Interview with Cory Doctorow, Part 1: Copyfight and Creative Commons

Thanks to one of the many Meet the Media Guru events organized in Milan, Cory Doctorow was in Milan and I was lucky to get an interview one-on-one with him. Here’s part 1 of my interview with Cory Doctorow, where he talks about copyfight and Creative Commons. Part 2: ebooks, DRM and universal formats. Part 3: The Future of Art in the Information Age I’ll be posting the entire interview transcript and the audio file in a later post. You are welcome to re-post, share, remix this content with a link back to this article under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License. You may also be interested in the When I Have Time article A Guide to Copyright and Creative Commons.

PS: I made a gaffe almost immediately (which I’ve left in this transcript) but I blame it on my excitement and enthusiasm talking to Cory.

cory-picSARA: So I’m here with Cory Doctorow, and he’s a science fiction author as well as a co-editor of Boing and a big proponent of copyfight which is what we’re going to talk about in a moment. One of the things he’s probably most known for is releasing all of his books under public domain-
: -Creative Commons
SARA: -under Creative Commons Attribution and-

CORY DOCTOROW: no…Creative Commons, non-Commercial, Share-Alike
SARA: …sorry

CORY DOCTOROW: It’s ok. There’s a big difference.
SARA: No, I know
…(me blushing furiously and thinking of my recently published A Guide to Creative Commons and Copyright) He makes his books available for download online and people can rework them, adapt them as long as they don’t re-sell them or make them available to others for pay. (Editor’s note: And, due to the share-alike license, all derivative works must be released under the same license.)

So can you tell us, what does copyfight mean?

CORY DOCTOROW: To me, it really means re-balancing copyright. It used to be that copyright was something that the average person never used to have think about..because copyright only kicked in when you made a copy, and making a copy involves having some kind of big industrial piece of machinery…you know, you need a printing press to make a copy.

The rules were a little difficult to understand, but it didn’t matter because if you were going to spend a million dollars on a print shop, you could afford to spend a thousand dollars for a lawyer to tell you how to do it right. But now we can make copies a million times a day without even thinking. We copy like we breathe on the internet and every one of those copies is governed by copyright law and the digital response to the copyright law hasn’t been to make it simpler for us to understand, it’s been to make it harder and to make the penalties for getting it wrong even worse.

This has produced a really bad outcome, where 98% of the works in copyright don’t have any visible owner, no one knows who the license comes from, but the majority of internet users are essentially criminals because of how they use the internet. Musicians and other kinds of artists are not getting paid and their fans are starting to feel like they’re greedy, terrible people – for having sued people who love their work and don’t deserve to get paid, I mean it’s a mess for everybody!

So I really think we need a set of common-sense copyright rules that say if you’re going to do something industrial, with copying as a business that you have a set of rules that are respectful of the need to innovate but still fairly compensate people whose work that you take and if you’re not doing something commercial but if you’re doing something that’s merely cultural – the kind of thing that’s really the way we converse with copyrighted works now – that that shouldn’t be subject to that kind of industrial regulation at all. It should just be outside of the realm of industrial regulation.

SARA: And what about an artist who’s interested in releasing their works under Creative Commons? I know that when you did that, you already had a bit of a following, a bit of community. I think in some ways a community serves not only as someone who propagates your work but also defends it as a sort of a watchdog. What about someone who’s just starting out? Would you recommend they release their work under Creative Commons?

CORY DOCTOROW: Well, to be honest I’ve never needed a watchdog. It just hasn’t come up. Yeah, I mean there’s like a million people who violate the licenses in tiny ways, but you know, as an artist or a commercial person you need to decide : Are you interested in making sure everyone who uses your work pays you for it or everyone who would pay you for your work gets a chance to use it? You can’t do both. If you spend all your time chasing 13-year olds and turning them upside down so the quarters fall out of their pockets, you’ll never get any painting or music or books done.

