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Cory Doctorow

I can’t think of anyone better suited to answering questions about the state of culture in the Age of the Blog than Cory Doctorow. Whether it’s running Boing Boing, writing (and giving away—while still profiting from—his novels and short-story collections), or speaking out for our electronic rights, Cory is a ubiquitous presence on every vector of this discussion. I caught up with him by phone at his London flat.

JT: Let’s talk about the ‘Pixel-Stained Technopeasantry’ discussion in the sci-fi community this summer. I thought it was sort of ironic that someone like Hendrix—a sci-fi writer— would resign over the use of technology—

CD: He didn’t resign: He just didn’t run again.

JT: —Or just didn’t run again. OK, so that was just his parting shot? There was another line he used, too—what was it? Webscabs. What’s the deal with giving away your stuff for free?

CD: There are three reasons why it makes sense to give away books online. The first is that publishing has always been in this kind of churn and flux—who gets published, how they get paid, what the economic structure is of the publishers, where the publishers are, all of that stuff has changed all of the time. And it’s just hubris that makes us think that this particular change—the computer change—is the one that’s going to destroy publishing and that it must be prevented at all costs. We’ll adapt. If we need to adapt, we’ll adapt. And today, the way that we adapt is by giving away e-books and selling p-books.

So that’s the economic reason. But then there is the artistic reason: we live in a century in which copying is only going to get easier. It’s the 21st century, there’s not going to be a year in which it’s harder to copy than this year; there’s not going to be a day in which it’s harder to copy than this day; from now on. Right? If copying gets harder, it’s because of a nuclear holocaust. There’s nothing else that’s going to make copying harder from now on. And so, if your business model and your aesthetic effect in your literature and your work is intended not to be copied, you’re fundamentally not making art for the 21st century. It might be quaint, it might be interesting, but it’s not particularly contemporary to produce art that demands these constraints from a bygone era. You might as well be writing 15-hour Ring Cycle knock-offs and hoping that they’ll be performed at the local opera. I mean, yes, there’s a tiny market for that, but it’s hardly what you’d call contemporary art.

So that’s the artistic reason. Finally, there’s the ethical reason. And the ethical reason is that the alternative is that we chide, criminalize, sue, damn our readers for doing what readers have always done, which is sharing books they love—only now they’re doing it electronically. You know, there’s no solution that arises from telling people to stop using computers in the way that computers were intended to be used. They’re copying machines. So telling the audience for art, telling 70 million American file-sharers that they’re all crooks, and none of them have the right to due process, none of them have the right to privacy, we need to wire-tap all of them, we need to shut down their network connections without notice in order to preserve the anti-copying business model: that’s a deeply unethical position. It puts us in a world in which we are criminalizing average people for participating in their culture.

JT: What was it that the philosopher J. L. Austin said? “Things are getting meta and meta all the time.” Almost of necessity, because if you don’t have meta-level discussions and filters (and we have MetaFilter), bloggers like kottke and boing boing—in academia I’m going to Arts & Letters Daily and Crooked Timber—you’d never be able to fire through all the cool things to which we now have access. By making use of a small number of editorial nodes, we can cover lot more of the network. But it’s more interesting than simple efficiencies, isn’t it? I interviewed Douglas Wolk earlier this week and he said something pretty profound: “Each blogger is a gravitational center, great or small, but there’s no sun they’re all orbiting around.” Yochai Benkler, too, with his idea of the bow-tie model, talks about how, because of shallow paths and the small world effects of the Internet, this idea that there are these multiple centers of gravity mean it’s not like there’s one giant “culture” that’s omnipresent, along which there’s this Power Law distribution that drowns everything out. Instead, there are tons of these smaller gravitational centers, each with their own orbits; each with their own authors, interests, inclinations to reach outward and bring other things in… it pretty well vanquishes certain notions of centrality, the cry that says, “Holy shit: I’m not in
The New York Times! Nobody in our culture will ever find me!” That’s nonsense. You can have an audience of millions, maybe none of whom have ever read The New York Times.

