Cory Doctorow on Copyright and the Information Age

Cory Doctorow talks fast enough that I am not multi-tasking, except for typing up some of it. This is unusual for a talk!

Boing Boing and Wired reach audiences about the same size. Boing Boing costs $2500/mo in bandwidth. I'm sure Wired costs orders of magnitude more to print and distribute. Cory characterizes the US as having an autoimmune disorder w.r.t. the internet - US legislation attacking the countries lifeblood. The cause is partly the phrase "The Information Age", which likens the internet economy to the old manufacturing age, but with Information as the product, rather than Manufactured Goods. This is a mistake of forecasting the future to be more like the present than it actually is. He does some great mocking of the ability of future forecasting: "We didn't predict Yelp, we didn't predict askaninja, we didn't predict Google".

So we assumed that like companies in the past sold stuff, companies in the future would sell information. We passed legislation that lowered trade barriers for physical goods but requiring trading partners to sign onto our IP laws. To protect the Snow Crash "Music, Movies, and Microcode" segments of our economy, which we thought would make up the balance of trade. Suddenly we have these lawmakers demanding "justice" for the recording industry, which they had previously damned as an endless sewer of filth.

Cory does not believe that there is enough money in selling information to make up for the loss of manufacturing exports. So we should stop trying, and stop hurting ourselves. None of the crap we are doing with the DMCA serves its ostensible purpose of copyright, namely promoting diversity. Doing things like suing Danger Mouse for the Gray Album is saying "This art does not have the right to exist." And that's kinda creepy. An EMI exec responded to him at a previous talk by pointing out that EMI then signed Danger Mouse to make more music.

"So what?" says Cory. This is a move back to a patronage system where you have to have permission from

"Making bits harder to copy is like making water that is less wet", says Bruce Schneier. The future is clearly going to be a place where it is going to be easier and easier copy. That is obvious. DRM does not work. If you deliver to the attacker the cipher, the ciphertext, and the key (pause, everyone laughs), you cannot stop them from cracking the cipher, no matter how smart your engineers.

It's like the Victorian prohibition against masturbation. It's like Lysenkoism, where you deny the obvious physical realities of where wheat will grow. The result is not wheat - it is famine. Then you get the incredible irony of the Dmitry Skylarov case, which resulted in Russia warning its academic community that the United States has become a country where certain kinds of math are illegal, and they should be careful about traveling there or presenting their work.

We are constructing a society where the law and physical reality are getting farther and farther apart. "Consensus hallucination". If the world is going to thrive, we need to embrace the real information age - a world where communication transforms every business, eliminates some of them, and brings huge efficiencies to the rest. He disses Google for doing DRM on Google Video. If publisher require DRM - it isn't the right time to be in video. It is against the customer-focus of the company, he believes, because no customers want DRM. So please don't bring this to YouTube, he asks.

Questions: I asked "Do you see a connection between the impossibility of stopping people from copying bits, and the futility of trying, and the impossibility of stopping them from growing small plants and using them in various ways?"

He said "Definitely! There is a strong connection with the War on Some Drugs. That war doesn't help users, it doesn't help junkies. This is all part of a bigger thing where we criminalize behavior that everyone engages in. It's poisonous - corrupting to all of society."

Someone asked a very sharp question, asking whether Cory's problem is with the existence of copyright law, or simply how it gets used by these big media companies, and what the solution is. Cory agrees that a lot of the problem is how it gets used in this media conglomerates, but he thinks that many of the laws (ie against sampling) are part of the problem. One suggestion he has is to make the rights to authorize derivative works inalienable to the author, so that rights are widely distributed rather than concentrated in the hands of a few companies. He also suggests increasing the bifurcation of law into different forms for culture and commerce, which allows a lot more freedom for individuals to play with bits than for companies to sell them. "I don't think it's unreasonable for a movie studio to have to pay another movie studio to use their character, I do think it is unreasonable for them to sue you for painting that character on your nursery wall."

Another good question: Is there a parallel between "bits get easier to copy, and you can't stop that", and "privacy gets easier to violate, and you can't stop that"? I think so, and he gave the answer that privacy is a much thornier problem, and he isn't lecturing about it because the answers are much less clear.

I expect the talk will be up on Google Video within the next week.

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Here's the video link

Here's the video link. The talk is good, indeed!