‘Computers and the networks that we connect to them, they’re the nervous system of the 21st century.’
And yet Cory Doctorow argues passionately that right now, the way we legislate the internet isn’t serving the creators, or even the consumers.
If you care more about people seeing and using your content than you do about restrictive copyright law, there are alternatives. Cory released several of his own books under Creative Commons licences, and in this interview he explains why, and why it matters.
He also gives us an insight into his own prolific writing practice, with practical tips for getting a writing habit established and sustaining it.
This man is a hero of the internet – author, blogger, campaigner, visionary – and this is a powerful analysis of what’s wrong with the creative ecosystem and what we can do about it.
Boing Boing: http://boingboing.net/
Cory on Twitter: https://twitter.com/doctorow
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. I’m very excited this week to be with a hero of mine of publishing, Cory Doctorow, who is a science fiction author, an activist, journalist, and blogger. He’s the co-editor of Boing Boing and the author of many books, most recently In Real Life, which is a graphic novel, Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, a book about earning a living in the internet age, and, in April 2017, a new novel, Walkaway. Welcome to the Club, Cory.
Cory Doctorow: Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure.
Alison Jones: It’s so good to have you here. Seth Godin was the one who recommended you as a guest onto the podcast, and he had a great phrase. He described your work as “relentlessly positive for publishing,” which I loved, because you’re not just an author. Not that anybody’s “just an author,” but you know what I mean. You’ve been a spokesperson for the new publishing, and I just love it. Can you start off by summing up your philosophy and how you’ve seen publishing evolving over the last 20 years or so?
Cory Doctorow: I guess my philosophy is twofold. The first thing I believe is that a good copyright system or regulation for the entertainment industry would preferentially divert funds to the authors and secondarily to the publishing firms that invested in them and finally to the platforms, and that mostly what we’ve had is just the opposite, that we have rules like the one that says that once Amazon puts DRM on a Kindle book, the publisher can’t authorise a reader to take it off, so if Amazon and the publisher part ways, the reader is stuck with Amazon and can’t follow the publisher to greener pastures.
Also, as between authors and publishers, that the increasing restrictions on those intermediaries that can be an alternative to a publisher, everything from PayPal to Smashwords to YouTube that serve some or all of the functions that publishers serve, that those restrictions haven’t really reduced piracy, although that’s why they’ve been put in place nominally, but they have made it harder to start new versions of those companies, which has led to less competition for authors in the platforms, which has meant that the platforms offer worse terms to the authors. What you have is a situation where the platforms get the whip hand over the publishers, and the publishers get the whip hand over the authors, and the money flows platform, publisher, author, just the opposite way that you’d want it to.
Then, secondly, and more importantly, because people who write books or earn their living from them are a tiny minority whereas people who use the internet is pretty much everyone in the world, that the more significant thing is that all of these shenanigans about intermediary liability and about limits on changing DRM, that these have these much wider implications that go well beyond the rump of people for whom books matter and into a much wider world, that you have, for example, rules that were intended to keep DRM on ebooks intact that are now being used to prevent security researchers from auditing voting machines so that we can’t validate the integrity of our elections. That’s a really significant problem that goes well beyond the implications of copyright policy or information policy for the tiny minority of people like me for whom what happens to books matters.
Alison Jones: I want to pick up on a few things there, because that’s a huge amount of stuff. Firstly, I think we should start by, for people who don’t know the acronym, DRM, digital rights management, which is basically technical restriction on what you can do with an ebook. It’s interesting, this, isn’t it, because if you’re buying it on a Kindle, in a sense the DRM is … Not many people know what to do with a Kindle file anyway, do they? It’s restricted because people just use it on their device, but you can be really restrictive and lock it down so that it can’t be shared or copied off or anything. Just to give a little bit of context there.
You say that that technology’s been used more broadly, so for example on the voting checking. Just explain that to me, because I wasn’t aware of that. That is really fascinating.
Cory Doctorow: Sure. I actually think maybe you’ve got a small misconception there about the relationship of DRM to individuals and their technical knowledge. Maybe we start at the top here and I can see if I can run it down and make it all make sense. DRM, I think most broadly understood, digital rights management, is any technology that tries to limit how you use the things that you buy. Generally speaking, manufacturers use it to ensure that you use your products in ways that benefit them instead of ways that benefit you. You don’t usually need technical controls to make sure that customers use technology in a way that benefits customers. The only time you would ever need a control is when the customers’ interests were divergent from the interests of the manufacturer.
