I have been aware of Cory Doctorow for a very long time. In 2005 I read his debut novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which was published in 2003. And even before then, I was aware of Mr. Doctorow as an agent provocateur of the intellectually anti-copyright fighters, though that is an unfair characterization. Doctorow was never anti-copyright; he was, however, against the concept of copyright as it was evolving in the digital era and against how it was used as a blunt instrument by publishers against consumers. Because of those efforts, he was well known for being both firm in his convictions and incisive and instructive in his writing, which helped to bring a clarity to the complex area of copyright law in the digital age.
While I have been familiar with Doctorow and his works for well over a decade, I have actually read very few of them. By and large, I found myself in too much agreement with his non-fiction to gain much from his articles. Sitting and reading, while nodding my head, “Yes, this man gets it, someone should just listen to him,” has never much appealed to me, and when we disagreed, it was on points subtle enough as to not be of value in a simpler discussion. His fiction work, therefore, would be what would count the most, if I were to spend my time reading Doctorow’s works.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is an excellent book. I re-read it a few years ago and found that it had aged quite well, and was still a worthy use of my time. I can certainly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of science fiction. There are flaws, to be sure, but keeping in mind that it is a debut novel, there is very little worthy of complaint. So, having read and enjoyed this novel, it would naturally be assumed that I might seek out and read his subsequent books. But I have not done so.
I have no particular reason to have not read those books, but neither can I point to any particular reason for which I would have done so. Just because I typically go on and read another book by an author whose work I have enjoyed does not mean I need to do so every time. There is no logical inconsistency here. My time has simply always been better spent doing other things. There are too many books to be read to read them all, and these days I am trying to ensure that more of them are edifying.
After finishing the most recent book on that edifying path (a story for a different blog, perhaps), I was left with a hole to fill in terms of searching out my next book. That last title had been particularly enlightening and I wanted something I could pick up quickly to keep the knowledge flowing. I flitted through my reading device’s recommended titles, and they were all bunk. I was about to give up when it finally gave the recommendation of Content by Cory Doctorow.
Content is a collection of essays, speeches, and the like written by Cory Doctorow where he largely talks about his most familiar topic: copyright. As an anthology, it includes some of his best work on the subject from the covered time period. I have been on a copyright tear of my own of late, so I figured that perhaps now, particularly in the absence of anything else to hand, I could take a short while with this small collection and rekindle the spark of the debate and perhaps learn something new.
Sadly, that was largely not the case. Content was published in 2008, and almost all of the essays were originally published in 2007. A decade has gone by since these topics were debated. As a result, Content did turn out to be edifying, but not in the sense I had originally hoped for-as a vehicle for a deeper understanding of the complexities of copyright law. Instead, Content was educational more about Doctorow himself. While I still agreed with Doctorow’s broadest points on copyright, seeing his arguments through the lens of an extra decade of history changed everything. Not in a profound way, so as to make the arguments invalid or silly. Instead, little pieces here and there seem quaint or out of place. This is bound to happen to any such argument. I can look at my own blogs from a decade ago and agree with my initial premise but then shake my head in disappointment at how I presented them.
While the collection starts strong with Doctorow’s excellent speech to Microsoft, the essays that follow contain most of the baggage. One essay talks about the start and end of the broadcast flag. Hearing those words again brought back a torrent of memories. I recalled vividly how I the “me of 2007” was freaking out about the broadcast flag. And I noted how inconsequential even the concept of a broadcast flag is to the “me of 2017.” In large part, this sense of it being inconsequential is a result of the efforts of Doctorow and those like him, who fought the broadcast flag and successfully eradicated it from existence. But for me, it ended up being a tempest of nothing; a nothingburger. That inconsequentialism of the end result ultimately hurts many of the arguments of Content, and may, in turn, lead directly to my most frustrating moment with the book. But before I get to that I want to look at a few more points of failure in the essays.
