Shelf Talk(s) with Cory Doctorow, pt. 2

image of cory doctorow courtesy of joiLibrarians like Cory Doctorow a lot, not least of all because we both tend to think that information wants to be free, and we both get a kick out of giving books away. However, if you want his actual analog pen-and-ink signature on his latest book – Little Brother – Cory will be appearing at the library’s Ballard Branch on Sunday, March 18 at 2 p.m, where he can oblige you. Generous guy that he is, he recently obliged us with a mind-expanding phone call, and here’s some more of that conversation (here’s part one):

Q: Congratulations on your latest project, your new daughter.

Oh yeah – my wife just sent me the world’s most awesomely cute one minute video clip of getting ready for bath time and I swear to god its just hypnotic, I’ve watched it a hundred and fifty times.

Q: (In addition to the effect this experience will have on your writing), how do you think having a child will effect your views on your creative children, and giving them away on the Internet?

…you know, it did get me thinking. I wrote a column for Locus magazine that just came out called Think Like a Dandelion – actually the title’s an homage to a James Patrick Kelly book called Think Like a Dinosaur – and its about the different reproduction strategies of plants and mammals. And I understand why as a mammal my intuition is that I need to be really closely attuned to the disposition of my reproductions, of my offspring. That is our reproductive strategy. But it’s not the reproductive strategy of a dandelion. The reproductive strategy of a dandelion is to be just utterly profligate to just blow your seeds in every direction regardless of whether they’re likely to catch hold or not and the dandelion doesn’t care if every seed sows. The dandelion cares that all the cracks are filled with dandelions. I think this models itself really well to the Internet where people sometimes get hung up about the fact that several thousand people may have downloaded their YouTube clip, and only two of them ordered the video. I’m inclined to believe that what you did was find two new customers for free, not that you lost 9,998 – my impression is that what you’ve done is blown your seed onto fallow ground where it never would have taken root otherwise, in those cases. So it did get me thinking a little about these reproductive strategies.

Q: There are people out there, young or old, who may not be familiar with your work, or who don’t really think about copyright or information policy of Digital Rights Management or any of that. Why should they care about this stuff?

I guess the most important thing I have to say is that we are trembling on the verge of a society in which it is possible to extend for the first time universal access to all human knowledge. And this is not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s the realization of an ages-old dream that is core to what it means to be a civilized people. And there are some sticky bits we’ve got to work out about how people are compensated and so on, but when we think about something like copyright, we have to understand that copyright is a regulatory system that exists for a purpose. It’s not just there because it’s inherently good to let people control their creative work. It’s there because letting people control their creative work has historically been one of the ways that we can increase access to information. When copyright doesn’t increase access to information, when it restricts access to information, as today where 98% of the works in copyright are not available have no visible owner and will probably disappear long before their copyright expires, then we need to change copyright.

Copyright may have been an adequate system for regulating the interactions of huge companies – it might have made sense for Universal to call up Time Warner to discuss an unauthorized Harry Potter parody – but it makes no sense for copyright to govern the actions of average individuals with each other, or with big corporations. If you and I have to understand copyright in order to discuss something back and forth by email, emailing each other clips of something that we’re talking about or thinking about, then copyright is broken. That’s like requiring us to understand finance law in order for us to go out to lunch and for me to pick up the tab. If we have to rub up against a complex industrial regulation to converse with each other, then the problem is the regulation, not the conversation.

And more importantly, it’s inconceivable that average individuals are going to use copyright law to negotiate their relationships with huge corporations, right? Universal’s lawyer will call up Warner’s lawyer to talk about the unauthorized Harry Potter joke book, but no twelve-year-old is going to call up Warner’s lawyer to talk about her unauthorized Harry Potter fan site. And to expect she will doesn’t make any sense and it brings the law into disrepute, it makes people think the laws don’t make any sense. And, as someone who earns his living through intellectual capital, through creative effort, it’s really important to me that we have a copyright regime that people respect, and the starting point for that is create one that jibes with their intuition, instead of making people think that there’s no point in having any rules at all.

Q: Seattle has a reputation – deserved or not – for innovation and casting a long shadow.
Any thoughts on what Seattle has done to the world?

Hm. Good question. I think Seattle is absolutely one of those centers of gravity around which a lot of interesting things and ideas end up swirling from grunge to Microsoft as you say… I’m not sure what it is about the character of the city that makes it that way but I’m grateful to be going to it because those places are in my experience the most interesting places in the world.

Q: We’re very excited about having you here! Thanks for taking time to talk with me today.

No problem. Thanks!



3 thoughts on “Shelf Talk(s) with Cory Doctorow, pt. 2”

  1. Great interview, David! I loved reading Cory Doctorow’s take on the problems with current copyright law. It reminded me of a book called Copyrights and Copywrongs that looks at the history of how copyright became distorted. Can’t wait to read Little Brother…

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