Interview with Cory Doctorow

 [ Image courtesy Cory Doctorow ] Cory Doctorow is an extremely prolific writer in several media: he is a science fiction writer of reknown (his bibliography can be found at his website,, from where you can also download some of his work under Creative Commons licenses); he is a campaigner for free information, and has written dozens of articles on this and other topics; he is an editor of the a directory of wonderful things; and has also been editor, contributor, and writer-in-residence for many other institutions. And recently he joined the board of the Clarion SF Writers' Workshop. We spoke to him recently about some of the issues that interest us all.

Future Fire: Hi Cory Doctorow. Thanks for speaking to us. Can I start with a couple of background quastions, and we'll see where it takes us? You mentioned that you no longer work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation—you described this in Boing Boing as having "given up the day job". What do you do with your time now?

Cory Doctorow: Well, I'm a full time writer, basically. I'm working on various things. I have a couple of short stories that I'm writing, and some articles. I'm also working on a non-fiction book called Set Top Cop: Hollywood's Secret War on America's Living Rooms, talking about things like Digital Rights Management and the issues around that and alternatives to it.

FF: Would it fair to say that your writing tends to be idea-based rather than action-led?

CD: I guess that's probably correct, yes. I tend to write by starting with a cool idea, and then trying to find some action to string it along with.

FF: I've noticed more than one or two characters in your work are collectors (of junk, of information, of books, etc.). Does this come from you? Are you a craphound?

CD: Yes, definitely that's me. Although as I live in the city I don't have room for all of the crap I own or want. I actually have storage lockers in both San Francisco and London which are completely full of junk that I have nowhere else to put. I have now filled the largest hard drive that I can reasonably get in a laptop. I'm kind of at breaking point now, and I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it all. It's come to the point where I own all these things but as I can't get access to them I might as well not own them. I mean it's cool to have storages in San Francisco and London full of stuff, but on the other hand I might just end up giving a whole lot of it away to a charity shop and keep most things in electronic format.

FF: Another element of some of your characters: do you like to lecture people on random topics?

CD: Yes, I think that's true. It's a science fiction thing as well, the genre lends itself to long, thoughtful soliloquies. People like Heinlein, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling have all made use of this technique very effectively.

FF: Can you explain briefly why you have chosen to give all of your published novels—and many stories, I believe—away for free in electronic form under Creative Commons licenses?

CD: Well, what can I say? It works, basically. I mean, yes, it is true that if you give away an eBook for free, that you are going to lose a certain number of potential sales to people who now don't need to buy the book. But for me, I'm sure I create a far higher number of new sales by giving eBooks away for free, because by doing so I am bringing the work to the attention of new people who would not otherwise have read it.

FF: Indeed. More to the point, perhaps, how did you convince your publishers to let you do this?

CD: That was deceptively easy, in my case. My editor is Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor at Tor, who I first met through the GEnie Online service. Tor understand what giving away free eBooks means for their business, as well as the fact that it won't lose them sales. Later on that might change, of course, in which case we'll have to rethink the strategy. If, say, a generation comes along who are comfortable reading a lot more on screen than we are, then it will cease to be the case that you can't make money from e-publications. When eBooks replace paper as the default publishing medium, it will no longer be safe to give things away for free online. What we should be doing now, then, is taking advantage of the current situation where we can experiment with giving things away for free to learn about how e-publication is going to work, what models we're going to have to work with.

FF: You have been active in the free information movement for some time now; what first encouraged you to become involved in this issue?

CD: The formal answer to this question is that I started a peer-to-peer software company in California some years ago, and I got in touch with the EFF because our investors were worried about the risk of copyright lawsuits and the like.

But a more interesting aspect to this question, I think, is why did I start up a peer-to-peer software company in the first place? As I grew up, I couldn't help but be aware of how easy it is to copy bits. As I saw it, culture was become more fluid. The culture I grew up in, as the culture you grew up in, that we all grew up in, the assumption was that artistic production was pretty permanent and static. We've moved, right, from an oral culture, where art and creativity is pretty fluid, to a more rigid culture of printed texts and recorded sound, television and so forth. Well now, the internet is making things fluid again, if in a different way.

I used to make photocopied collages as a kid. I used to see band posters up when I was walking the streets, that were made by photocopying and cutting up images. So I grew up in a remix culture, and the law hasn't caught up with that culture yet. We grew up with the concept of bits, of information-carrying units that can be easily copied. Anyone who works on the assumption that they can build a business, a body of practice, of art, or a culture that can not be copied, is crazy.