CD: You just recapitulated in reverse the panic of Andrew Keen. What Andrew Keen has got his pants in such a ferocious knot about is that we are losing our “culture.” Basically, if you unpack his arguments they come down to this: He thinks The New York Times did a pretty good job of figuring out what was good and he doesn’t like the idea that they’re not the only way of doing it and that it’s getting harder to figure out who to listen to and media literacy is getting harder and that means bad stuff is going to become important and that wouldn’t have happened if only the wise, bearded, white-robed figures at The New York Times had been allowed to continue to dominate our culture. That’s really where he’s coming from at the end of the day.

JT: In fairness to the Times, they not only pay well, but they do a good job of reaching out—to their guest-bloggers, for instance. The Guardian does, too.

CD: Yes, they do and they do. But as a writer, actually having all these different venues in which my work can appear has actually turned out to be better and not worse. So for one thing, the free online distribution of my work has created new opportunities—it’s like dandelion seeds blowing around that find all the cracks in the sidewalk that I never would have been able to find just by walking around and planting them. One of my favorite reprints was one I sold to a magazine who’d found the text in the word-salad at the bottom of a spam e-mail. So even the spammers are helping me.

JT: That’s really funny. In another interview I did, the one with Ted Genoways, he said something that I hope a lot of people pick up on, because I think it’s incredibly important to this discussion. What Ted said was that, after doing their big South America in the 21st Century issue—for which they got a lot of good press: authors on NPR, segments on PBS—they got a small amount of traffic from mainstream media. But then Jason posted a small link and they got 25,000 visits that week from

CD: I think the most important thing about that anecdote isn’t the amount of influence that wields, although that’s an interesting component of it, but how cheap it is to become—to maintain Kottke Enterprises, Ltd. It’s so cheap it’s the rounding error in the coffee budget of the smallest department of one of the main publishing conglomerates. That’s all it costs Jason to run his website.

Boing Boing, and I’m not just talking cash costs—but also organizational costs, the Coasian costs, of doing this are so low. Boing Boing, for the first five years, we never had a physical meeting. We had never all been in the same room until we had been in business for five years. We had 25 phone calls in the entire history of the business.

So, a lot of bloggers can wield tremendous influence, and become disruptive forces in the media marketplace, very cheaply. If you have someone who’s enthusiastic and compelling and that person is very close to the purchase decision—you know, it probably drops off with the square of the distance, right? So you can have a person like Oprah, who’s so compelling that the fact that she’s extremely distant from a book she’s pitching is not wildly important, because she sends such a strong signal that even though it attenuates quickly that signal is still very strong. Who was the President who popularized the James Bond novels? Kennedy? He mentioned it and he turned James Bond into a phenomenon. The corollary of this is that a weak signal heard close in is also an extremely powerful way to sell books. So, we’ve historically relied on strong signals at great distances, but the other way to do this is weak signals close in. And we have new ways to get close: with things like Amazon links, the signals don’t have to be very strong at all.

This is also an essential component of the value of the free electronic copy. The microcosm for that is “here’s a free electronic copy… talk about it in IRC with two other people.” And that gets you the same thing. You don’t even have to send out a physical review copy & those people, if they like your book, will start sending the book to their friends.

JT: It all sounds good—but let me go on record as, in the broadest range of things, a middling copyright defender. But I loved Tim Wu’s piece in Slate. Did you read that? On how selective enforcement of copyright shows just how broken copyright law is? But—let’s get to the complications of sending out free work. If somebody started passing off your work as their own, you would not be happy.

CD: I went to elementary school with Tim. It’s a small and funny world that the two of us would end up as Lessig’s proteges. But to your question: that’s not copyright, that’s fraud. That’s plagiarism.

JT: OK, if a publisher started selling a book written by “Frank Smith,” but that contained only your words—isn’t that a danger to giving your stuff away electronically, for free?

CD: So, let’s pick the issues right. Let’s first of all say that fraud or plagiarism is bad for a number of different reasons—not all of them having to do with the writer, some of them having to do with the reader. Readers deserve to know that the thing that they buy has been accurately labeled. I also wouldn’t approve if someone sold Coke in a Pepsi can. Not because I particularly like either beverage, but I think fraud is wrong. So that’s the first question. The second question is, “How would I feel if a corporation misappropriated the fruits of my labor and profited by it without my permission?” And that’s a meatier question, but when you conflate the two you just confuse the issue.

