The novelist talks about the totalitarian perils of copyright law and how the Internet is changing art
The way some pundits frame it, you’re for copyright or against it. Either you frolic in an endless bounty of free (i.e., stolen) media without a care for its creators (doomed to receive less than a pittance for their hard work and talent), or you stand by the corporate entities who, however futilely, battle pirates and intellectual-property thieves. If you’re an artist, you must side with the heavies or resign yourself to keeping that day job forever because these days no one is willing to shell out for your books, music or films unless they’re forced to.
The novelist and journalist Cory Doctorow, a longtime critic of zealous copyright protection, advocates a middle way, which may come as a surprise to those only superficially acquainted with his writings on technology. Doctorow’s new book, “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free,” is part handbook for artists and writers wondering how they can make money in the emerging creative economy of the Internet era, part primer on the evils of DRM — digital rights management, or copy-protection locks, placed on most of the digital media purchased today.
In “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free,” Doctorow challenges a few common artist gripes — by, for example, claiming that the royalties musicians get from streaming music services are so paltry because record companies take a huge cut upfront. He describes six methods artists use to get paid for their work and he breaks down the players in the arts economy into creators (musicians, painters, writers), investors (publishers, record companies, movie studios), intermediaries (retailers and distributors, like Amazon or Netflix) and the audience. Disturbingly, he also warns that DRM, which requires our devices to perform operations their owners can neither see nor control, represents the thin end of the wedge in possible government and corporate intrusion into our privacy. I reached Doctorow by phone at his home in London to find out more.
It seems like every time I turn around I hear an artist of some kind sounding the alarm about an abrupt drop in their incomes, whether it’s from advances, royalties or commissions. Most blame this on the Internet, but you don’t agree with that, do you?
Artists have traditionally gotten a rotten deal from the entertainment industry, but I think that the rottenness of that deal rises and falls based on the amount of competition there is for our services. If you are in the catbird seat, if you are lucky enough to be one of those superstar artists who has negotiated a really good share of that money, then your fortunes rise and fall with the fortunes of the investor class.
But I don’t think that’s true of the majority of artists. I think the majority of artists get the least that the investor class can get away with. They are, from the perspective of the investor class, largely interchangeable. That is to say, if you plan to publish 15 fantasy novels this month that are going to be primarily aimed at people who are buying them in airports to read on an airplane, then really what matters is that you just have 15 novels that are of readable quality. And there’s far more than 15 people willing to write you a novel this month for it.
What happens when the number of “channels” increases?
There’s more people competing to buy your stuff. And when there’s more people competing to buy your stuff, then they can be played against one another. You can shop around for a better deal. I think what’s happened, not just in the arts but everywhere around the world, is that we’ve had incredible waves of concentration in industry, where we have policies that favor extremely large entities at the expense of smaller and medium-size ones.
For example, giant multinational entertainment and technology conglomerates can register their tax bases in Ireland and locate their fortunes somewhere in the Irish Sea and declare that it’s not within the taxable jurisdiction of anybody anywhere in the world and just sort of stick their hands in their pockets and walk away. Compare that to the folks down the street who might be paying 20 to 30 percent of their gross receipts into the tax coffers....MORE