A really good example that everyone would be familiar with is DVDs. There’s no law that says that buying a DVD in one country and watching it in another country is illegal, in the same way that you can pick up one of my books at the Smith’s in Heathrow and read it on a plane to New York. Even though I have different publishers in the UK and in the US, you can read my books in any country once you’ve lawfully acquired them. But DVDs have DRM, and the DRM checks to see whether or not the DVD player is from the same country as the DVD, and if it’s not, the DVD player refuses to play the DVD. It’s in your interest to be able to buy DVDs anywhere and watch them anywhere, and it’s in the manufacturer’s interest to be able to divide up territories in which DVDs are sold and have different price points and do other things in terms of release windows.
It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to have commercial preferences that are at odds with the interests of owners of products. Your auto company would really prefer that you only get your stuff fixed by its authorised mechanics because then it can charge more to mechanics to join its authorised mechanics programme. But historically, those commercial preferences were not enforceable as a matter of law. You had to entice people to do the things that the manufacturer wanted you to do rather than force them to. The laws that protect DRM — and in the US that’s Section 12.1 of the DMCA, in Europe it’s implementations of Article 6 of the EUCD, and there are other versions in other countries — those laws make it a crime to tamper with or remove DRM even if you’re doing it for a legal purpose. Even if the thing that you’re doing is otherwise completely allowed, if you have to remove the DRM, it’s not allowed.
This has been an opportunity for companies to convert their commercial preferences to legal rights. You design a DVD player so that you can only watch DVDs from the same country as the DVD player itself and so that doing anything else requires bypassing the DRM. Well, bypassing the DRM is against the law. So suddenly, the commercial preference that you buy your DVDs in the same country as your DVD player, that commercial preference becomes a legal right.
Amazon has lots of commercial preferences about how you use your ebooks. They would like you to not lend them out, not sell them on, only use them with Amazon’s platform which gives Amazon a whole tonne of telemetry about how you read and where you read and who you read with. Your Kindle is beaconing to Amazon things like your IP address, as are all the other Kindles. Amazon knows, for example, that two people who might’ve given its system two different home addresses nevertheless read in the same place at nine o’clock, so it knows who’s shacking up with whom and reading before bed. It gets all kinds of data, some of which it uses, some of which it may use in the future. Hard drives are cheap, so it’s storing all of it because it never knows what’s going to be useful. It can treat the eventual cost of breaching that data as an externality that the rest of us will have to pay for, and the benefits of storing all of that against the day it figures out how to make money from it as a benefit that it can privatise.
Amazon uses DRM. Amazon sells DRM as an anti-piracy technology. That’s why the publishers consent to have it on. Usually when you hear people talk about DRM they talk about it in this anti-piracy context. They say, “Well, this stops you from stealing ebooks.” The reality is that the ebooks that you steal, that you get for free by downloading them from Ebook Bay and all those other pirate websites, they’ve already had the DRM removed from them by people smarter than you, people who’ve figured out how to get round it. It’s not that hard. These DRM systems are usually broken in a day by teenagers.
As a technical matter, DRM only works if you can hide the secret of how the DRM works in a device that you then give to anyone who pays you $150 to get a Kindle or $10 to be a Netflix subscriber or whatever, and since anyone can do that, that includes bored grad students with their own electron tunnelling microscope and a bunch of undergrads sitting around like a bad smell and nothing to do this weekend, and so it gets blown through like wet Kleenex over and over again.
It’s not really an anti-piracy technology. What it is is it’s an anti-competition technology, because although it’s really easy to rip DVDs, it’s very hard to start a business to make a product that rips DVDs. When you stick a CD in your computer, CDs are just like DVDs, except they don’t have DRM. Your computer wakes up and says, “I see you are visiting from the 20th century. Would you like to move your music with you to the 21st century?” It automatically converts it and drops it onto your mobile device. But DVDs have been around for 22 years now, and when you stick a DVD in your computer, it launches software that says, “I would like to allow you to do exactly the same thing you could do in 1996 when DVDs were introduced. You can watch them.” Not one new feature has been added to DVDs since 1996.
