Cory Doctorow says he does not tell artists to give their work away for free, as some people incorrectly claim, and anyone who thinks he does is wrong. He just believes that preventing copying is impossible, and that copying is only going to get easier, so adapting to this reality just makes sense for “copyright giants.” The topic dear to his heart is what he describes very clearly in “The real cost of free”: “the risks to freedom arising from the failure of copyright giants to adapt to a world where it’s impossible to prevent copying.”
His personal answer to copyright is to give away his “ebooks under a Creative Commons licence that allows non-commercial sharing.” He then attracts readers who buy hard copies. Having two books on The New York Times bestseller lists in the last two years, he says, validates his particular approach.
But his piece online at The Guardian, published today, takes on a much broader issue than how he’s perceived by others or even the idea that copy-prevention is futile. “… here’s what I do care about. I care if your plan [to stop people from copying your work over the internet or to build a business around this idea] involves using ‘digital rights management’ technologies that prohibit people from opening up and improving their own property; if your plan requires that online services censor their user submissions; if your plan involves disconnecting whole families from the internet because they are accused of infringement; if your plan involves bulk surveillance of the internet to catch infringers, if your plan requires extraordinarily complex legislation to be shoved through parliament without democratic debate; if your plan prohibits me from keeping online videos of my personal life private because you won’t be able to catch infringers if you can’t spy on every video.”
Many of these strategies are already being employed and Doctorow enumerates several: 40,000 people in the US sued by the record industry; mandatory DRM requirements for several digital distribution channels negotiated by Sony, Apple, Audible, and others; three strikes rule in effect in France that disconnects anyone (and their family) from the internet for “unsubstantiated accusations of infringement”; efforts by Viacom to prevent Google and other companies from allowing anyone to “upload content to the internet without reviewing its copyright status in advance.” This last one seems particularly intrusive and Big Brotherly to me because what Viacom wants is for a court “to order Google to make all user-uploaded content public so that Viacom can check it doesn’t infringe copyright – it thinks that its need to look at my videos is greater than my need to, say, flag a video of my two-year-old in the bath as private and visible only to me and her grandparents.” The incredible arrogance of Viacom is that it wants to court to validate the presumption that everything posted on YouTube and similar sites violates copyrights. So, for example, if this came to pass, would a video of someone watching an NFL game on a network be a copyright violation if it included in the video the actual broadcast in the background? What if you post a video of someone dancing to music? Would the presumption be that the music was pirated? Such a ruling, Doctorow says, “would shutter every message board, Twitter, social networking service, blog, and mailing list in a second.” If he’s correct, the impact on culture, society, daily life would be immeasurable.
There’s a great deal more in the article about artists’ attempts to make money doing what they love and how he thinks they might succeed, but for me, Doctorow’s piece snapped me to attention about DRM. My eyes will no longer glaze over when I see that acronym or the words Sony, Viacom, and others. The idea that my privacy is merely a gossamer wall to be breached by private, for-profit companies who assume I am a thief is incredible and as threatening as anything I’ve ever heard.