oh, well, you know, the music industry, and the film industry can no longer make lots and lots of money, no one will make movies anymore.” But during the process of Reformation, there were a lot of people who said that after the church was splintered, that no one would be able to afford to build cathedrals anymore, and if no one could afford to build cathedrals anymore, then there would be no more religion. And of course the process of Reformation gave us more religion, not less. But it didn’t give us any cathedrals. Damn few could afford cathedrals, but there’s lots more religion than there was before the Reformation. So it may be that people make movies in different ways. Maybe the people will finance the movies in different ways, manage their risk in different ways. You already see the beginning of this with entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban, doing movies that are released simultaneously to theaters, to DVD, to video on demand, cable and satellite, all on the same day.

Mosaic: Mark Cuban, now that you mention him, the other day he said in his blog that it’s very curious that the record industry in the United States is basing their business around the demographic that has the most time to pirate their material, and they’re ignoring other demographics, which could be another point against their business model.

C.D: Yeah, that’s a very sharp insight. Mark’s a very sharp man. And he supports our work. He gave us a hundred thousand dollar grant last year to fund some of the work that I do, and then help finance our suit in Grokster. And I think that’s exactly right on. One of the great mysteries here is why no one pays attention to the demographic outside of the teen market. And the teen market is the one that is most avidly interested in downloading stuff without paying, even if it takes a little longer to find it, because they’ve got more time than they have money. He’s absolutely right. And you see this with films, too, when you see films like ‘Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo’ being produced. That’s not being produced for the thirty something market.

Mosaic: If we switch to another aspect of your work, about internet publishing, you are an editor at Boing Boing, one of the world’s most read blogs. Do you think that blogs are really the paradigm of new journalism? And, what would you tell a new blogger to improve the value of her content?

C.D: Well, I don’t know if they are the paradigm, or even a paradigm of new journalism, but I think they are a consequential and important form of self-expression and news gathering. In terms of what makes blogs good, the single thing that I think makes blogs bad most frequently is when their authors are coy or obscure about the subject matters that they’re writing about. You often see this… The most extreme example is when someone puts up a post whose title is ‘Oh my God’, and the post will consist of “Funniest thing ever”, with a link. For me, my philosophy with Boing Boing, the thing that I attribute Boing Boing’s success to, more than anything, is to describe exactly what every link is about, in the post that refers to the link, why you should go see it. It’s kind of the traditional journalism questions, who, what, when, where, how, and why. You try and answer those questions in a paragraph or two, so that people really understand what they’re getting into before they click, and why they don’t need to click. There’s a lot of people who don’t imagine their stuff being considered out of the context of their blog page, you know, in an RSS reader, aggregated in someone else’s blog, and so on. And that failure of imagination, I think, leads them to assume that their audience will have a lot more context than they actually do, for any blog post.

Mosaic: So you’d tell them to make a point, to be clear.

C.D: Yeah, avoid obscurity.

Mosaic: One last question. We’re doing a number about intellectual property, and we are asking a number of people what are the actions that should and should not be considered infringement on intellectual rights, on your opinion?

C.D: Well, I think that anything that’s a non commercial transaction, between private entities shouldn’t be considered an infringement. I think that’s the big one, for me. Not all commercial activity should be considered infringement, but I think that there’s a pretty bright line, when it comes to non commercial activity. Other things that I think are bright line non infringing are caching -I think the Google cache and the Internet Archive cache should be considered non infringing, clearly and non ambiguously non infringing. I think sampling, should anything transformative, where new work is created, should be considered non-infringing. I think that sampling, caching… Linking? I don’t think that linking to a website should ever be considered an infringement. There are a lot of people that have the weird idea that linking to their website is something that they have the exclusive rights to authorize, you shouldn’t be allowed to their website until you have their permission and that if you do, you infringe on some form of copyright. I think that’s pretty much a good nut shell.

Recommended citation: PORTA, Laura; CÓRCOLES, César & ALBALADEJO, Carlos. Cory Doctorow (English version). Mosaic [online article], October 2005, no. 41. ISSN: 1696-3296. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7238/m.n41.0526.