Cory Doctorow: How free translates to business survival

Cory Doctorow is an author, blogger, journalist and activist

"The one thing that everyone should have uppermost in your mind when you're designing your business is that computers are never going to get worse at copying things."

Author, blogger, journalist and activist Cory Doctorow is talking about digital rights management software (DRM), something he passionately opposes.

Technology of Business

He believes digital content should be shared freely, and that copyright laws should be liberalised to reflect this. Because in his view it doesn't only benefit the consumer - this is the only way that media businesses can survive in the digital age.

DRM, according to Mr Doctorow, not only limits the sharing of material, but causes problems for people that have bought that content legally, stopping them moving their purchases to other platforms and often devices.

"Connectivity makes it easier to share things than ever before and also easier to acquire an audience, but harder to restrict things.

"There won't be fewer people that know how to type in your product space bittorrent into Google."

At 39 the Canadian expat (he lives in London) has an extensive CV.

He writes best-selling science fiction novels and co-edits the blog Boing Boing, and is a contributor at Guardian Online and a variety of other publications. In 2007, he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Cory Doctorow Cory Doctorow

He's been compared to that other prescient Canadian, William Gibson - a flattering comparison, he says, but a role that is already filled by the existing William Gibson.

"But I tell you if you'd gone back to 17-year-old me in 1988, and said, you know, give it another 20 years kid they'll call you the William Gibson of your generation, I'd probably have keeled over in ecstasy."

With his anti-copyright hat on he is a former director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founder of the UK Open Rights Group. He's also a leading proponent of Creative Commons, a San Francisco-based group that has created copyright licences that allow content creators to share their media for free with certain restrictions.

He also has a business pedigree, having worked as chief information officer for an advertising agency, and co-founded and then sold software company Opencola.

Do as I do

Mr Doctorow has put his money where his mouth is. All of his novels, including his first, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and the best-selling Little Brother have been released under Creative Commons licences online, as well as as physical books.

This doesn't mean a free for all - the idea is that the author of the work stipulates restrictions - usually to stop people from selling or profiting from the content.

Cory Doctorow on writing sci-fi

I'm lucky in that science fiction is really a literature about how technology affects society, and how society affects technology, and that's the thing I'm really passionate about in my non-artistic life too.

And so the two of them blend together quite well. It's a great way to think about the consequences of technology, and think through some of those consequences in the long term.

The problem with those consequences is that they arise so long after the decisions are taken, and that's usually a recipe for very bad decision making.

"There's really no way I could stop someone from reading one of my books if they wanted to without paying for it.

"So I need to find creative solutions to that and those I think take several forms. One is competing with free by presenting a better offer."

His latest book, a collection of short stories entitled With a Little Help is completely self-published - the ebook, book and audio version - and he is documenting the project on his website and in a column for Publishers Weekly.

Book buyers can choose from four different covers, or pay a premium for a special limited edition version.

The audio book in particular is important as in the past Doctorow has had a number of tussles with Audible, the main distributors of audio books, over DRM-free versions of work.

Locked out

Mr Doctorow has summed up his beliefs into three rules for digital survival. The first deals with DRM.

"Anytime that someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you but won't give you the key, that lock's not there for you."

Locking your content away behind a vendor's proprietary DRM technology can leave you trapped, as the vendor - be it iTunes, Amazon, or the like - has control.

Radiohead Radiohead asked fans to pay what the felt their album, In Rainbows, was worth

"When another company comes along with a better distribution offer, if you want to go there you've got to trust your audience to throw away all the media they've bought from you, and buy it again on the new platform.

"You can't authorise them to take off the anti-copying stuff and convert it."

He mentions the inventor of the spreadsheet, Dan Bricklin, who included anti-copyright technology in his software. After selling the company he found that he couldn't read his own spreadsheets.

"People who've found themselves locked into these distribution channels not by contract but by technology often wish they'd make a better decision some time ago."

Bigger audience

His second rule deals with finding a customer base.

"It's very hard to monetise fame, but it's impossible to monetise obscurity."

Mr Doctorow says that by giving away his books for free he has managed to build a bigger audience, many of whom subsequently buy books.

"Obscurity means that no one will pay you anything. No-one's figured out how to become a successful artist that no ones ever heard."

Start Quote

It's very hard to monetise fame, but it's impossible to monetise obscurity”

End Quote Cory Doctorow

He uses the musician Jonathan Coulton as an example. All of the artist's music is released under a Creative Commons licence. Projects like "Thing a week", where he recorded and released a song a week on YouTube, built a fanbase.

"He's now a very successful touring musician, whose audience is built on the back of freely sharing his work."

Finally, he says, DRM technology has the potential to be abused.

"Designing phones, for example, that can run software in the background that's supposed to stop you from copying music also allows repressive governments to run software that monitors how you use the phone.

"So what we really need is to embrace open technology not just because it's good for the creative arts, but because the alternative is building an information society that has woven into it's fabric control technology that turns the promise of technology as liberator, to a real threat of technology as an enslaver."

Moral maze

Succeeding in a world where even your grandmother knows how to download pirated content also has a moral angle, says Mr Doctorow.

You have to make the case for paying up.

"The most successful internet era creators are the ones that are able to leverage that, and make their audience feel that going down the legitimate path isn't the only course but it's the right course."

"You have Radiohead [who released their album In Rainbows as a digital download, where people decided how much they wanted to pay for it] and other musicians who have leveraged that direct connection with their audience in saying, it's the right thing to do to pay for this stuff you could otherwise download for free.

Screenshot of the XKCD website Web cartoon XKCD has him in a hot air balloon 'up in the blogosphere': "The tragedy of the persona is I have a terrible fear of heights."

"But they've also done something really clever, that is to say that if our works are going to be really well known, then scarce physical things that embody those works will become more valuable."

The band offered special limited edition CD and vinyl versions. In Rainbows entered the UK Album and US Billboard charts at number one.

When asked about the future for the printed word, he disagrees with those, including MIT's Nicholas Negronte, who have predicted the death of the book within five years.

"I know that whenever I read on a multi-purposed networked screen like a laptop, there's this kind of nagging awareness in the back of my mind that one or two alt tabs would bring me to a man putting a lemon up his nose on Youtube. You need to have iron willpower."

Filesharing, copyright and DRM are likely to remain a contentious issues, with the big studios, broadcasters and content hosts unlikely to throw in the towel. Mr Doctorow is adamant that following their example makes no business sense.

"If your business plan counts on copying going down it's the wrong business plan. It just won't work.

"What you'll do instead is finding yourself locked in an arms race with the people who you're hoping to sell things to."

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