THE BACK PAGES

Scourge of the corporate pirates

The artist’s enemy is obscurity, not piracy, says novelist and Web activist Cory Doctorow

Brian Bethune May 5 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Scourge of the corporate pirates

The artist’s enemy is obscurity, not piracy, says novelist and Web activist Cory Doctorow

Brian Bethune May 5 2008

Scourge of the corporate pirates

book

The artist’s enemy is obscurity, not piracy, says novelist and Web activist Cory Doctorow

BRIAN BETHUNE

“No, no, Marcus is more aspirational than autobiographical,” laughs Cory Doctorow about the 17-year-old hero of his newest science fiction novel, Little Brother (Fenn). Principled, literate, brave and, above all, technologically savvy, Marcus puts pebbles in his shoes to fool his school’s “gait recognition” software, chats with friends on an IMParanoid messaging program, and takes on the Department of Homeland Security’s Orwellian surveillance system in the name of liberty. “He’s the teen we all would have liked to have been,” says Doctorow, 36, who nevertheless bristles at the thought that Marcus is too unrealistic: “People have said, ‘C’mon, no teenager reads Jane Jacobs’; I read Jane Jacobs when I was a teenager!” You don’t have to talk long with Doctorow to be unsurprised by that statement. The child of Trotskyite schoolteachers, arrested twice for civil disobedience before he was 18, as conversant with Dickens and Twain as with the hot-button issues of commerce, culture and technological innovation, Doctorow would get the benefit of the doubt if he claimed to have read Plato at five. At his parents’ Toronto home, while his mother, Roz, looks after his 11-week-old daughter, Poesy, Doctorow talks about how he is as much cyberspace activist and blogger as author. (His blog, BoingBoing. net, is one of the Internet’s most influential tech commentary sites.) “I’m a professional Cory Doctorow: I write novels and I write blog entries, but all of it is in service of taking note of the way technology is changing society and seeking to affect that.”

For a decade Doctorow has campaigned, if not quite in Marcus’s underground hacker mode, for copyright liberalization and against governments’ attempts to monitor the Inter-

net, as well as corporate plans to maintain vast databases of cybertraffic. The question to ask about any intellectual property rights regime, he says, is “does it encourage or discourage involvement, art-making, information-sharing?” In his opinion, the current system only serves corporate dinosaurs, “big dying institutions.” They use copyright to try to regulate technology, to criminalize (or at least turn a profit on) all the peer-to-peer file sharing that is the “Internet’s greatest achievement: lowering the cost of mass collaboration, the barriers to innovation.”

It adds up to an eternal and futile attempt to throttle the mechanisms of change. Long before sheet-music publishers fought record makers (who later battled radio stations, who complained of TV and so on), monks who produced manuscripts were damning the printing press as the devil’s engine. What’s particularly galling for Doctorow is that “yesterday’s pirate is today’s admiral—Sony, the VCR pirate, denounced by moviemakers a generation ago, has come full circle to sue Napster’s successors.” Of course, institutions—especially wealthy ones—want to live on, even past their times, Doctorow acknowledges. “I used to be a bartender, and there was always somebody who didn’t want the night to end. But there comes a time when you have to put the chairs up on the table.”

Doctorow puts his own wallet where his mouth is. His fiction comes out in conventional book form, but he also posts it for free download on his personal website, Craphound. com. That leads to the one question everyone wants to ask Doctorow: how do you make a living? “Most of my income comes from advertising on BoingBoing, but the free releases have helped me financially by increasing my profile. Little Brother has brought me my largest advances yet. Everyone who has tried posting books online has done it again. That’s a pretty good indicator it works. An artist’s enemy is obscurity, not piracy.” It’s not as though, Doctorow adds, copyright makes much money for many content providers beyond a “very loud” handful of the “very rich and very famous.”

The old regime, Doctorow argues, is fated to pass, whatever might replace it. “The most interesting discussion bubbling up now is how do we get stable institutions when, at any moment, new technologies can render them obsolete.” The response for the author is the same as it is for his character. In Little Brother, whenever Marcus is faced with unpalatable answers, he subverts the question. “Stability is overrated,” Doctorow says. “Our cultural institutions, whose purpose— arguably the purpose of all institutions ever— is to facilitate collective action, to do things one individual can’t, will now be created on an ad hoc basis, to pass away when not needed.” Time to put those chairs up on the table. M