For example, I've been talking to the BBC recently. The BBC are investing money into standardization of copy restriction technologies, on the argument that studios will not license works to them unless they have these technologies in place. So I have asked them why they are wasting my money on this scheme that is predicated on the idea that bits will be hard to copy in the future. Let me tell you, bits will always be easier to copy than they are now. Right now we are living in the time in which—barring nuclear explosion or something—bits are harder to copy than they ever will be again.

Those rightsholders and interests who won't license their works to the BBC because they haven't yet figured out how to live in the world are just roadkill. It's like spending millions on a huge new medical research project in the 21st century based on the idea of studying how to treat evil humours. It's just archaic. So they're wasting British license-payers' money on this stuff.

The fact that information will be easy to copy in the future is a given, and this ease of copying will increase, not decrease. Any science fiction writer who doesn't realise that it will be easier to copy in the future, has no business calling what they write science fiction, it's just self-evident.

FF: Are you not afraid though that big interests and rightsholders will prevent people from copying their data, maybe not technologically, but legally?

CD: Oh yes, very much. It's going to be especially difficult when these sorts of legal restrictions happen at international treaty level, because that is very hard to undo or to influence. When it was an issue of British copyright law, all you had to do was convince parliament that something was a bad idea; now that it's a question of EU directives, you have to lobby all the member EU countries, and that's far more cumbersome.

The same is true of the US, when these laws were issued by Congress, it was straightforward to deal with. Of course congress was and is influenced by all sorts of interest groups, but that's another story. Now that the US is a signatory to the Berne Convention, in order to make and changes you have to convince all of the signatories worldwide of the need, and therefore the Berne Convention is effectively frozen in time; it will never change.

The WIPO—World Intellectual Property Organisation—want to decree that anyone who puts audiovisual material on the internet, even if it is out of copyright, gets to control the reproduction of that material. This is crazy: this means that the person who happens to electromagnetically modulate a piece of video or audio culture has more rights over the material than the person who created it. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

FF: So is there anything we can do about it?

CD: Yes, get involved with the campaign on these issues. The EFF is part of a growing coalition of civil liberties groups at WIPO working on these things. We are still small, at the moment, but we have two incredible advantages on our side. One: we are not mired in the past in the way many of those advocating restrictive copyright laws are. Two: we're right. The fact that these people can be demonstrated to be wrong will work in our favour.

For example, they have argued that there will be no investment in technologies and creativity if there are not compulsory exclusive rights on anything that is webcast. But as a counterpoint to this, just look at the example of podcasting. There are no exclusive rights in play here, and thousands if not millions of people of rightsholders create podcasts of their materials anyway. In fact it would be it would be impossible for them to do so with the proposed laws. Exclusive rights will demonstrably hamper investment.

FF: How are the internet, and in particular the various electronic publication media going to change the publishing industry and the paradigms we all take for granted today?

CD: I don't necessarily have thoughts on this specific to the publishing industry, but what is interesting to me is how the internet has changed what we can use as a predictor of artistic success. In the era before radio and sound recording, the main predictor of success for a performing artist was charisma, the artist who had strong stage presence and could engage a live audience. In the era of the phonogram and recorded music etc., the predictor has changed from charisma to virtuosity, to the quality of the raw product only. We have all experienced artists whose recorded work is not great, but who are excellent live performers, or vice versa.

In the age of the internet, the predictor will change again: in order for an artist to succeed, they will have to prove able to engage conversationally with thousands of fans at once. For example, Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, used to spend hours every day on Usenet, promoting the show, encouraging the network of fans, and basically making sure people felt plugged in, that the makers of the show cared about them.

The factors that affect this include the fact that virtuosity is what economists call a non-substitutable good. So in contrast to, say, telephone service—whatever the telcos might like to think—or potatoes, which we don't really care where they come from; but for example clothing, people often do care where they come from, we talk about brands and the like, these are elements that are non-substitutable. If you know you have liked something by a certain author before, you will look for something by the same author. Therefore products like this have thicker margins, since being successful already is a predictor of further success.

The internet has lowered the search costs in finding new works; for example it has lowered the cost of shopping, but also the cost of finding virtuosity. So if a novel has evoked a certain emotional response in you, it should be possible to find other novels that will evoke a similar response. This is the bookseller's art, of course, to sell you a book that you had not heard of and didn't think you wanted.

So the cost of finding art is going down and down and down: online search engines, blogs, booksellers, all these are there to help you find new items. But there is also the non-substitutable element of the personal relationship: with people like Straczynski, and authors like Neil Gaiman, their fans talk about them as if they are their friends, because they engage with their fans. They want them to do well because they think of them as friends.

FF: So we've kind of come full circle again, haven't we, because this is almost another form of charisma?