I guess it depends on the kind of profit and how they’re profiting by it. So, I don’t get upset if a carpenter sells a bookcase to someone and makes money because that person needs somewhere to put my book. Even though that carpenter is benefiting from my labor. So I think reasonable people can agree that there are categories of use that you have no right to recoup from. And I think that, for example, search results fall into that category. You know, the fact that Amazon or Google want to show quotes from your book alongside search results for people who are trying to find out which books contain which string, I think it’s just crazy to say that you deserve to be compensated for that—even if they could figure out a way to make money off of it. Indexing books is just not in the realm of things that we deserve to get compensated for, any more than library lending is.

And I know that in Europe they do have a library right, and you actually do get compensated for library use. I actually think that’s kind of gross. I don’t think that’s good public policy. If we want to subsidize writers with public money, don’t take it out of the budget of the library. What a disaster for public policy, for good stewardship, to take money out the hands of the public libraries. What a disaster that writers have actually endorsed this plan.

So that leaves us with a narrower category of uses, which are the uses that are neither cultural nor in the realm of accepted, normal, reasonable exceptions to one’s copyright: where it’s a direct infringement and there I do in fact object to a commercial publisher reproducing my work without giving me money for it, holus-bolus, in a way that is not consistent with fair use and historical exceptions to copyright.

But that’s not the same thing as objecting when a reader does it. I think that we’ve always had a different set of rules for what non-commercial actors do than for what commercial actors do. What commercial users of a work do is industrial—that’s copyright; what non-commercial users of a work do is just culture, and culture and copyright have never had the same rules, although according to the law books they do. But the costs of enforcing them culturally—against the person who sings in the shower—those enforcement costs are so high that historically we’ve treated that activity as though it weren’t an infringement, when in some meaningful sense it is. So, the fact that the Internet makes it possible to enforce against certain cultural users I don’t think means that we should enforce against cultural users, or start pretending that schoolchildren should be taught copyright so they can understand it better and not violate it. If things that schoolchildren do in the course of being schoolchildren violate copyright, the problem is with copyright—not with the schoolchildren.

Reader comments

mareNov 04, 2007 at 7:26PM

Of course Mr Doctorov can afford to give away his written work because it's not his main source of income anymore. And the more and more people know and read about him and BoingBoing (and there never will be a lack of mentioning BoingBoing) the more visitors the site gets and the more he (and his pals) make. It's that simple.
Which is all fine by me. But a literary writer that doesn't have BoingBoing and actually has to live of her pen, can't afford to give away her work in electronic form. If you are not writing in a genre that is very popular but in a genre that attracts only a limited amount of readers you must be really certain that not all those readers are reading the free stuff. If they do, your publisher won't give you a contract for your next book. Also I'm sure that many publishers simply don't allow a free electronic version. They don't even allow Google or Amazon to have a few pages of it.

waugsquekeNov 04, 2007 at 8:17PM

These sorts of self-indulgent interviews about the nature of the blogosphere are the exact sort of thing I hate about the blogosphere. Jason, I hope you get back soon.

HughNov 04, 2007 at 9:09PM

I think people suspect that Cory writes his sci fi to get street cred for his copyfighting, but he does actually have a stack of international literature nominations and awards about yay high. He's like, a for serious author and everything.

Rachel KeslenskyNov 04, 2007 at 11:11PM

In defense of giving your work away:

There's already a viable publishing model for this sort of thing in comics. For years, people only paid for their newspaper comics as an incidental part of the newspaper; to children and adults alike, such work was essentially 'free' for them, except when they bought the books and merchandise. And this has worked out fairly well for most cartoonists.

The internet equivalent is in webcomics; no editorial process, no risk of a risque strip being yanked, no pre-payment from newspapers to publish and carry the work. One would expect that, if comics worked the way books and music work, they would charge people just to see the pages.

Yet they don't. All their work is free to view, and in most cases, so are the archives, making it harder to justify book sales. And yet there are probably just as many (if not more) people profiting off of webcomics, even if these profits are not as big (yet) as the average person appearing in newspapers. These cartoonists are just as niche, just as specialized, have just as much to lose, and yet they thrive, even when the majority of their work is just 'given' away.

Why? Because cartoonists work constantly. There is always 'another day' to cover, another page in the story, another advancement of the tale, and thus each individual page is cheap and worthless without the rest of the story. That commitment to the work's creator (and NOT their work itself) is the most important vector for profit.