It’s true that most of us don’t have the ability to write CD ripping software, and even if we did we wouldn’t be able to invent our own iPods, but that doesn’t mean that most of us are denied the benefits of doing more things with our music than we can do with the sweat of our own skulls. We are all of us, and particularly if you’re listening to a podcast, reaping the benefits of the MP3 ecosystem even though you lack the technical knowledge. There are lots of things you might do with your Kindle ebooks that you yourself lack the personal technical knowledge to make a reality. It’s the fact that it’s a felony punishable by a $500,000 fine and a five-year prison sentence for a first offence that means that no one has put out an ad on the side of a bus saying, “Download our programme and get more out of your Kindle,” not the fact that you yourself lack that technical knowledge.
The thing is that because the laws that protect DRM are worded so that what they protect is an access control for a copyrighted work, anyone who makes a device that has software in it which is a copyrighted work can use DRM to dictate how you use it. There are cat litter pans that have DRM on their detergent bottles so that when your automatic cat litter pan empties itself out and squirts some detergent in, it checks to see whether it’s original manufacturer’s detergent and not detergent you filled up yourself, and it refuses to use third-party detergent. There’s printers that check to see whether you’ve got your printer cartridge.
I mentioned cars before. Most cars built today, in fact I think every car manufacturer operating today, uses DRM to lock up the telemetry from your engine. When you bring your car to a mechanic, if she wants to figure out what’s wrong with it, she either buys the official tool — GM’s official tool costs $75,000, although the cost of materials is only $100 — or she commits a potential felony by breaking the DRM to read what’s going on inside of your car’s motor before she can fix it.
Every manufacturer has realised that by adding enough software to make claim to have a copyright underlying the work and enough DRM to claim that they’re protecting that copyright, that they can convert all of their commercial preferences to legal rights. Now DRM is in tractors and voting machines. It’s in insulin pumps and the seismic dampers that keep skyscrapers from falling over. It’s in cars and it’s in medical diagnostic equipment and it’s in your baby monitor and every other thing.
Alison Jones: That’s amazing.
Cory Doctorow: It’s crazy. What’s more, the laws are so broadly written that merely describing a defect in one of these products is enough to trigger liability under the law. Security researchers who discover that there is something about the baby monitor that sees the most intimate moments in your life and is networked and has a camera and a microphone, when they discover that that’s not adequately secure, that the manufacturer made a dumb mistake in designing it, they are not able to come forward with the information about that mistake, because if they tell you about the mistake, you can figure out how to remove the DRM. That means that these mistakes fester in these devices. They become these reservoirs of long-lived digital pathogens that can attack us in so many ways, from being weaponized for use by police forces and repressive governments to just being used by griefers or identify thieves or voyeurs or other common or garden-variety criminals.
Companies not only enjoy being able to convert their commercial preferences to legal rights, but the fact that this also gives them the ability to decide who can talk about the dumb mistakes they’ve made when marketing their products and designing their products and when they can talk about it and under what circumstances, that’s viewed as an enviable bonus that the governments of the world have handed to manufacturers. This is all in the name of fighting piracy, and it’s done not one thing to fight piracy.
I, as an author, I want to make a living, but if it turned out the only way I could make a living was by making sure that no one was allowed to know about the defects in the products that are inside their bodies, that their bodies are inside of, that watch them and know the most intimate facts of their lives, I would take piracy any day.
Alison Jones: This is why piracy is a political issue. That is flabbergasting to me. When I think of DRM, I think about ebooks, and that’s a real eye-opener for me in terms of how it plays out. It’s that intersection, isn’t it, between technology and commerce and the law, political infrastructure, and getting the expertise across all those areas is almost impossible. That’s why it’s such a tricky area for people to legislate in.
Cory Doctorow: The thing is, we live in a different time than the history of technological regulation, than those moments in the history of technical regulation, because it used to be that we had distinct categories of devices. There were cars and there were thermostats and there were boilers and there were voting machines. But now all of those things are just computers in fancy cases. When you regulate a computer, that regulation ripples out through all of the other things.