CD: People often say that to me when I make that point, but I don't think it's true. You can think of plenty of people who have charisma, but who aren't particularly good conversationalists. Think of David Lee Roth—great stage presence, but not speaker—or Robin Williams, for example. As performers, great, but not people who form a relationship with you. George Lucas, say, has a lot of charisma, but doesn't give great conversation; contrast him with Joss Whedon. There's a story I heard recently that when he was up for an award, probably for one of his TV shows, or maybe even for Serenity, and there were two screenings of his show the same night. One was a big industry screening, and the other was a fan screening. So Whedon had to go to the industry screening, but once it had started, he left to go to the fan screening. And he didn't make a big deal of it, and announce himself or anything, he just stood at the back watching the show, just to be one of the fans. And someone in the crowd looked back and noticed him, and realised, "That's Joss Whedon", and word went around, but they didn't bug him. They considered him to be one of them, part of the group experience, like he was a peer. Most people with charisma will never be your peer.

FF: OK, if not charisma in the same sense, at least it shows that you again need to do more than just record, right?

CD: Sure, I guess. But in any case it's always been true that to make a living as an artist, to go on making a living, you have to go on working. Or you have to invest wisely while you are earning, and live off that. Old work won't always generate you revenue. Copyright may go on for ever, but royalties don't. 98% of items still under copyright are not available. So yeah, you have to somehow keep your work warm, or you need to invest in real estate, as a lot of the more successful people do.

FF: What do you think will be the most unexpected cultural development in the next ten years?

CD: The most interesting question I think in the next decade, or the next two decades, will be what happens to a form of media for which there is social demand, but which is not economically sustainable. We need newspapers, for example, clearly; the role of independent journalist and commentator is something absolutely essential to a civilised society. But newspapers are supported by advertising, it's the only thing that makes them viable. And advertisers are massively moving to the internet, and advertising on eBay and the like.

Newspapers fill a vital role, but advertisers won't support newspapers because they're philanthropists. If newspapers don't get advertising revenue, they'll have to charge $5 for a copy, and no one will buy them any more. So the question is how will we fund the newspapers when classified ads flee to another medium?

One possibility is that we invent a class of citizen journalists who share the workload, uploading the facts as they see them and leaving others to fill out the picture. But the problem is that many libel laws—especially in Europe—require a news publication to confer with both sides of a story, or at least to call them up and get no comment, before publishing a report or an allegation. So the idea of one person just posting a story that they've heard, and leaving others to confirm or correct it, would probably be illegal under most libel laws.

Or think of the cost of film production. Ted Castronova has done some interesting calculations on this: if a Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) costs $50 million to make—to develop, to research, to build, to market, etc.—and each person plays an MMORPG for maybe hundred of hours; and a big blockbuster Hollywood movie costs upwards of $200 million, and provides an hour and a half of watching time. He calculated that to make a movie that entertains for as long as an MMO would cost something like $14 billion. So if you had money to invest, he suggests you'd be wiser to invest it in an MMO than a Hollywood movie.

So there's a real danger of the Hollywood movie industry being killed by the video gaming industry. And television, famously, is blockbuster driven. A few big shows are the leading edge for everything else on the small screen. There may always be the economic demand for a show like Lost, which cost about $40 million to shoot the pilot episode. But if the other shows, the ones for which there is less demand, cease to be economically sustainable and stop being made, then the apprenticeship opportunities that these shows provide, and the industray devoted to developing skills and techniques go. It's only because of all this stuff that Lost only cost $40 million to make rather than $400 million, so if those shows go, does Lost go too?

And in any case, will people devote a whole room in their house to a device on which they only watch three shows? Maybe people will prefer to watch these shows on their laptop, or mobile phone, or PDA.

FF: So is one answer to that scenario that shows are downloaded, and all web product is downloaded on a "pay-per-view" basis, paying by the megabyte?

CD: The problem with the pay-per-use model of web access, is the web is full of novel services, new technologies but also new kinds of service. There is a high level of experimentation, some of which will be hit-and-miss. If there is a transaction cost, people will be less likely to take the risk of experimenting, and these options will be drastically reduced. It isn't true of most of Europe, but in the USA for example local calls have always been free, unmetered, like internet access. So long as there's competition for providers, charging by the megabyte won't be sustainable—companies that try to charge will just lose customers.

FF: OK, Cory, one final question. Would you like to live for ever?

CD: I'd like to... choose the time of my death. I don't think I'd want to live literally forever, because that might become dull. But I'd like to bring my time of death under my own control. That might mean I'd want to live for thousands of years (or it might not) but I'd like the choice.

FF: Cory Doctrow, thank you very much for your time.

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