Saturday, November 14, 2009


Cory Doctorow doesn’t worry about people with free copies of his books; he worries about the ones who don’t know he’s written them at all.
“As a writer, my problem isn’t piracy. It’s obscurity,” said Doctorow during a lecture at Portland State University late last year.
In that regard, Doctorow is fighting a system that is more regressive than progressive.
Rather than creating more portals into commercial creativity, large corporations are either trying to close off existing ones or constrict the openings, he said.

As an example, he offered the following tale:
In 2004, Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, released his Grey Album to huge fan and critical acclaim. The album, however, was a mash-up of The Beatles (more commonly known as the The White Album) and Jay-Z’s The Black Album. The album spread quickly over the Internet and raised the ire of the distribution companies responsible for the original works.
During a lecture, Doctorow mentioned the spat between the corporations and Danger Mouse as an example of how current copyright laws constrict creativity. Afterward, an EMI executive approached Doctorow and told him how it had all worked out okay because Danger Mouse had been signed to a contract and became half of the duo Gnarls Barkley, the group that produced last summer’s “Crazy.”
“Well, that’s exactly the problem,” said Doctorow. “We’re back to royal patronage and corporate execs are the ones telling artists what they’re allowed to produce.”
Copyright, he noted, was intended to diversify participation in culture by replacing the patronage of the few with the investment of the many. Instead of publishers controlling an author’s published works and dictating how consumers might use them, both the authors and consumers were given more leeway through copyright law.
“But as media have concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, the system has come to resemble the patronage it replaced,” he said. “To make things worse, normal acts of communication, such as reading a bit of the New York Times to a friend, turn into copyright infringements when they take place online.”
The Internet exacerbates the situation because it makes distribution easier, he said.
“The Internet takes all the casual stuff we do and raises it to the level of copyrightable communication,” Doctorow said.
The issue is further muddled through the actions of groups like the World Intellectual Property Organization. The group’s broadcast treaty would grant copyright privileges to organizations that transmit information.
Taken to the extreme, a photo sent to friends and relatives from your computer would become the property of the company that supplies your e-mail account.
There is hope, however. Doctorow and others are making their works available for free on the Internet under a Creative Commons license. The Creative Commons license allows audience members to remix the work of original artists and infuse it with their own visions. In doing so, Doctorow’s debut novel, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom,” has been read as podcasts and even adapted as an audio play.
“I love the different adaptations of the book — it’s amazing to hear my words read by so many different people, with so many different choices about how to dramatize it,” said Doctorow.
If the original intentions of copyright are to be preserved, he said, lawmakers are moving in the wrong direction.
“The best copyright allows for the greatest diversity of art, the most points of entry to the marketplace and the greatest access to the modes of production,” Doctorow said.
Cory Doctorow, and his novels, can be found online at For more information about Creative Commons licensing, visit

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