I’m not someone who thinks we shouldn’t regulate computers. I think that arguing that our regulation is bad is not the same as arguing against all regulation. But I think that we should regulate computers with the gravitas that they deserve. They are not better VOD systems or Jihadi recruiting tools or pornography distribution systems. Computers and the networks that we connect to them, they’re the nervous system of the 21st century, and when we regulate them as though they were just a trivial entertainment technology, we are committing a grievous act of regulatory malpractice. When industries lobby for specialist rules that help them without regard to all the ways that it affects the computers that are rippled out into all of our other life contexts, they are so depraved in their indifference that I think they can only be called amoral.
Alison Jones: Let’s talk a little bit about the remedies for that, if you like. There are different ways of doing this. There are open ways of doing it. I know that one of the things that you’re passionate about is the Creative Commons structure. Can you just tell people a little bit about that and how it works, how you use it particularly in your writing and on your site?
Cory Doctorow: Sure. Creative Commons. The normal regime for copyright is that as soon as you create a thing, it is copyrighted, and that copyright endures for a very long time, life of the author and 70 years, in some countries life of the author and 100 years. A whole host of uses that have historically been normal, like getting a snatch of a song and putting it in another song, as every jazz musician has done during their solo, or quoting a text in another text, those uses become very fraught. You have to rely on difficult doctrines like Fair Use. What’s more, a lot of uses that used to take place in private among private actors suddenly are implicated in the 21st century when we talk about copyright, because over the years copyright has been made as a regulation for the entertainment industry. It dictates what rights I have, what rights I can sell to my publisher, how my publisher deals with their distributor, and so on.
We’ve made copyright with the assumption that all the people who are implicated by it are people who are in the industry. To make sure that we’re only catching people in the industry with copyright rules, we said copyright rules were triggered by making or handling copies of works, which were industrial activities. If you were making a copy of a book, you had to have a printing press. If you were making a copy of a movie, you had to have a film lab. Today we use the internet, and the internet works by copying. Everything we do on the internet involves making copies. What that means is that copyright now implicates people who are not experts.
There is no rule that is on the one hand complicated and technical enough to let Universal and Warner negotiate the licence for Harry Potter to make the Universal Harry Potter theme park, and at the same time simple enough that a kid living in Burbank five minutes from the theme park’s gates can navigate it successfully in order to make Harry Potter fan fiction, and if it’s suitable for her needs, it will never be suitable for theirs.
Creative Commons tries to patch these bugs in copyright, this problem where copyright is suddenly reaching into the lives of people who are not equipped to navigate it and also where it’s affecting works that historically weren’t implicated by copyright, that it’s grabbing personal communications and letters and casual stuff that we do. The words that we utter if we utter them on Twitter instead of face-to-face suddenly acquire a copyright that they never acquired before. Creative Commons lets you, the copyright proprietor, the owner or creator of a copyright, specify that you only want to reserve some of the rights that the law gives you and not all of them. It’s a standard licence that’s designed to be readable by a lay person, and that licence has been translated into the legal systems of something like 80 countries.
You can, as a creator, say, “Well, I want to allow non-commercial uses of my text,” and someone in Israel can say, “Well, I’ve just found this book that is licenced for non-commercial use. I wonder if there is some music I can put underneath my non-commercial reading of it. Oh, well, look, here’s some music from France that is licenced for non-commercial use as well, and here’s a cover image from India that I can use for the graphic in my MP3.” That Israeli can make a podcast that is a reading of the work with bad music and a cover, and even though it implicates four different largely incompatible copyright systems, the licences are worded so that all those incompatibilities are smoothed over and that person can go ahead and make it. This cultural realm that has historically never been implicated by copyright because it was beneath copyright’s notice or because it didn’t make fixed copies that copyright dealt with is in some measure restored through the Creative Commons.
With some of my books, I’ve allowed various different kinds of Creative Commons licences, and generally that’s been fairly successful. I’ve had lots of New York Times bestsellers. I draw advances in the six figures. I sell options to major movie studios and sell theatrical rights and so on. It’s impossible for me to know whether it’s been more or less successful than it would’ve been if I hadn’t used the CC licences — everyone asks if I would’ve made more money if I hadn’t used CC — because I don’t have the same books released under the same circumstances but without the Creative Commons. What I do know is that it allowed me to solve some of the big problems I had as an author when I was using them, and I still use them for a lot of my works a lot of the time.
