Doctorow Pushes for ‘Free Culture’

[Editor's note—presented here is a longer version of the Cory Doctorow interview than that which appeared in the print edition of The Crimson.]

As if there was any doubt of Cory Doctorow’s place on the digerati A-list, New York magazine ranked his blog, BoingBoing.net, as the number one most linked-to blog on the web. Analog recognizing the triumphs of digital? The times really are a-changin’.

Not one to let past accomplishments slow down the pace of innovation, the Canadian author, blogger and self-proclaimed “Free Culture activist” has also published a science-fiction novel, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.”

It’s a near-future vision of bored, invincible humans living in Disneyworld, and it was the first book released under the “copyleft” Creative Commons license—in addition to selling the book in stores, he offered the entire text for free on his website, allowing any non-profit use or manipulation.

Last Wednesday, before giving a talk at Harvard’s own Emerson Hall about the pernicious effects of DRM (Digital Rights Management) schemes, he met with The Crimson for an interview.

The Harvard Crimson: You recently quit your day job working for the Electronic Frontier Foundation to become a full-time writer. Is this a dream you think more and more people can realize without the support of specific publications?

Cory Doctorow: The objective of any industrial policy aimed at increasing the pool of work, like copyright, should be to decentralize the decision-making process about who gets to say whether or not a work gets to exist.

We started with patronage, where you got to make art if the Pope liked it, then we moved to copyright, which moves it into the realm of industrial capital. Given the falling cost of capitalizing art, we’re now moving into a place where audience interest is a much closer indicator of whether art gets to exist.



THC: You’ve garnered a lot of praise in the “Free Culture” movement—and scorn from its enemies—for your adoption of the Creative Commons license for all of your writing. Your latest book is even licensed for profitable use in developing nations. How is this a move towards empowering artists?

CD: There’s a kind of glib little answer about why Creative Commons is good for me: It’s not just because I have moral belief in sharing, it’s because I think that giving away books sells books. The biggest problem that I have as an artist isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.

As for the Developing Nations license, there’s a moral question about copyright in the developing world. Presently, developing nations are being arm-twisted into adopting copyright systems that were developed by and for developed nations. International agreements like the WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty] of 1996, which is now being incorporated into a lot of the U.S. free-trade agreements, are a kind of information feudalism.

People are being urged to adopted very restrictive copyright regimes that limit how they can do distance education, how they can promote their own local culture, what kind of technology they can develop, turning these nations into exporters of the GDP to the developed world in a kind of new colonialism.

THC: One broad theme in your work seems to be a mild form of optimistic technological determinism, in contrast to the typical 1980s cyberpunk dystopian future. Your model of the Bitchun Society in “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” in particular seems to be, if not quite a utopia, at least a world in which boredom is one of the biggest problems for most people. Do you think today that our technology is gradually narrowing the possible outcomes into a miasma of mediocrity?

CD: I don’t know about that, no... I think that technology really does have the power to do a lot of harm or a lot of good; the hot can be just as hot, the cold can be just as cool. In the ‘80s they had the luxury of writing about computers as metaphors. Today you have to be pretty memetic and rigorous about your computers; a substantial fraction of your audience will call you on it if you have cyberspace decks that are capable of shredding your brain because no one’s thought about putting a fuse in them.

To be an optimist about technology you also have to be a pessimist, because in believing in its power to yield incredible benefits, you also have to acknowledge the potential for enormous damage. Fiction can be a kind of Gedankenexperiment where you try to chart a course between the damage and the benefit. The Bitchun Society isn’t as utopian as it seems; it has some pretty dramatic failings. It’s a society in which
minority viewpoints have no protection, in which your ability to be heard is directly correlated to your popularity. If all your society protects is popular viewpoints, it’s not free; in that sense, the Bitchun Society is far from a utopia.

THC: Along those lines, what picture of Walt Disney emerges from all the research and collection you’ve done; is he a failed utopian, are there troubling aspects to his view of society?

CD: I think to love Disney is to love the sinner and hate the sin. It’s very hard to have read much about Walt and think about him as a particularly likeable person. Tolstoy borrowed money from his friends and pissed it away gambling while his children starved.

Of Walt’s salutory traits, one is how commited he was to technology as a mechanism for adding value and innovation to his business. Because he was so restless, and so enchanted by technology qua technology, he wasn’t very happy just inventing something and having that turn into a cash cow for him.

I think the tech industry today epitomizes [Walt’s model]; because it’s very hard to have exclusive rights and exclude competitors completely, successful tech businesses tend to reinvent themselves every few years from the ground up. The entertainment industry often complains that they’re not going to be making money off their records after 90 years; try telling that to people who love their Commodore 64s.

EPCOT as envisioned by Walt was certainly nightmarishly controlling, although endlessly fascinating. He wanted to build a planned city, a new town, with a dome over it, a nuclear power plant and electric cars, and a social contract that supercedes the Constitution. People would waive their Constitutional rights in favor of an explicit written social contract that would be more like an employment contract.

THC: Could you speak a little bit about your attitude towards the online, open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia? Because I know there was some misinformation about your career on there for a while, regarding the relative success of your career, among other things.

CD: I never actually took that particularly amiss. I think that John Sigenthaler Sr. [Sigenthaler, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy, wrote a furious editorial after a false biography of him emerged on Wikipedia] mystified a lot of Internet natives, who said “So you found something inaccurate on a wiki? Why didn’t you just change it?”

As I pointed out before in an editorial response, the difference between Wikipedia errors and errors in the mainstream press is their relative ease in correction. As Bruce Schneider said, the interesting thing about systems isn’t how they perform when they’re working, but how they perform when they fail. When newspapers fail, they perform very badly. When Wikipedia fails, it fails pretty well.



THC: You recently did a virtual, in-game signing of your latest book on the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) community “Second Life.” Did this feel like a historic moment? Do you think we will we be spending more time in these sorts of simulated worlds?

CD: I don’t know if it felt historic, but it was definitely fascinating to watch. I’m an outsider in that community by choice; MMOs are kind of a black hole whose event horizon I dare not cross. It was amazing to see how vivid and lively the interaction was among the residents of Second Life.

Regrettably, people in MMOs aren’t citizens, they are customers, just like Disney’s contract. [Online role-playing game] “World of Warcraft” recently banned an advertisement for a gay-positive guild; although they eventually reversed the order, their initial reaction was that while it may be capricious, it was their policy, and if you don’t like it you can leave.

Being a citizen, you have a remedy apart from exile. In the real world, private property rights are trumped by Constitutional rights; if you’re a labor organizer trying to picket, you often have access to private property like stores in a mall because you’re engaged in a Constitutionally-protected form of speech.

For all the failings of the American system, the existence of impact litigators, contingency lawyers, and activist civil rights law firms means that there’s the chance of a remedy when things break, as opposed to a series of online click-through User License Agreements (ULAs) that replace Constitutional rights. They often include a codicil that says “we reserve the right to change this agreement at any time without notice.”



THC: Skeptics might say that the U.S. government is heading towards that today.

CD: Replace the Constitution with a ULA? “I agree, I have read the terms and conditions, ok, ok.” Yeah, that’d be pretty great.

—Staff writer Will B. Payne can be reached at payne@fas.harvard.edu.