So, I’ve never had to worry about the enforcement side. Now as to whether or not it’s worth doing if you don’t have a community or what it can do for you I think you put your finger on something important: Creative Commons doesn’t make people love your work in one spread. It gives the tools to people who love your work in one spread to do something. So, it doesn’t solve the first problem. And that’s a problem that every artist solves in their own way. Some of them solve it by connecting with a commercial entity that helps promote their work, some of us have the innate ability to do it, some of us just chance into it…

Every artist finds their way there. But the important takeaway from that is it never occurs, I think, to allow people explicitly to non-commercially share your work, because first of all most people assume that they’re allowed do it, or if they don’t assume they are allowed to do it, they do it anyway. So you’re not enabling people to do something anyway that they would do if they loved your work. What you’re doing is assuring them that what they’re doing is lawful. And more importantly than enlisting people to act as your enforcer, what you’re doing is creating a social contract with those people by saying to them, “this isn’t a lawless zone with no rules under which you can take my work and share it with your friends. This is a zone where we have a social contract of reasonable, easy-to-understand terms; I would ask you to police yourselves.” Not that you’re asking them to police on your behalf, but to themselves, temper their own behavior on that basis.

The important thing about all law, all agreements is that they have to be in large part self-enforced. If a law requires a policeman to sit in your living room all day long to make sure you don’t violate it, then the law is dead. So the law has to first be seen as reasonable by people who are bound by it. And Creative Commons represents a set of very reasonable, easy to understand set of bi-lateral, easy-to-understand premises.

SARA: Can we talk about your decision to release your book under Creative Commons? Can you tell me about that day you decided to do that?

CORY DOCTOROW: Sure, you know I decided to release it for free online before Creative Commons existed, but by the time I was ready to, Creative Commons had come into existence. My first book was a guide to publishing science fiction. I wrote it with a novelist. I was a short story writer and he was a novelist and we were both widely published. We wrote this book and the month it came out, I won the award for best new writer in the field, so this was presumably good news for the publisher and you’d think they run out and try and sell some more copies off that, but they did nothing. And they did nothing because they expected to sell 10,000 copies of this book and if they sold another 1,000 copies they would make $800. And it would cost them $3,000 to do anything with this news that was meaningful to sell those 1,000 copies. So it made no sense for them to go out and sell those 1,000 copies.

SARA: Or maybe there were 800 already in Nebraska and your audience was somewhere else…

CORY DOCTOROW: Right. I understood why they didn’t want to do it, but it disappointed me. I thought, God this is no way to run a career as a writer, but at the same time there had been this enormous fufarah about ebook piracy, where people who loved books were taking the copy off the shelf, slicing the binding off of it, running each page on the scanner and then running it through optical character recognition (OCR) software and then going through it by hand and correcting all the typos that had been introduced by this process.

There’s only one reason that someone does this: it’s because they love the book and they want to share it with their friends. And there have been all these writers were going crazy about this – once you go electronic you’ll never get it back, you’re doomed, you’ve destroyed us, we hate you, you’re a pirate! And I looked at this and I thought first of all: calling these people who love your books a pirate even if you’re disappointed with what they’ve done is probably not a productive strategy. The best you can hope for is that they’ll hate you and stop promoting your book. That’s the best of all the possible outcomes. The worst is they’ll hate you and decide to promote your books just to spite you! It’s just awful news, right? So I thought ok, we can do better than this.

So looking at these two facts: the fact that my publisher didn’t want to and couldn’t afford to promote me and the fact that there were fans out there who were trying to promote books that they love, and writers were running away from this as fast as they could, I thought there’s a better way to do this.

And that is, rather than expect them to spend 80 hours scanning in the book and 10 hours to promote the copy, why don’t I just give them a perfect copy of the book and maybe they’ll spend all 80 or 90 hours out there promoting it? And it worked really well.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview tomorrow where Cory talks about ebooks and DRM!

Photo by Joi Ito

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