Alison Jones: There is quite a range of flexibility, isn’t there? You have CC0 is completely open. Anybody can do anything with it. Then you’ve got CC-BY, which is the attribution, and there’s ‘no derivatives’ and, as you say, ‘non-commercial’… It’s very much more flexible and yet a quite simple framework. I really like the Creative Commons stuff.
Cory Doctorow: Yeah. It’s a way for creators and the entities they work with to specify a less restrictive set of rules that are pretty easy for people to understand. There are margins where it can be a little difficult, like knowing exactly what non-commercial means is a perpetual headache for people, because although there are some things that are clearly commercial and some things that are clearly non-commercial, most activities actually sit on a spectrum between those two. Knowing where on the spectrum to draw the line is tricky. Nevertheless, it goes from copyright being full employment for lawyers to copyright being something that, with a little bit of study and maybe watching a couple of instructive videos, you can get your head around and stay on the wrong side of.
I like Creative Commons. I really like Creative Commons, but I think of it as a stopgap measure. I think that the real problem Creative Commons seeks to solve is getting people who aren’t in the copyright industry out of copyright’s purview, and that’s something that we can only do with legislative reform.
Alison Jones: Of course, that’s territorial. That’s the issue, isn’t it? At least CC is global.
Cory Doctorow: Yeah. CC is global because they got legal scholars in 80 countries to create licences. It was expensive. I think MacArthur kicked them off with $3 million, which they burned through in not very long, and they spent loads more. As you know, lawyers aren’t cheap. The idea is that you pay the lawyers once to make licences that everyone can use rather than everyone paying the lawyers every time they want to use them, which would’ve cost hundreds of times more. Yeah, we need regulatory reform. We need legislative reform. We need international treaty reform.
I think it’s in the interest of the entertainment industry to do that, because it discredits the idea of copyright to insist nonsensically that 12-year-olds should have law degrees before they can make fan fiction, or that they just shouldn’t make fan fiction. Fan fiction has been around for a long time. If you have ever studied Babylonian religious texts, you’ll know that the book of Genesis was fan fiction written by early Jewish mystics about Babylonian myths. We have been writing fan fiction literally for as long as we’ve been telling stories.
The idea that people are just not going to retell the stories that they tell is as dumb as the idea that people learning to perform music won’t perform the songs that they like. Justin Bieber got his start as an amateur by playing songs on YouTube, which is technically radioactively illegal. It was only an act of largess on the part of the labels whose music he was taking without permission that kept him from being subject to fines and enforcement action that could’ve destroyed his life, and instead he’s made billions for the entertainment industry.
We just need to figure out … I think the problem is that we’re trying to find a set of rules that can accommodate cultural use and industrial use, and while there may be rules for cultural use … In fact, there are some cultural rules that are not enshrined in law, like plagiarism. Plagiarism is totally not illegal. If you were to publish the Bible under your own name, or Shakespeare or any other public domain work, the worst thing that would happen to you is people would think that you were foolish, but you would not be committing a crime. However, academics who do this lose their careers, as do reporters and other people who get caught doing this, with the notable exception of the First Lady of the United States.
Alison Jones: Topical humour.
Cory Doctorow: Plagiarism is generally frowned on and is subject to enormous social sanction, and yet it is in no way enshrined in law. Copyright law is silent on the question of plagiarism.
Alison Jones: To be fair, that would be copyright infringement, wouldn’t it? If it were something that were not out of copyright and you copy it, it wouldn’t just be plagiarism, it would be copyright infringement.
Cory Doctorow: Right, but the thing that you would be caught for is not passing off someone else’s work as your own. The law is fine with you doing that. It would be taking someone else’s copyrighted work without permission. There is an awful lot of non-copyrighted work that you could usefully plagiarise without ever facing this sanction. The point being that we have always had different rules for cultural and legal or industrial use, and it’s really only the decision that when our test for what constituted industrial use became nonsense thanks to technological progress that we would change who was subject to the regulation instead of changing the test to figure out who we subjected to it. That’s the thing that’s unprecedented.
We have finance rules, not great ones and not broad enough rules, but we do have finance rules, and they stipulate things like when one entity gives x million dollars to another entity, that is a financial transaction and thus the rules apply. The rules are something, but the thing that tests whether you’re in the scope of the rules is the exchange of seven figures or eight figures worth of money.
