The question is: why would (or should) you buy a physical or even electronic copy of Cory Doctorow’s new book, Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free, instead of downloading it for free from his website? I don’t mean this facetiously—the answer is key to understanding this whole book.
Doctorow leads a double life, as both a science fiction writer, and as an activist-philosopher in the current muddle that is copyright laws (and intentions) butting up against (only the latest form of technology that is) the internet. In this latest non-fiction book, Doctorow begins with a great historical perspective on copyright, both in how and why countries like America and England created copyright laws, and how those laws and intentions changed with the advent of previous new world-changing technologies like radio and records.
Unfortunately, at least for creative folks like me who want to make a living doing what they love, and despite the fact that Doctorow is a living example of this, he begins the book on a disheartening, though practical, level, in “Don’t Quit Your Day Job,” by pointing out, and/or reminding us, that the majority of creators (i.e. those who do or make creative things/performances) have never made a living by their creative acts. Nevertheless, Doctorow isn’t just saying we should all just create for free. Nor is this book just for artists. Copyright laws affect everyone, and will determine whether the internet remains free, or will be controlled by corporate interests.
After that intro, the book is in three parts, structured on “Doctorow’s Three Laws,” the first of which, though the shortest, I found the most interesting, if confusing: 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. The ‘lock’ is any form of technology that the middle-men, the gateways, the companies that distribute a creator’s creation use in the name of copyright and protecting the artist, but which ultimately serve to keep money flowing in the direction of said companies. So, for example, this includes Amazon and its Kindle, which prevents Kindle owners from transferring any text they buy to a rival e-reader. Or, Apple’s iPods, which prevent listeners from moving music they’ve bought to any other rival listening device.
Note also that these locks are not just in the things like Kindles and iPods, but are the companies themselves, sometimes, so that Apple only allows apps for their iPhones to be sold through the online Apple Store, or Amazon in effect making themselves the de facto place to buy stuff, by discounting their products (which, are mostly not really ‘their’ products) way below cost in order to drive rivals out of business. This is of course nothing new: in the Real (non-online) World, Wal-Mart does the same thing by moving into small towns and sucking up all the other business. And, it works! In the case of Amazon and Wal-Mart, the majority of people like getting stuff cheap, and don’t care where it comes from. Even when stuff is not cheap, in the case of Apple products, the mystique, and maybe prestige, of having the latest new cool thing works just as well—none of those Apple fans who camp out outside stores for the newest iPhone seem to care that they can ‘only’ buy apps through the Apple store. They wouldn’t buy their apps anywhere else!
The second part/Law, Fame Won’t Make You Rich, But You Can’t Get Paid Without It, offers more practical advice, sort of, to creators, including that chapter, “How Do I Get People to Pay Me?” Which is, again, disheartening, though not surprising, because: creators need to be savvy business folks as well as talented. And, according to Doctorow, the way we creators will earn money in the internet age is not by our creative works, but by providing those things for free, and selling stuff around it, though in the first, and weakest, of his suggestions he says you can still sell physical copies of your art, like DVDs and CDs and books. At least for musicians, I find him mentioning CDs almost ridiculous, though I guess it still happens. Some newer computers don’t even have disc readers, and how much longer are people going to include CD players in their home entertainment systems? This is where lumping the copyright problems of books and music and movies together in a short book, or having someone who is a writer doing the lumping, may be cause for confusion. Doctorow, despite himself, seems to be holding on to the idea of a tangible product, something you can hold in your hands. Which works fine with books—people still like their books. But those same people, including me, seem to have embraced music in digital form just fine.
For some creators, Doctorow also offers up old-fashioned performances as a way to make money. Though again, as a musician, I know that’s not exactly easy—in order to get paid for a gig, you have to pay your dues, and having any kind of home life, or life period, while touring is almost impossible, unless you’re Billy Joel, who simply plays one concert a month in New York City, and gets paid a million per show. Not so easy for the musicians just starting out, and I wish Doctorow, or somebody, would offer a more realistic and substantial advice here. The problem is, I suspect, that no one knows, that things are changing so fast, and there are so many variables (which Doctorow does address in his “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” section, like circumstances of birth, like where you were born, in what social strata, etc.)
Still, ok, other things creators can do: Sell ads around your product. For example, there are people, not even necessarily traditional artists, who sell advertising on their blogs and YouTube channels, and collect revenue if their viewers click on those ads. And you can sell swag. The best example of this I know of this is the creator of the (free) online comic TheOatmeal.com. He posts good quality (and hilarious) comics and then sells posters and mugs, and even old-fashioned books, which contain the already free content from his website.