So... perhaps writers and musicians are afraid of giving away their work because they're subconsciously afraid that once people have it, they won't want anything more from the creators?

Michael HoneyNov 04, 2007 at 11:25PM

These sorts of intelligent, relevant interviews about the nature of the blogosphere are the exact sort of thing I love about the blogosphere. Jason, you've chosen your locum well.

Jeff AtwoodNov 04, 2007 at 11:32PM

"If you don't know what this means, please choose not to participate. Thanks."

I find this sentence incredibly condescending. The people who will read it already know how to conduct themselves in public; the people who need to read it will never do so, even if it was in 72 point bright red Comic Sans.

Can we remove this from the bottom of the page? It's simply not necessary and I for one find it distasteful and offensive. It just prompts the question-- do you really distrust your audience this much?

Joe ClarkNov 05, 2007 at 12:29AM

More honest Kottke lede: “I can't think of anyone more obvious to whom to re-pose familiar questions about the state of culture in the Age of the Blog than Cory Doctorow.”

Joel TurnipseedNov 05, 2007 at 12:57AM

So, you throw a party & you get a few people who complain about the free beer. Such is life.

Jeff: Those are Jason's rules, but if I can stick up for them, maybe it's helpful to think of them as a "No shirt, no shoes, no service" sign? Sure, a lot of the people who come in barefoot can't read it--or are in no state to do so--but those who watch you toss them out at least have a strong inkling why.

Joe: In one sense, you're right: Cory was an obvious choice. So was, after his fashion, Yochai Benkler. Or, coming up, Steven Johnson. But obvious cuts both ways in an extended talk like this: if you don't invite the obvious, aren't you missing the obvious? I don't think either Yochai's or Cory's answers were uninteresting or pat. More constructively, who would you liked to have seen interviewed? What would you have asked them?

I don't think these issues are anything but in heavy play right now. Nothing is settled. Look what happened, for instance, with the Booker nominees this fall. First the Man Booker Assn. announces that all of the finalists' books are going to be available for free download. Then backtrack, on publishers' insistence, to for sale by download. To now? No one knows what they're going to do. The sad thing? Only Ian McEwan among them had sold more than 2,000 copies. Maybe, as Cory suggests, the publishers would have been much better off giving away--especially with all the publicity--free copies for download, in hopes that enough people would discover those books & want to own them as artifacts, or for reading in more comfortable circumstances than on a laptop monitor?

Meantime, was reading my friend Diane Rayor's translations of Callimachus tonight & came across an epigram of his that reminded me of the best of what Kottke (who's back this week) does so well:

Aratos of Soloi models his verse
On Hesiod's best, and refuses to write
The Ultimate Epic. We praise these terse,
Subtle tokens of long effort at night.

TarynNov 05, 2007 at 3:26AM

Joel, I thought this was a great interview. The territory is familiar, but plenty of writer technophiles are still avoiding serious discussions like this one and the succinct run-down of economic, artistic and ethical reasons for giving work away is a definite attention-grabber.

It's easy to assume everyone sees the skill that goes into creating a blog like this along with all of the positive cultural contributions that come from it. I can see how Jason's web-savvy regular readership won't appreciate the crash course you and Cory Doctorow provided here, but I'm adding it to my list of good introductions to Entries like this make this site more accessible to visitors who aren't quite so digitally obsessed.

FreddyNov 05, 2007 at 3:59AM

I find these self-indulgent interviews about the nature of the blogosphere entertaining. J-KOT has always been like a dog chasing its own tail and who can't help but enjoy that, I ask you. eg, every few days when there is a mention of Frere-Jones or Gladwell I give out a whimper of delight.

Cory's PLR statement "And I know that in Europe they do have a library right, and you actually do get compensated for library use. I actually think that's kind of gross. I don't think that's good public policy. If we want to subsidize writers with public money, don't take it out of the budget of the library." is a little out of whack. It isn't taken out of the Library's budget but rather separate government funding, in most countries out of the entire 'arts' national budget. In the western european country I live in it costs just us$0.25pp per year to subsidise, with less than 90% going to the author. I don't know if there is any causal relationship, but it is interesting to note that the average US citizen takes out 0.7 books per year from a library, and the average western european 4.3 books per year [UNESCO: odf].