Lots of countries have had hyperinflation. If we had hyperinflation tomorrow, say because we decided to print a lot of money to build a wall on a thousand-mile boarder, just hypothetically, if we had hyperinflation tomorrow and suddenly it cost $20 million to buy a sandwich, buying a sandwich for a friend would not make you a banker. We would change what constituted a financial transaction, what was in scope for the securities and exchange commission, rather than saying, “Oh, well, hyperinflation means that now we’re all in the finance industry.” We’ve had hyperinflation in copying. You make 1,000 copies before breakfast. It doesn’t make you part of the entertainment industry.
That original sin is the thing CC wants to patch over, but it’s only plastering over a crack. That chasm will only widen as time goes by.
Alison Jones: I love that point that you make about copyright being intended for professionals. That’s always been the defence, hasn’t it? People say, “Copyright protects creativity because it protects professional creators by keeping their work to themselves,” but actually an awful lot of people creating today aren’t, as you say, professionals. For many of the people certainly writing business books, it’s much more about visibility and attribution than it is about protecting and putting up barriers to that. They’d much rather … The problem is invisibility, it’s not piracy.
Cory Doctorow: Tim O’Reilly said the problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. In my book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, the second chapter, it’s divided into these three rules. The first one is that when anyone puts a lock on something that belongs to you but won’t give you the key, that lock isn’t for your benefit. It’s about how publishers and authors have been sold on the idea that they should put DRM on to protect themselves from piracy, but when they ask the platforms to take the DRM off, the platforms say, “No, no, we can’t do that,” and if it were really about protecting your interests, then you’d be in charge of it.
The second rule is that, although being famous won’t make you rich, no one ever got rich without being famous in the arts. Someone has to know your work exists for you to be able to exchange your work with them for some form of compensation, whether that’s a ticket to your lecture or copy of the work or a right to remix it in some way or integrate it into a film or curriculum or some other thing.
That monetization of fame is a problem that lots of people have. There are people who’ve got very famous and have never managed to make a dime from it. No amount of Facebook likes is going to put braces on your kids’ teeth. But if you have figured out how to reliably turn Facebook likes into dollars or sterling, then what you want is to have a rule set that favours your ability to do that, and that includes, for example, there being lots of different platforms like YouTube that you can use to market yourself so that you can turn that attention into money.
One of the things that we’ve had in the years since the internet kicked off is a monotonic increase in the compliance burden of services like YouTube. When YouTube started, all you needed to start YouTube was a pile of hard drives, a garage, and an unhealthy interest in video. There were lots of companies like YouTube. YouTube was a little more successful than the rest. It pulled ahead just by a bit. Google pounced on it, gave them a tonne of money, and they got much bigger. As they got bigger, the amount of stuff the record and film industry have pressurised YouTube to do in order to comply with copyright has also crept up, until today starting a competitor to YouTube really involves also replicating YouTube’s content ID system, which is several hundred million dollars worth of engineering, that automatically checks for copyright infringement when new videos are uploaded.
The YouTube that existed when it was founded could never have met that burden. No one would’ve given YouTube the money to create that. As a consequence, we don’t see new YouTubes being started. There’s really only one YouTube left, and it’s YouTube. There’s some also-rans like Vimeo and the Internet Archive, but they’re orders of magnitude smaller than YouTube and I think are likely to be for the foreseeable future. When YouTube has fewer competitors, the terms on which they allow us as creators to reach our audiences get worse because they don’t have to worry about us defecting to one of their rivals.
For example, when YouTube started a streaming service to rival Spotify and Pandora, they called the big four record labels into a room with them, and the big four set the terms on which their music would be licenced for this streaming audio service. Then YouTube sent out a notice to everybody else who used the service to promote their music, all the independents, all the musicians who used the system to market their music, and they said, “You are going to take the deal the big four have handed down or you don’t get to use YouTube at all. We’re going to de-list all of your videos forever. These are the terms on which you use it.”