The main idea of this second section of the book is that, yes, creators will/should offer at least some of what they create for free. No one cares if you’re the next Emily Dickinson, scribbling away in your notebook. Eventually, I mean if you really want any chance to make some money with your art, you’re going to have to put yourself out there. If you’re good, and persistent (Doctorow stresses this), you may find some way that people want to pay you for what you’ve created.
Which is to say, yuck. But creative people have always, if they’re successful, done more than just create. Doctorow emphasizes this. Creative people sell themselves. Which, I know, sounds like prostitution, and is, I guess. One good example is Charles Dickens, whose books were not protected, at the time, under American laws. So, after complaining about it for a while, he changed the game and used all the pirated books as free advertising, and went on tour, giving readings and lectures in America, which he was paid for.
Ideal for a writer? Well, no. Depends. We writers tend to be an introverted lot, and being around people tends to exhaust us, but we also kinda like the attention of a bunch of people coming to hear/see us read. Dickens probably wasn’t getting much writing done while on tour, but he was gaining new experiences to use later, and building an audience that would maybe eventually buy books he would get money from (I’m sure he was selling some at his readings).
Doctorow is great at explaining complicated concepts to us lay-people, especially in his use of analogies. The chapters tend to be short, and he uses casual un-academic language to explore how copyright affects creators, and consumers, though one thing he points out is that consumers don’t necessarily know or care about how copyright ‘works’ (or not)—they just want to experience some good entertainment, whether books or music or movies. And, generally, they’re even willing to pay money for it. As Doctorow points out, only when the distributing companies lock down those entertainments and control how and when people can experience them that those people get a little irked and resort to what’s called piracy.
I like that Doctorow talks about music, and movies, and books, to show how current copyright laws are just outdated and wrong, though he seems to cherrypick the most outrageous copyright offenses based on which different art from is most affected. Also, sometimes, his use of analogy is just wrong: the use of sampling by rap artists, however creative it is, and no matter whether you like rap music or not, is not the same as a jazz musician quoting some other song melody in a solo. A sample repeats, and is part of the rhythm, and makes up part of the actual structure of a whole new song. A quote in a solo appears once, as both a ‘nod’ to another composer, and perhaps as a little joke. Both ‘reward’ the listener, or can, for their knowledge of earlier songs, but the real difference can be told if you took them out. Taking out the sample would change the song entirely, whereas taking out the quote in a solo wouldn’t change the song significantly at all.
As all the jumping around between the arts shows, for all the similarities, there seem to be different solutions for different types of creative works. Those for musicians are not the same for fiction writers. Actual physical books are still valued, whereas all music mostly now is sold, and experienced, digitally. And, in the selling of swag, I’m not sure writers can really sell t-shirts or coffee mugs at their readings (though who knows?). I do wish Doctorow, or someone, would write a perhaps lengthier, more structured argument on how to fix things, though he offers more big-picture critiques in the third section Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free. Any ‘solutions’ may be being decided by conflicts between corporations, like Amazon and the book publishers, or record and music streaming companies, rather than by what regular folks want.
The answer to my original question is that yes, I bought the book, in hardcover even. My reasons? The old school model for selling books still works: He did a reading at Powell’s recently, and he’s a convincing person, smart and funny. And, I’m still old school I guess: I don’t want to read the entire text of Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free online, or on my computer screen, or any screen, though e-reader enthusiasts might be ok with it. More honestly, I have to admit that I’m a good boy, and want Doctorow, and his publisher McSweeney’s to get money, so that they’ll put out more books about this, and more books period. And the book publishing system is working in this case, because I didn’t want to wait a year for the paperback edition. (And, in a year, with the way technology, and copyright, and the internet, are changing, this book might be out of date!)
I’m already personally interested in how a creative person can survive in the internet age, but the questions being raised (by Doctorow and others) are more than just how creators can protect their works and make some money doing so—they’re about the future of the internet, and who, if anybody, should (and Doctorow argues that no one should) control it, and the information on it. Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free is going to be a good guide for both creators, and more importantly internet users (that is, everyone) on how a few big companies are working to control the internet, and how you experience it. As he said at the reading, he’s fighting not just for creators’ rights, but for his daughter’s future. Doctorow models what he preaches, and by the way, according to him, offering his books for free on his website actually increases sales. He’s creating quality products, and hustling, and he’s not just a writer, but a speaker/performer. And an activist.