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Cory Doctorow, the Unlocker

Author Cory Doctorow is a merciless critic of the mega-corporations that seek to control creative content—and he’s happy to give his own work away for free

Cory Doctorow makes a living from his words, though he happily gives them away for free. The founder of the über-influential BoingBoing blog and author of sci-fi books like Eastern Standard Tribe and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, he’s at the forefront of the cyber-revolution and a merciless critic of the megacorporations that seek to control creative content. The London-based Canadian’s latest work is Little Brother, a young adult novel that delves into the shadowy world of government and corporate surveillance—a topic close to his heart. But what’s so great about giving?

Magazine layout

Photograph by Tim Adler

You’ve offered your work away online for free since publishing your first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. How do you make any money?

Giving away electronic books sells books, because for most people an electronic book isn’t a replacement—it’s an enticement. We’re in the eighth printing of Little Brother, which is doing wonders for me. But exempting that, there’s also a moral and artistic case. The moral case is that it’s the 21st century and it’s never going to get harder to copy stuff. Anyone who is making art with the intention that it will not be copied isn’t making contemporary art. There’s a certain kind of retro nostalgia to making stuff that’s not to be copied. It’s like hammering your own horseshoes on an anvil. But I’m a science fiction writer, I’m meant to be making art that’s at least about the present if not the future.

What do you think e-book devices like Amazon’s Kindle will mean for the future of the book market?

I’m pretty sceptical about them. I’m not bothered if people use Kindles or non-Kindles to read their books; the only thing that bothers me about Kindles is that it requires publishers, if they want to sell through an Amazon store, to put DRM [digital rights management] on their books. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you against your wishes and doesn’t give you the key, they’re not doing it for your good.

That’s a theme in Little Brother, which is essentially about security systems and how governments and corporations monitor our lives.

I see it as a book about the role technology plays as a liberator and a system of control, and the continuous struggle between those who use technology to make our lives freer and those who use technology to control the lives of others.

All security systems have an adversary/defender relationship.

Who you think of as the attacker and the defender depends on who you are. Take the example of Amazon releasing audio books with anti-copying digital rights technology, which stops people from moving those books to other devices that compete with Amazon’s. If you’re a publisher, you might think of Amazon as the attacker, because what Amazon is doing is taking your copyrights and locking them up in a way that stops your customers from moving to a competitor of Amazon.

Would it be better for anti-copying technology to be controlled by the industry, rather than retailers?

The record companies initially wanted the industry to collectively adopt something that they own. It was the same with DVDs, when everyone was forced to use an anti-copying technology that was controlled by the movie studios. In New Zealand, there was a DVD proposal that was handed out by the entertainment industry that was essentially a DRM technology that includes things like limiting how long you can press the pause button on personal video recorders to 90 minutes—so if you’re a mother and it takes more than an hour and a half to nurse your baby, then you miss the programme. This represents a farcical wishlist of what they’d love to be able to jam down people’s throats.

Instead, they went to iTunes.

In the case of Apple, Steve Jobs kind of conned the music industry into giving Apple exclusive license. They then built up a range of adjunct technology connected to iPods like chargers. Apple has a patent to prohibit people from making devices that electronically interface with the iPod. You can make carry cases, but Apple charges a license for anything that electronically touches the iPod like an alarm clock or a car stereo. So now the music industry is confronted with the fact that if their customers want to leave the Apple family of devices, they have to throw away their alarm clock or their car stereo and so on. This has given Apple quite a marketplace advantage to the detriment of the record companies.

But MP3s are available through other outlets like Amazon and Vodafone.

Once iTunes became the de-facto standard for digital music, the recording industry went back to Apple and said “We don’t want to charge 90 pence for everything, we’d like to be able to charge a little less for this and a lot more for that.” Whether you think it’s a smart or dumb move, the old relationship was such that it was a non-starter. The recording industry then realised that they needed an alternative to iTunes so they licensed their catalogues to Amazon. That allowed them to go back to Apple and say we don’t want DRM so let’s take it off everything.

But at this point, we still have entire databases of DRM-restricted music. Anyone who wants to upgrade from an Apple player has to pay the cost of either abandoning their music or paying a tax to leave Apple. It’s like one of those taxes you place on people to leave a country.

Still, there’s no unbreakable security system—just security systems that haven’t been broken yet.

Yes, except in the case of iTunes, it doesn’t matter, as its security system has been broken since day one. The huge advantage they have is digital rights copyright, which includes the copyright laws that came in in New Zealand as a result of your free trade agreement with the US and Australia and other countries as well. That act prohibits reverse engineering and making products that are interoperable with DRM. So while anyone can manufacture a toner cartridge that works with your Hewlett-Packard printer, no-one can manufacture a music player that plays your Apple music. That kind of compatibility and interchangability becomes unlawful.

You supported the protests in New Zealand against the ‘guilt by accusation law’, Section 92A.

It’s not just in New Zealand—there’s a French rule as well and there are proposals to bring this to the UK, Canada, the EU and Australia, so it’s a recurring theme. The problem is the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. It presumes that the only thing your net connection is good for is downloading music but when you cut off someone’s internet connection, what you’re doing is cutting that the single wire that provides freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, access to education and employment and so on. And not just for someone who is accused of doing something wrong but their entire household, merely on a basis of an accusation without any judicial process. This is a disproportionate punishment even if you think there is a crime.

What would be the consequences of an individual losing their access to the Internet?

If you look at the response to the ruling in New Zealand, you notice there’s an enormous amount of civil engagement through the Internet. So if you lose your Internet connection, you lose your capacity to participate in what has become the de-facto standard for civil engagement. What it’s really saying is that you no longer have a role in talking to government or your neighbours when you lose your Internet connection. For any individual who is part of the digital society, it’s a death sentence.

What’s behind the extraordinary success of Boing Boing, which is said to be the biggest blog on the Internet?

There were a few factors that contributed to its success. For one, it was very early [in the age of the Internet] and traffic is self-perpetuating in that sense. We also write well, we write headlines that are optimised for the web. We were also the first website to put full text in our RSS [web feed]. Even if you don’t have ads, we figured that if people want to read our work with RSS, it’s not our business to say “RSS isn’t good enough to read our work so click this link to leave the site.” We figured quite correctly that they’d just find something else to read. That is why we use the Creative Commons licence as well.

You’ve supported a lot of grassroots causes over the years, from privacy on the Internet to removing DRM. Are there any that you have second thoughts about?

There’s plenty that we haven’t won or haven’t won yet but none that I regret. Social change is a continuous process and it’s one of the things I try to show in Little Brother. Social change doesn’t consist of a fight, a victory and retiring. It consists of a continuous dynamic between the people who want the world one-way and the people who want it another. What matters is that we win it in the long run.