Martin G. LarsenNov 05, 2007 at 9:04AM

Yes, I was with you all the way up to the library thing. In fact, library subsidies are a huge source of income for writers and doesn't come at the expense of other library funding. It's a separate fund, at least in Norway, where I live. Fact is, the library rights are one of the big reasons that major Norwegian publishing houses can afford to publish books with little commercial appeal, which leads into more elbow room for the literary community. I personally think that Norway has an uncommonly good literary output for such a small country, and I believe that this policy is one of the main reasons for it.

Posts Too LongNov 05, 2007 at 10:37AM

I usually like this blog because it's short and witty. I've already got the New Yorker for long and insightful. Please go back to the old format.

Spencer SugarmanNov 05, 2007 at 11:53AM

Rachel Keslensky: I think there is an important distinction between comic strips and music (and books to a lesser degree). Disregarding the sale of merchandise besides print items, the stuff you buy differs from the stuff you get for free because there is an immense qualitative difference between online and print work. Obviously, the collected editions are much more convenient than storing a hundred newspapers or searching through a year's worth of archives. Also, there's value in being able to hold the comics in your hand and flip through them, especially when they are printed on high-quality stock.

Music, on the other hand, is pretty much the same when you purchase it in the store or download it from the internet. (And if you stick to flac downloads, it's exactly the same.) You lose the album art and liner notes, but that's like buying a collection of webcomics just for the cover and introduction. It is certainly done, but I doubt it's the driving force behind webcomics sales. (Digital media players further complicate things by threatening to force CDs out of the picture entirely.)

Books are somewhere inbetween. Reading 300 pages on the computer is a pain, and I think people continue to be more inclined to just buy the book or print out the online copy. Even then, you're left with an unbounded stack of paper. I think people would want the published version to keep in their libraries, even if they had the free online copy all printed and read. We'll see what happens if digital readers catch on.

GrahamNov 06, 2007 at 2:48AM

Another reason he can give away his books is that for most people, an ebook is not a real replacement for a book. With technology where it is today, computer screens are not high enough resolution to comfortably read on for any extended period of time, and printing the whole book out at home would cost more money than just buying it. Why spend $20 on a printer cartridge and paper and get an inferior product when you could buy the book hardcover on Amazon for $8 (shipping included)? Giving it away makes perfect sense.

JimNov 06, 2007 at 5:25AM

Bring back Jason! I didn't visit here for these long rants. Short and punchy.. thats what made this blog unique.

DissenterNov 06, 2007 at 11:03AM

To be contrary, it is nice to see actual content, and thought provoking content at that, here for once, rather than two day stale links to articles I'd already read.

Big JimNov 06, 2007 at 2:02PM

i commend jason for first seeking a nanny to care for his blog, rather than his child.

but i think that's inevitable.

Hugh "Nomad" HancockNov 07, 2007 at 1:19PM

Mare: There are a lot of people for whom creation is their main source of income who do give their work away (I have no idea what Cory's finances look like, although my understanding is that his books sell darned well despite or because of the Creative Commons thing). Filmmakers and novelists, even. Like me, for example - I'm a professional filmmaker, haven't worked away from the field in a decade, and my last film (and first feature film) is published under Creative Commons. I intend to keep doing that - it's bloody excellent advertising.

And there are people a lot more famous (and arguably more conventional-media) than me who are doing it - like the guys who made Four-Eyed Monsters - who are doing pretty darn well at monetising their free-to-watch film. Or like Charles Stross, the Hugo award winner (and friend of Cory's) who gave his book Accelerando away under Creative Commons last year (and you can download it here. Or, like, ooh, most of the authors published by Baen, one of the larger SF publishing houses. Or like the guys who made Red vs Blue, who do so well they were written up in the Wall Street Journal.

Add the entire webcomic scene, which has already been referenced, and you've got quite a lot of people giving their stuff away, and making a lot of money off it.

At this point free download isn't a mad experiment. It's a well-documented business model.

LouNov 08, 2007 at 2:42PM

As a followup to Mare, I wonder about the mental state of a current writer catering to a "limited amount of readers" for their "main source of income".

Perhaps many potential authors interested in 'long-tail' topics today have already bypassed the publishing industry by writing for topic-specific blogs, for free?

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.