Issue #15 January 2006

A very long talk with Cory Doctorow, part 1

by Bascha Harris

"I don't think that... information necessarily wants to be free or doesn't want to be free or whatever. I just think that...if your business model is based on bits not getting copied you are screwed."

If you love science fiction, you probably greeted the announcement of this year's Summit speakers with a bit of extra excitement. Cory Doctorow is, after all, a lauded young science fiction writer who was nominated for the 2004 Nebula Award. That honor is the answer to auspicious beginnings: the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 2000, and the Locus Award for best first novel in 2003.

But what if scifi isn't your cup of tea? Would you rather get a root canal than suffer through Heinlein, Herbert, or Gibson? Well, stay put. Though there's a lot to Doctorow that has to do with worlds of robots and biogenetics, there's a lot more to this gentleman than a pair of black-rimmed glasses and the ability to find anything you can imagine on Google.

The biggest challenge when talking with Cory Doctorow isn't figuring out what to talk about--it's figuring out how to talk about everything he's into in just one interview. Red Hat Magazine sat down to chat--and stayed on the line for nearly two hours. From acoustic couplers to Haunted Mansions to (very) recently-passed legislation, Doctorow is a walking, talking Wikipedia of digital-age information. The abridged transcript of our talk? 59 pages. This is one interesting guy.

Until recently, Doctorow was directly employed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as a speaker, educator, and official outreach coordinator. Though he left this specific gig in January to spend more time writing, he remains an EFF Fellow and a privacy and digital rights activist, something he might have picked up from dear old mom and dad.

Boy meets internet. Internet totally unprepared.

Doctorow was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1971. Both parents are, according to his official bio, "Trotskyist teachers"; his mother wrangling grade schoolers, while his father taught math and computer science. His father's early influence sparked an interest in technology.

"In 1977 we had a VAX terminal to the mainframe--the DEC mainframe--at the University of Toronto. It was a PDP-8, I think, that my dad was working on."

Doctorow reminisces with the sort of glee some children reserve for trips to Disneyland, or fond memories of Santa Claus.

"You'd get the phone out and you'd dial the phone--it's a rotary dial phone--and then when you heard the carrier you'd put the receiver down on this thing that had two suction cups, one for the microphone and one for the speaker, and it would make--I guess--a 50-baud connection. Neal Stephenson has memorably described this putting the phone down in the cradle as a technological soixante-neuf. And 10 years later, it feels so dirty."

Ten years later, he was carrying around something a bit more modern: the Macintosh Portable.

"It was basically a Mac SE in an electric typewriter form factor, and that was an amazing thing to carry around; I carried it everywhere. I blame my ongoing struggles with lower back pain on a lifetime of carrying around things that were billed as laptops."

Then networks came into play--or, rather, out to play. Early experimentation with homegrown networks and Mac BBSes running First Class led to an job programming multimedia CD-ROMs for the Voyager Company.

"[Voyager Company ] made Hard Day's Night, Neuromancer, and Spinal Tap interactive CDs. I think they were the first time anyone ever tried to deliver video with secondary audio--commentary audio. I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is amazing.'"

Doctorow had left college to pursue the work with Voyager, and when the bottom dropped out of the business, moved on to Toronto's ad scene.

"There all these ad agency people in Toronto, which has got a huge ad agency presence, who were on this BBS. A lot of them were looking for multimedia developers, and I went around, started going around to all these ad agencies in town that I knew through the BBS scene, and saying, 'You know what you guys need? You really need to start thinking about delivering Gopher sites for your clients, because how are they going to sell products on the internet unless they have their own Gopher sites?'"

"I found an agency that was willing to take a chance with this...So I sort of developed the Gopher sites for them, and halfway through the project, I found a copy of Mosaic, and I walked in and said, 'Gopher sites canceled, we're going to make a website instead,' and showed them the 80 websites that existed according to the Mosaic homepage, and they were just blown away, [so] we developed a web site."

A website that would be one of many, and a big part of an unconventional publishing career.

