Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow

cover image of Information Doesn't Want to Be FreeCory Doctorow is one of the most articulate and outspoken advocates for online privacy and sensible copyright laws; he is staunchly opposed to Digital Rights Management (DRM). As “Doctorow’s First Law” states, Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, that lock isn’t there for your benefit. His newest book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, is organized into three sections, one for each of his laws.

Doctorow’s First Law has been illustrated neatly by two excellent webcomics: “Steal This Comic” (xkcd, a.k.a. Randall Munroe) and “I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened” (The Oatmeal, a.k.a. Matthew Inman). Both comics make the point that buying digital content through official online platforms (a) can be difficult-to-impossible, and (b) means you can’t take it with you, whereas illegally downloaded content can be used on any device or platform.

Plenty of consumers want to pay creators for their work, but also want control over that content once they’ve bought it. (As Amanda Palmer writes in her foreword to the book, “People actually like supporting the artists whose work they like. It makes them feel happy. You don’t have to force them. And if you force them, they don’t feel as good.”) Digital locks – DRM – tie up our digital purchases in ways that make them complicated to use and sometimes make them outright obsolete. This is frustrating for law-abiding people who just want to be able to bring an audiobook from computer to car to digital media player of choice, or who want to read an e-book on any device they happen to have, no matter what operating system it’s running. There’s no reason an e-book file from Amazon should be incompatible with a Kobo device, except of course that Amazon – not the author, not the publishers (anymore) – wants it that way.

Doctorow’s Second Law applies more to creators than consumers: Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it. He’s not talking Lady Gaga levels of fame; simply, if you’re an artist, no one can buy your work if they don’t know it exists. The Internet can work to connect content creators with a potential audience. However, Cory writes, “The fewer channels there are, the worse the deal for creators will be. Any choke point between the creator and the audience will turn into a tollbooth, where someone will charge whatever the market will bear for the privilege of facilitating the buying and selling of creative work.” The publisher Hachette realized this belatedly with Amazon last year; by requiring DRM on all the e-books they sold, publishers handed over control to the retailers, who aren’t about to give it up. Authors – the creators – were caught in the middle.

I marked more pages in the third section of the book than in the previous two combined. Doctorow’s Third Law states, Information doesn’t want to be free, people do. As a creator himself, Cory isn’t against copyright, but he points out the difference between industrial regulation and regulation on an individual level: “Copyright is alive and well – as an industrial regulation. Copyright as a means of regulating cultural activities among private individuals isn’t dead, because it’s never been alive.

The entertainment industry – particularly Hollywood movie studios and record companies – want to be able to regulate copies on the individual level, at the expense of personal privacy. However, their arguments that piracy is destroying the industry have been neatly shot down by none other than the GAO, who said that it would be “difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the net effect of counterfeiting and piracy on the economy as a whole.” YouTube is a particular thorn in the entertainment industry’s side, even though, mathematically, only a tiny fraction of content on YouTube is potentially copyright-infringing. (To calculate this, Cory multiplied every entry in IMDB by 90 minutes per program (low for movies, high for episodes of TV shows), which comes to only about 28 days’ worth of YouTube uploads.)

When movie studios and record companies attempt to place artificial restrictions on individuals by adding DRM and other kinds of digital locks on their media and media players, they are attempting (unsuccessfully) to protect their content, but “You can’t ‘protect’ devices from their owners unless you can update them without their owners’ knowledge or consent.” This is a dangerous area. As Cory writes, “when technology changes, it’s usually the case that copyright has to change, too.…[but] the purpose of copyright shouldn’t be to ensure that whoever got lucky with last year’s business model gets to stay on top forever.”

Cory argues that we need a new system of copyright, one that “that enables the largest diversity of creators making the largest diversity of works to please the largest diversity of audiences.” The Internet allows the kind of direct connection between creators and audience that hasn’t been possible before, and copyright must adapt so that it continues to protect content, not middlemen.

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is familiar ground for longtime Doctorow readers and those who follow the “copyfight” in general, but it’s also a good introduction for those who haven’t thought much about the issue.

See also: “4 Ways Copyright Law Actually Controls Your Whole Digital Life” by Kate Cox at Consumerist (January 22, 2015)

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One thought on “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow

  1. Pingback: Librarian Blogs — perspectives from the trenches | Would Godzilla Make a Good Librarian?

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