YouTube had effectively become a de facto arm of the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIA, not coincidentally, offers pretty crumby terms to the musicians who sign up for it. If you sign a standard record deal, you have to agree to some of your royalties being taken out of every royalty statement to reimburse the music studio for what’s called breakage. Breakage is the line item for the number of vinyl records expected to be broken between the factory and the high street store. That percentage is taken out of your MP3 earnings and your streaming earnings. The accounting basis for this is, “Go fuck yourself.” The accounting basis for this is, “There are four record labels left, and YouTube is going to insist that you have the same terms as us even if you decide not to go with the four record labels, so this is the deal.”
When there are fewer people who act as gatekeepers for your work, those people converge on a set of terms that are beneficial to them at the expense of everyone on the supply side. That is economics 101. The creation of a copyright system that is tilted towards a single model is bad for everybody except for the firms that have come to dominate that model, and that includes individuals, that includes people who are not in the industry at all, and that includes people trying to start new kinds of industry.
Alison Jones: The parallels with Amazon are just startling, aren’t they, there.
Cory Doctorow: Oh, yeah. Of course.
Alison Jones: It’s interesting. I want to make this an hour long, but I’m not going to. I’m going to start winding up because, this is so interesting, but I do want to get your tips… One of the things that’s most interesting about you I think is that you write across so many styles of writing. I know that you don’t do business books per se, but I’m just really fascinated. For people who are listening who are perhaps first-time writers, what is the thing that you think would be most useful for them to take from your way of writing?
Cory Doctorow: I will say actually that I consider Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free a business book, just for the record since we’re in that audience here. I think that the two best pieces of advice about writing that I didn’t pay attention to until far too late and then kicked myself for not paying attention to are really banal and simple. Just like so many pieces of great advice, they are easy to say and hard to do.
The first one is to write every day, that when you write every day it becomes a habit, and habits are things that you get for free. I think when we start writing we tend to write because we’ve been struck by inspiration, and when you’re inspired by something it feels good and it’s easy to keep doing, but inspiration is a very harsh mistress. It’s very unpredictable. To be honest, the words you write when you’re inspired and the words that you write when you feel like you’re writing very badly, those words are in all likelihood indistinguishable from one another from the distance of cold reason once you’ve given it enough time for you to cool down and see and forget which words you wrote when. Certainly that was my experience. I think that the way you feel about the words that you’re writing is more endocrinological than artistic, that it’s about your blood sugar and your stress levels and your sleep levels and the amount of caffeine you’ve had, not any objective metric.
With that in mind, you are well situated to write a small amount every day. Rather than writing when inspiration strikes and writing heroically, writing 10,000 words in a white hot fury, which is I think the thing we valorize and romanticise when we talk about writing, that laying one brick at a time is how you build a wall. Maybe not a 1,000-mile long border wall, but a modest wall, a wall you can be proud of. For the record, building 1,000-mile long border walls is a thing that is basically impossible, but building a wall that you can be proud of, a wall you can use and rely on and come back to and that is solid, you can do that one brick at a time. If you write 250 words a day, two-and-a-half paragraphs, one page, you are writing a novel a year, and if you do it every day it becomes a habit that happens automatically.
One of my favourite ways to make sure that it’s easy to start writing, because that’s one of the worst things when you sit down at the screen for the day to write your 250 words, is to finish in the middle of a sentence, to leave yourself a rough edge, because if you know what the first two or three words you’re going to type are when you sit back down at your keyboard, then you are well situated to just start writing and keep going. It’s like if you’ve ever driven a car with manual transmission. You can park it on the downhill slope so that it will roll along and help you put it into gear and get it going when it’s time to start it up.
Alison Jones: I love the metaphor of the rough edge. That’s brilliant. It’s like plastering a wall, isn’t it? You just need something to catch onto, and then you’re away.
Cory Doctorow: That’s right. Then the other piece of advice is to work on improving the things that you’re bad at, not the things you’re good at. Again, this sounds super banal, but it’s very satisfying to play to your strengths, to practise the things that you excel at. I have a real facility with language. I tend to be really glib and wordy and I’m good at just writing good clean first draughts that are fun to read. But I’m verbose, as you’ve noticed, and so for the first 20-some years of my career mostly I worked on polishing what was on the page to make it as glib and interesting to read or listen to as possible. What I was doing was I was taking something that was notionally at 95% and I was polishing it up to 97%.
