Per il secondo episodio di Players Originals, pubblichiamo l’originale dell’intervista con uno dei pionieri del copyright digitale, reallizzata in collaborazione alla View Conference

This interview has been made possible by the View Conference and Andrea Chirichelli. Questions by Emilio Bellu.

Cory Doctorow is one of the most respected and influential names in the discussion about digital copyright, and a young adult novels bestseller author to boot. He’s one of the founders of Boing Boing, he worked as director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and wrote such books as Little Brother, With a Little Help, and more recently For The Win. He’s one of people responsibile for making Creative Commons a thing. He can be found at his personal website, craphound, or @doctorow.

PLAYERS: Some of the most successful book series in the latest years have been aimed to the young adult audience, from the Harry Potter series to the more recent Hunger Games trilogy. More and more adults are reading these books. Why do you think that’s happening?

CORY DOCTOROW: Genre YA fiction has an army of promoters outside of the field: teachers, librarians, and specialist booksellers are keenly aware of the difference the right book can make to the right kid at the right time, and they spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to convince kids to try out a book. Kids are naturals for this, since they really use books as markers of their social identity, so that good books sweep through their social circles like chickenpox epidemics, infecting their language and outlook on life. That’s one of the most wonderful things about writing for younger audiences — it matters. We all read for entertainment, no matter how old we are, but kids also read to find out how the world works. They pay keen attention, they argue back. There’s a consequentiality to writing for young people that makes it immensely satisfying. You see it when you run into them in person and find out that there are kids who read your book, googled every aspect of it, figured out how to replicate the best bits, and have turned your story into a hobby. We wring our hands a lot about the greying of SF, with good reason. Just have a look around at your regional con, the one you’ve been going to since you were a teenager, and count how many teenagers are there now. And yet, young people are reading in larger numbers than they have in recent memory.

Writing for young people is really exciting. As one YA writer told me, “Adolescence is a series of brave, irreversible decisions.” One day, you’re someone who’s never told a lie of consequence; the next day you have, and you can never go back. One day, you’re someone who’s never done anything noble for a friend, the next day you have, and you can never go back. Is it any wonder that young people experience a camaraderie as intense as combat-buddies? Is it any wonder that the parts of our brain that govern risk-assessment don’t fully develop until adulthood? Who would take such brave chances, such existential risks, if she or he had a fully functional risk-assessment system?

So young people live in a world characterized by intense drama, by choices wise and foolish and always brave. This is a book-plotter’s dream. Once you realize that your characters are living in this state of heightened consequence, every plot-point acquires moment and import that keeps the pages turning.

P: Steve Jobs thought that the key to changing things is to convince few key people. The demonstrations made by the “indignados” and other similar movements all oner the world are made by people that think that multitudes can change the world with non hierarchical organizations. What’s more accurate in your opinion?

CD: I think the “great man” theory of history is a convenient and self-serving mythology for the kind of person who thinks of himself as a “great man.” But Apple will survive without Steve Jobs, whereas Steve Jobs could never have made an iPod without Apple.

P: Technology dominates the present. Still, the general public, and politicians in particular, seem to be mostly illiterate on the topic. There seems to be a chasm between “normal” people and tech people. Also, between mass media and the tech business. Do you think that the responsibility falls on politicians and journalist, or do tech people lack skills to narrate their world?

CD: It’s natural to think of complicated technology as being regulatable – — it wouldn’t be crazy for a regulator to say, “We insist that you remove the cigarette lighters from cars.” But we don’t hold “general purpose” technology to the same standard — no one would think it was reasonable to say, “Wheels have to be designed to prevent kidnappers from attaching them to their cars.” By and large, “complex” is the opposite of “general purpose” — with the significant exception of computers and the Internet, which are both general purpose and very complicated. And here is where regulators’ intuition misleads them. Because we don’t know of any method for making a general purpose computer that can’t be used to infringe copyright. We don’t know how to make an Internet that works for everything except libel or pornography or crime. The closest approximation we have for these is adding surveillance, censorship, and control to computers and networks, which makes them much worse for honest people (and the crooks can still use them in bad ways).

It’s the difference between saying “We demand that new cars be manufactured without cigarette lighters” and “We demand that new cars be fitted with surveillance cameras to be sure that no one tries to install a cigarette lighter in them.”

Reforming the regulators’ intuition about what the net can and can’t do is the key to solving this conundrum.

P: In For the Win you explored the possible future of forced online labour; do you think that complains like Blizzard are doing enough to prevent such economies to exist?

CD: I don’t know what Blizzard could do to prevent this.

Photo by NK Guy,

P: You have pioneered publishing with a Creative Common License, but much of the current debate on copyright revolves around industries such as filmmaking and videogames, where investments are much higher. Do you think those industries could survive a real liberalization of copyright laws?

CD:Please see this essay, where I answer that question in detail:

P: You manage to publish regularly even though you literally give your novels away for free, digitally. This is working in a marketplace where reading a physical book is more convenient than reading it digitally, at least for the vast majority of people. But this is changing. As more people get comfortable downloading stuff, and bookstores close, do you think this approach will be sustainable?

CD: What about that future? Many writers fear that in the future, electronic books will come to substitute more readily for print books, due to changing audiences and improved technology. I am skeptical of this–the codex format has endured for centuries as a simple and elegant answer to the affordances demanded by print, albeit for a relatively small fraction of the population. Most people aren’t and will never be readers–but the people who are readers will be readers forever, and they are positively pervy for paper.

