In defence of copyright- a response to Cory Doctorow
Last Friday, Cory Doctorow was speaking at the Serpentine Gallery in Ai Wei Wei’s summer pavilion. in many ways it was a setting that was wholly at odds Doctorow’s bleeding edge future facing area of expertise. Science writer, journalist, and blogger, Doctorow blends a faith in the liberating power of technology (primarily in his case, the internet) that he shares with fellow Sci-Fi futurologist Bruce Sterling with an element of Attali’s grand predictions of the next 100 years as outlined in ‘A brief History of the Future’ with a strong streak, of (perhaps unintentional) collectivist anarchy.
Doctorow’s talk on the internet, general purpose computing and its liberating power for humanity started from his core pet subject, his belief in the oxymoronic nature of copy protection. Oxymoronic because in order to protect data, you copy it, rather than preventing is duplication. So far, so reasonable. Data is eternal, but it is the format that it is stored on is fragile. He uses the example of the transience of the human body, compared to the persistence of the human genome- conveniently forgetting in the analogy the vital importance of data corruption, the Chinese-whispers of mutation at the heart of advancement in the form of evolution- a kind of progress though forgetting, reflected back on a more prosaic scale in the ability of each and every one of our memories to cloud and obfuscate as mechanism to preserve our sanity- selective memory as a kind of internal psychological natural selection. But this is perhaps delving into the same kind of minutiae that has been proven better to forget.
Back to ‘Copy to Protect’ as opposed to copy protection. Doctorow sees his current crusade against digital rights management- preventing the copying of human knowledge as a battle for freedom against tyranny. Essentially the kind of technology used to stop the duplication of data, and the kind of spyware that can be used to stop citizens of states from viewing certain things deemed illegal in that juristiction is the same technology that can be used to withhold knowledge or suppress free speech and ultimately stop us utilizing our full human potential. Creating technology to stop you copying ‘Police Academy 5’ is creating technology to turn the Web into chains, transubstantiating, through state-sanctioned terrorism, liberator into captor. So far, radical, but certainly admirable.
He charts the rise of DRM over the years since the early days of computing, likening the escalation of hostilities since the 1970s to putting an ever-more ‘ tough-to-crack safe into a bank-robbers living room’. Once you set a challenge to hackers, they will hack, and in cracking this difficult protection software, you then give them the code to make ‘peiorware’ from governmental malware. For Doctorow, trying to regulate data is like ‘trying to regulate the wheel’.
The problem is that a Hollywood blockbuster or a new album isn’t the wheel. It is not knowledge, but a product. It is dangerous if the things that we create to protect people’s property can be used to suppress freedoms, but then the challenge is not to stop protecting property, but instead to find more subtle, more elegant solutions. But instead he draws no distinction between the two preferring t preach the nightmarish consequences of ham-fisted protection and lack of knowledge amongst law-makers and law-enforcement of how the internet works. Most people involved in technology would tend to agree with this sentiment, but it is at this point the idea of Doctorow as accidental anarchist arises. A thinker who’s ideas have been propagated by arguably the greatest, certainly most fertile Capitalist Democracy that has been seen thus far is certainly entitled to reject that same idea, it’s his inalienable right. There are many, including the writer of this post, who are by no means dogmatically wedded to the Capitalist principle. But Cory can’t have his cake and eat it, the lack of consistency is jarring and undermines his noble aim of ‘Universal access to human knowledge’. If Tim Berners Lee is this era’s Caxton and the internet its printing press, it is worth noting that moveable type never entitled anyone to steal a book. Not while the author was still under copyright, at least. Defending copyright is terribly unfashionable, but if Doctorow wants to defend the freedoms and rights of the democracy bit, he must not align himself against the property part. It allows the successful market incentives for innovation within that Capitalist-democratic framework to exist. Or he could declare himself a Proudhonist, denouncing all property as theft and rejecting the system of tensions between structures and freedoms that allowed him to generate these same thoughts.
Which is perfectly reasonable if he would come out as one.
When challenged on this contradiction, he simply recycled the same argument, refuting any post-capitalist tendencies, while refusing to offer a synthesis of his two contradictions.
No doubt Governments are struggling to regulate and Businesses, particularly those in the industry of content generation, (Film, TV, Music, Literature, the Press) are scrabbling for a way to deal with technology they don’t fundamentally understand, desperate adjust a mid 20th century business model to the demands of the 21st.
Some succeed- musicians who are happy to clock up YouTube hits, seeing merchandise and live concerts as their main revenue stream instead. Film fights back creating spectacle- 3D IMAX blockbusters and immersive experiences that cannot be recreated at home or limited distribution art-house works that people chose to support from a curatorial perspective.
Industry and capital will chose the path of least resistance to continue to perpetuate itself, and rightly or wrongly, we will all be allowed to sell our labour in return for surplus capital generation for someone else, or in the case of our paymasters, be allowed to exploit that labour for their gain. The challenge is not then to take our blogger’s stance that because technology challenges our current defenses of property we should give up defending it, (as armchair anarchists such as , in truth, this author may agree with) it is a challenge for those of us who help keep the carotid pulse of this system beating- strong captains of industry, entertainment and culture- to find more pleasant, more effective, more amiable ways of building these defenses, to continue to allow creativity and innovation to be incentivized, in more agile and more novel ways, rather than blunt our creative business impulses through the deaf arguments of an accidental anarchist.