Casting a wide, wide web

Writing, publishing, and blogging may be what Doctorow is best known for today, and with good reason. BoingBoing, billed as "A directory of wonderful things," is the jumping-off place for many popular sites, images, and stories on the web. Hundreds of thousands of online readers peruse the offbeat collection of links and original content contributed by Doctorow and several co-editors. The staff of writers, illustrators, and technologists frequently explore new tools, rouse readers to political awareness... or point them to photographs of a one-eyed cat. Nearly everyone onboard writes both for BoingBoing and for popular publications like Wired, Make, or Salon.

Doctorow's personal site,, has an extensive list of his work. But it's not the articles about spam for Popular Science or the speeches on e-books at O'Reilly's Emerging Tech Conference that make up the bulk of his vitae. Large chunks of his site are devoted to his works of fiction--novels and novellas and short stories. But it's what he does with his fiction that causes such a stir.

All four full-length novels are offered online, free-of-charge. Doctorow's publisher, Tor, allows him to distribute online copies of his books under Creative Commons licenses. Moreover, the online versions are released at the same time the paper version hits the shelves.

"[Tor Books] sat down and said, 'Well, look, the future of this stuff is clearly digital and clearly nothing we've done so far has anything to do with the future of digital.' And if they don't know what people are going to be doing in the future they can't plan for it and they can't be there, [so] they are going to be playing catch-up."

"And so what they figured, I think, is that if they let me do the Creative Commons release rather than prescribing how people must and must not use digital text, we could rather invite them to tell us what they felt visual text was for."

Doctorow, though, is never one to pitch a purely altruistic play. A phrase that frequently works its way into his lexicon is "patchouli-scented info-hippie crap;" in his mind, a epithet reserved for those whose principles override practicality.

"I don't think that information wants to be free, I think that computers are machines for copying bits and that once you... turn something into bits, they will get copied. I don't think that... information necessarily wants to be free or doesn't want to be free or whatever. I just think that...if your business model is based on bits not getting copied you are screwed. It is too light--you need another business model."

He has a new business model in mind for the future of publishing--or at least knows where to go to get one.

"Giving away e-books will give us the insights we need to stay in business, right? I mean that is pretty hard-nosed capitalism."

Doctorow claims capitalism as a motivating factor, but it is clearly tempered by the heart of a librarian. Though information may not need to be entirely unrestricted, published artifacts do hold great value--wealth that is in danger of being lost to overzealous licensing and distribution methods.

"It's nuts to say that publishing needs to be able to restrict Google Print, or that publishing needs [Digital Rights Management], because there is nothing more clear to me right now than the idea that publishing's biggest problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity. The number of people who read books right now is in free-fall. The number of people who read magazines is in free-fall, the amount of books being read. The relevance of traditional publishing is dwindling and dwindling fast and to say that what we need are mechanisms to make our work harder to find and harder to consume as a means to control and rescue our destiny is just ridiculous."

"We are assuming 7% of the books in the library are both in copyright and in print. 93% of the books that Google tries to digitize out of the library are either out of print, not commercially available, or in the public domain. I think that is an indefensible position. To say that I want to live in a world where most art disappears from history after 50 years is an indefensible position. I just don't have a lot of sympathy for it."

"You know as authors, as creators, there are a lot of terrible things that get done to us; people rip us off, they plagiarize us, they criticize us unfairly and so on. Those are all par for the course. But the one thing that I think that every author, no matter what medium she works in, has a real creeping horror of is being banned, is being censored, is having all of your books piled up and set fire to. And when you look at what the protracted term of copyright coupled with the impossibility of legally digitizing large courses of work is giving us, it is a slow-motion burning of the library."

We've just scratched the surface of Cory Doctorow's comments about freedom: in publishing, in software, and in the world. Check out next month's Red Hat Magazine for part two, where we'll tackle Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the popular Creative Commons licenses.


About the author

Bascha Harris is the managing editor of Red Hat Magazine. Make no mistake: this lady loves her some scifi. When she's not working on the magazine or reading (Currently: Anansi Boys), she knits recklessly, hangs out with the pets, and travels the world.