But say it does come to pass that electronic books are all anyone wants.

I don’t think it’s practical to charge for copies of electronic works. Bits aren’t ever going to get harder to copy. So we’ll have to figure out how to charge for something else. That’s not to say you can’t charge for a copy-able bit, but you sure can’t force a reader to pay for access to information anymore.

This isn’t the first time creative entrepreneurs have gone through one of these transitions. Vaudeville performers had to transition to radio, an abrupt shift from having perfect control over who could hear a performance (if they don’t buy a ticket, you throw them out) to no control whatsoever (any family whose 12-year-old could build a crystal set, the day’s equivalent of installing file-sharing software, could tune in). There were business models for radio, but predicting them a priori wasn’t easy. Who could have foreseen that radio’s great fortunes would be had through creating a blanket license, securing a Congressional consent decree, chartering a collecting society and inventing a new form of statistical mathematics to fund it?

Predicting the future of publishing–should the wind change and printed books become obsolete–is just as hard. I don’t know how writers would earn their living in such a world, but I do know that I’ll never find out by turning my back on the Internet. By being in the middle of electronic publishing, by watching what hundreds of thousands of my readers do with my e-books, I get better market intelligence than I could through any other means. As does my publisher. As serious as I am about continuing to work as a writer for the foreseeable future, Tor Books and Holtzbrinck are just as serious. They’ve got even more riding on the future of publishing than me. So when I approached my publisher with this plan to give away books to sell books, it was a no-brainer for them.

It’s good business for me, too. This “market research” of giving away e-books sells printed books. What’s more, having my books more widely read opens many other opportunities for me to earn a living from activities around my writing, such as the Fulbright Chair I got at USC this year, this high-paying article in Forbes, speaking engagements and other opportunities to teach, write and license my work for translation and adaptation. My fans’ tireless evangelism for my work doesn’t just sell books–it sells me.

The golden age of hundreds of writers who lived off of nothing but their royalties is bunkum. Throughout history, writers have relied on day jobs, teaching, grants, inheritances, translation, licensing and other varied sources to make ends meet. The Internet not only sells more books for me, it also gives me more opportunities to earn my keep through writing-related activities.

There has never been a time when more people were reading more words by more authors. The Internet is a literary world of written words. What a fine thing that is for writers.

Photo by NK Guy,

P: Your work on digital copyright laws is well known and respected, and its sparking discussions in countries such as the UK and the US, where piracy is relevant but not overwhelming. In Italy, though, piracy is endemic. For lots of people, getting free content is something they feel they’re entitled to. How do you thing is best to educate people to the value of intellectual and creative ideas?

CD: I don’t accept the premise of the question, I’m afraid. “Piracy” isn’t at odds with “respect” — the only reason to seek out copies of works you love is because you respect them.

There came a time when music moved from live performance on stage to radio performance, which didn’t directly compensate performers. But listening to music on the radio wasn’t a sign of disrespect.

We solved the problem of compensating artists for radio play by creating blanket licenses that treated radio’s uncontrollable diffusion as a feature, not a bug, and we can do the same for the Internet.

Whenever technology makes it impossible to police a class of copyright use, we’ve solved the problem by creating blanket licences.

The record industry itself was the first beneficiary of this system: when the US sheet-music publishers sued the record-makers for selling recordings of their compositions, they were given a simple solution: anyone is allowed to record your music, provided they pay you a set fee for it. No one has to pay a lawyer $500/hour to negotiate whether this track on this album will cost $0.10 per disc or $0.05. And when the record companies objected to the radio stations playing their discs without compensation or permission, the answer was a blanket licence for records played on air. It’s the tried-and-true answer to the problem of copyright-disrupting technology:

  • acknowledge that it’s going to happen;
  • find a place to collect a toll;
  • charge a fee that’s low enough to get buy-in from the majority;
  • ignore the penny-ante fee evaders;
  • sue the blistering crap out of the big-time fee-evaders.

This is the shareholder-value-maximising answer that actually brings revenue into the pockets of artists and record companies. It co-opts the majority of filesharers into being active participants in a legitimate transaction instead of everyone starting off as outlaws who have nothing to lose and no reason to come to the bargaining table except for fear of legal reprisals (this fear is notoriously ineffective at moderating the behavior of children).

Ten years ago, the record industry had a simple little problem they could have solved by showing a tiny amount of future-looking flexibility. A decade of intransigence and stubborness has bred a killer strain of antibiotic-resistant filesharing technology that grows more and more difficult to police by the year. The sheet music publishers didn’t get to control the destiny of the record companies, who couldn’t control the broadcasters, who couldn’t control the cable operators, who couldn’t control the VCR makers.

The record industry will not be in charge of the characteristics of filesharing systems. They may get remunerated for their use, but they won’t be able to dictate their functionality, no matter how many children they criminalise. If they want to cash in on filesharing, they’d better do it soon, before every potential licence fee payer decides to opt out of the system forever.

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Emilio Bellu

Scrittore, cineasta, giornalista, fotografo, musicista e organizzatore di cose. In pratica è come Prince, solo leggermente più alto e sardo. Al momento è di base a Praga, Repubblica Ceca, tra le altre cose perché gli piace l'Europa.

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