Another essay that ended up aging poorly is Doctorow’s attempted takedown of Facebook via polemic. In 2007 I was not even a member of Facebook. In 2017, I am a member of that awful social network. Facebook is obviously still with us, and it has grown by including many new members, including myself. Facebook is in many ways far more dominant now than it was in 2007. The irony is that every single one of Doctorow’s arguments against the platform is just as right today as it was in 2007. Facebook has always succeeded in spite of its flaws. If Doctorow were to write such an argument today it might look very similar, but it would undoubtedly bring in a host of new complaints as well. And we might look at it in another ten years and say much the same things as I am saying right now.
On the whole, though, the essays are still about copyright. It is the point Doctorow hammers, like Will Ferrell’s cowbell, and we just can’t get enough. Throughout the collection we are treated to repeated tellings of the author’s decision to release Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom under a Creative Commons license, how he does not regret the decision and thinks it likely helped him, and how after a period of time, he ended up changing the license to an even less restrictive version of the Creative Commons license. In fact, I believe that when I read it in 2005 it was either a copy that I had personally downloadeded from his website under that license. If not, it was merely borrowed, in digital format, from my library. In either case, the electronic copy I read did not end up sending any direct money to Doctorow.
This is the Cory Doctorow I knew about, had read, and was currently reading. But while reading Content I periodically felt compelled to check up on a few of the original sources for the essays. In so doing, I came to discover that Doctorow had recently released a new fiction novel, Walkaway. In Walkaway, Doctorow returns to the future world of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, or at least a future very similar. But now, almost 15 years later and after having argued about the subjects countless times, the tone has changed. One review I read said, “Doctorow revises his future.” Based on the author’s own comments in interviews about the book this seems to be accurate, although I have not yet read the book.
For the first time, I felt the urge to go read a new Doctorow novel. So I headed over to his personal site to see if I could easily grab a copy of Walkaway, as I had presumably done with Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom a decade and change ago. I did not get very far.
Now, I am not about to suggest that it is wrong for Doctorow to get paid for his work, nor even to demand to be paid. Neither am I in any way upset or harmed by the fact that I was unable to download for free and immediately read his brand new work as soon as I heard about it, which coincidentally happened to be very close to the release date. I am, however, curious and perplexed. What has happened? Obviously, a decade is a long time and ideas and ideals can change. Some of Doctorow’s work is still there and available at no cost, but many of his titles, including, most oddly of all, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, are seemingly blocked by a paywall.
Because Doctorow is merely a figure at the periphery of my “zone of understanding” I have no idea what has changed in the past decade to cause him to choose this option. At best all I have are speculations.
- Doctorow used the anti-copyright wave of the DMCA period in the late-1990s and early-2000s to propel himself to a certain level of internet fame. Now that he is there he no longer needs to give away his product and can actually sell it, and chooses to do so, as is his right.
- Doctorow has significantly changed his views, either personally or publicly, about the way copyright should work. Given that this was always a nuanced position (copyright should exist to protect authors, primarily from the publishers, not from the customers) a significant change could come in a wide range of flavors, and without anything on the record that I have found, I am left to wonder which way his brilliant mind in this specialized niche has gone.
- Doctorow has been forced by the market to make accommodations to his publishers. In order to continue playing the game, even though he is internet-famous, he finds it necessary to kowtow to his publisher’s demands. Doctorow has lost the fight.
- Nothing has actually changed, but Doctorow is using sleight of hand to increase his revenues. The books are still available for “free” under the Creative Commons licenses, but if you want to download them from the source, he would still very much like to get paid, and has hidden the option where the “free” version is.
An author page like this would not warrant so much as a second thought in most cases, but Doctorow, by virtue of having been a leading evangelist of his particular brand of copyright protection ideals, invites a different level of scrutiny. And after a brief period of that scrutiny, for me, confusion.
If there were a copy of Walkabout readily available for me to read at no cost on his website, this article would instead likely just be a review of Walkabout with perhaps a note of callback to Content and how that led me back to Doctorow’s current work, a strange enough path. Instead, I have the article you just read. I doubt very much this will have any significant impact on Doctorow, and I am not hoping for that. I rather suspect Walkabout is a very good novel. I’d love to read it. But Doctorow and I seem to be at a bit of an impasse right now about the price.