Friday, January 9, 2015

Information Doesn't Want to be Free: Laws for the Internet Age

Anyone who has an interest in the role the Internet plays in our lives is highly encouraged to read this book. It is relatively short, while covering the often complex world of Internet technology, the issues of copyright, the ease of transmitting and downloading copies, the attempts to regulate, surveil, and prosecute infringers, as well as happily, to use it to generate revenue.

Cory Doctorow is a dedicated fighter for copyright reform, a technology advocate, a science fiction/technology author, as well as being a prolific blogger (see He uses his prodigious writing skills to deftly sift through all the above issues to present a clear argument to demonstrate that even though copies can easily be accessed through the Internet, content creators and publishers can still earn money.

He cuts to the chase - content creators and publishers want to make money from their works. People want to be able to access the Internet (including free copies) without interference. These ideas don't have to be mutually exclusive. He criticizes arguments that call for control and surveillance of the Internet, and he is highly critical of the relentless pursuit by media companies and their political lobbyists to legislate against Internet copying. These efforts just do not work to achieve the desired goals, and have a detrimental effect on the Internet as a whole. He sums up this point in these words:

Here are some other things that don't make money:

  • Complaining about piracy.
  • Calling your customers thieves.
  • Treating your customers like thieves.

It was interesting that I chose to read this book just before a big story broke here in Canada - it turns out that one third of Canadian Netflix subscribers have figured out ways to access content only available in the American Netflix service.  Full disclosure - I am one of these people that has figured out how to do this. It is very easy. If I were to take advantage of this and watch a TV show through American Netflix while subscribing to Canadian Netflix (for which I have no other option - and I believe the cost is pretty much the same), does that make me a thief? Am I a dread pirate?  I assume that Netflix operates on a model that if someone watches a movie through Netflix, then Netflix pays the content owner. In any case, Netflix somehow compensates the content owner in order to make the movie available in the first place. So everyone is getting paid, so what care I about the arbitrary licensing contracts made between corporations? Doctorow talks about this issue in some detail in the book - if a product is available somewhere in the world, why would you not also make it available elsewhere at the same time, especially if a paying audience is champing at the bit to acquire it? Another example - if someone is really keen to buy the new season of Downton Abbey in North America, why restrict its first broadcast to the U.K.? Many people in North America will then turn to illegal downloads by necessity (because they seriously want to watch this show, and talk to others about this show, before getting hit by spoilers) - forced into a life of crime that could have been prevented AND profited from.

Doctorow has plenty of advice for content creators and publishers, and presents them as three laws (he was told he needed three):

  1. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won't give you the key, that lock isn't there for your benefit.

    This law deals with digital rights management (DRM), which theoretically restricts copying of documents (books, audio, video, etc.), but is easily circumvented.

    Somewhat ironically, I read this book via an eBook that I borrowed from my library's Overdrive eBook collection.  These eBooks contain DRM that governs the length of loan period and prevents copying and sharing. Knowing Doctorow's views on this, and that he routinely stipulates that his eBooks contain no DRM, I'm curious about how much DRM is actually on this eBook (I haven't tested my eBook file though).
  2. Fame won't make you rich, but you can't get paid without it.

    This law refers to the advantages of proliferating free copies of an artistic work - you only have the potential to be paid if people learn that your work exists.

    "When copying gets easier, it behooves us to adopt strategies that thrive on cheap copying. There are lots of people out there who might want to buy your work or compensate you in some other way - the more places your work can find itself, the greater likelihood that it will find one of those would-be customers..."
  3. Information doesn't want to be free, people do.

    This law describes how the Internet has become an integral part of our lives, beyond a vehicle for entertainment.

    "The stakes for getting copyright right have never been higher. There has never been a fight over entertainment-related technology where the consequences for everyone outside the entertainment industry were potentially more disastrous than they are now."

So when the entertainment industry says "It's us or the Internet," it's getting to a point where the majority will choose the Internet. Doctorow believes that it doesn't need to come to that choice though - "...old media will continue to find a home in the new world," once they come to the realization that they'll have to invent new ways of making money, just like they have adapted many times through history already.

Doctorow nicely sums up his book with the following three ideas:

  1. If you're a publisher, don't let your retailers usurp your relationship with your customers by using DRM.
  2. If you're a creator, don't let your publishers use your copyright as an excuse for rules that let it corner the market on delivering your art to your audience.
  3. And no matter who you are, remember that this Internet thing is bigger than the arts, bigger than the entertainment business - it's the nervous system of the twenty-first century, and, depending on how we use it, it can set us free, or it can enslave us.

Book Club Discussion Questions
  1. How has the Internet affected how you use entertainment media (books, music, movies, TV shows, etc.)?  Do you still purchase/borrow physical products (DVDs, CDs, books, etc.)?  What else do you buy online?
  2. How else do you use the Internet?  How important is it to your life?
  3. Had you ever come across the term "Net Neutrality" before reading this book?  Does Doctorow's discussion (on this or any other topic presented in the book) spur you to take any action to champion an affordable, neutral, spy-free Internet?
  4. Many of the issues discussed in this book revolve around the issue of readily being able to copy things, or being able to obtain copies without paying anything.  Do you use computers to copy things, or acquire free copies?
  5. What do you think of the position Doctorow takes regarding copying?
  6.  Do you think it is possible for content creators and any publishers/music labels/studios etc. to still make a profit in an environment without digital locks and with copyright law that allows for personal use copies?
  7. Would you want to be an artist (or other content creator) in today's Internet reality?
  8. Discuss the style in which Doctorow has written this book.  The subject has the potentiality to be quite dense given the technical nature of the subject matter, plus all the international treaties, laws, and legislative history that one needs to wade through.  How clear were his arguments?
  9. As you were reading this book, did you wish the author would have spent more time on any particular areas?
  10. If you could ask Cory Doctorow any questions, what would you ask him? 

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