Then, with my last book, with Walk Away, the novel that’s coming out in April, I decided that I really needed to make some big cuts. It was a 220,000-word first draught. I wanted to get it down to 170,000 words. I was looking at it structurally at first and thinking, “What scenes can I eliminate? What sections can I eliminate?” Then I thought, “You know, I could just go back and see if I could take out the excess verbiage.” Every day I sat down and I grabbed 5,000 words off the manuscript, put them in a new file, a new window, and I just saw if I could rewrite the sentences to make them shorter. I think in part this was driven by my experiences getting really involved with Twitter, that it makes you think about brevity.
What I found was that I could reliably remove 20% of the book without making any changes to the sense or the structure of the novel, just by getting rid of excess verbiage. Although it was hard at first and it took me, say, an hour to do that first 5,000 words, by the last 5,000 words it took me 15 minutes. That you get a lot better at things that you’re bad at. It’s easy to double a small number than it is to double a big number. I feel like I went from 20% to 70% in the course of editing one book on a scale that I didn’t really have, that I’d never bothered to master.
Alison Jones: That’s a great skill as well, isn’t it?
Cory Doctorow: Yeah, but in every case, I think, take the thing that you are… Play to your weakness. Take the thing that you’re bad at and work on improving that, and you will see much greater leaps in your skill. It can be demoralising to force yourself to attend to things you’re bad at rather than things that come naturally at you, but the corollary of this is that it’s incredibly heartening to make tangible progress. You make so much progress when you work on things that you’re bad at.
Alison Jones: That’s lovely. I really like that. It reminds me of Stephen King’s advice on writing as well. I remember him in On Writing talking about the guy who basically taught him to write. He took his copy, just took out 30% of it, and handed it back, and it was so much cleaner and crisper. He said, “That’s what I do. I take everything out that doesn’t need to be there.”
Cory Doctorow: Sure. You have that in Strunk and White too. Issue: excess verbiage, which is such a lovely phrase.
Alison Jones: Isn’t that wonderful? They don’t write them like they used to. That’s beautiful.
I always ask my guests to recommend another guest for the podcast, which I’ve found is a fabulous way of extending my knowledge and network. Who do you think I should ask on, somebody who has something interesting to say about books in general and perhaps business books in particular?
Cory Doctorow: I like Laurie Penny. I think she’s a wonderful writer. She writes for The New Statesman and The Independent. She’s not a traditional business person, business/writer person to have on, but she’s one of the most astute political commentators I’ve read, and she’s also a brilliant fiction writer, so it’s quite a great combination. She was one of my writing students last year. I helped her get an agent. Her debut novella last year was outstanding and she has a novel in the works. She really came to prominence as a non-fiction writer covering Occupy Wall Street and has since been one of the great people covering the US election and the aftermath of it. She’s a Britain living in America, so she has very good perspectives on both sides and is just fun as heck to listen to. She’s really clever.
Alison Jones: Fabulous. I don’t know Laurie. I shall introduce myself. I shall say you sent me and look forward to speaking to her. That’s great. Thank you.
Cory Doctorow: Give her my best when you talk to her.
Alison Jones: I will. Cory, if people want to find out more about you and your books and Boing Boing and all the stuff that you do — this could take a while — where should they go?
Cory Doctorow: I’m pretty easy to find. If you just put “Cory” into Google I’m usually the first result. C-O-R-Y. Boingboing.net is the blog that I co-own and edit with some friends, and so if you want to know what’s on my mind you can read that. I’m @doctorow on Twitter. Those are my major channels. You follow those. You can always read my books and find audio books of them and so on at craphound.com as well, “crap” like poo and “hound” like dog, craphound.com.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. I shall put all those links up on the show notes.
Cory Doctorow: Very good.
Alison Jones: Thank you so much, Cory. That was absolutely fascinating.
Cory Doctorow: All right. Cheers.
Alison Jones: As I say, I’m crushed to have finished it because I think there was so much more we could’ve talked about there. Blogging and podcasting, I wanted to talk to you about those, but out of time. Thank you.
Cory Doctorow: Some other time.
Alison Jones: Some other time.
Cory Doctorow: All right. Nice chatting.
Alison Jones: Take care. Goodbye.
Cory Doctorow: All right. Talk to you later.
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