Planet Money: On Second Thought

From The Cory Doctorow Wiki


My writing teacher once threatened to punch me in the face in a panel about copyright years later.



MP3 ( MB)



June 23, 2017



«We think it's brave to change your view. So, today's show is in praise of flip-floppers. It's dedicated to those who have looked in the mirror, questioned themselves, and corrected course. We talk to a novelist who came face-to-face with the shaky foundations of his ideas about copyright.»


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Transcript of the part of the episode with Cory Doctorow taken from It's a great episode, you should head over and read or listen to the whole thing.

GOLDSTEIN: Cory Doctorow is one of these people - has, like, 7 different jobs or whatever. He writes novels. He's one of the editors of the website Boing Boing. And he is one of the biggest names in the fight over copyright law in this country. Doctorow thinks that copyright law is broken - that the way it works now is bad for society, bad for people who do creative work. But...

MALONE: Doctorow did not always feel this way. And the arc of how he changed his mind is really illuminating. And it's a useful way to think about copyright. The arc starts with Doctorow's first sort of professional identity as a science fiction writer.

CORY DOCTOROW: I've started writing science fiction when I was a small kid - like, literally when I was 6. And I started sending it to magazines when I was 16 and selling it when I was 17.

MALONE: One of his first published stories was called "Craphound." And it was about an alien who loves yard sales.

DOCTOROW: You know, I was a baby writer. And so what I knew about copyright was what I'd learned from other writers. So I thought that copyright was a thing that authors got because they made something new with their brains and that they had a moral right to it and that by holding onto that moral right, they could also make sure that big, rapacious companies didn't rip them off.

GOLDSTEIN: He thought copyright should probably extend forever. Like, if you build a house, you can pass it on to your children. They can pass it on to their kids and so on. Why should it be any different if you write a book?

MALONE: Doctorow went off to college, became a programmer and started a company that, in some ways, grew out of that view of copyright.

GOLDSTEIN: This was the era of Napster, you know, the program that made it super easy to download music for free on the internet. And the idea behind Doctorow's company was let people download files on the internet, but put rules on how and whether they could share those files. For example...

DOCTOROW: You're allowed to listen to this once when you download it from someone over the internet. But if you want to listen to it again, you've got to pay some money to unlock it again.

MALONE: To make this technically possible, Doctorow's company was going to use what's called digital rights management. This is DRM. Basically, this is a way to encode these kinds of rules into the software.

GOLDSTEIN: Doctorow's company raised $19 million. He starts flying around the world to speak at conferences. And it was on the road to one of those conferences - this one was in Hong Kong - that he had his conversion experience.

MALONE: He was traveling with a corporate copyright lawyer who was going to go to the same conference. They sat down in coach. Doctorow was on the aisle. The lawyer was in the middle seat.

DOCTOROW: It was in the days in which, you know, iBooks were - looked like toilet seats and had a battery that lasted for 30 minutes.

GOLDSTEIN: That's a laptop - for our younger listeners.

DOCTOROW: Yeah, that's right. And so 30, 45 minutes in, we had nothing to do but eat airplane food and argue about copyright.

MALONE: They're 30,000 feet over the Pacific. The copyright lawyer starts in on Doctorow. He says, your view about copyright is naive, overly simplistic. In fact, this whole way of thinking about creative work is is wrong.

GOLDSTEIN: Look, the lawyer said, we don't have copyright because there's some kind of moral right of ownership that people have to their creative works because, for one thing, that idea doesn't even make sense. You know, the way creative stuff works - everybody is always taking stuff from everybody else. This is true, you know, in music. Like, rock 'n' roll was basically the blues. And, in fact, it goes all the way back. Everybody has always done it.

DOCTOROW: They call Brahms's first Beethoven's 10th.


GOLDSTEIN: That's good.

MALONE: And so the lawyer says, look. Your stories are full of ideas you've borrowed from other science fiction writers.

GOLDSTEIN: You know, all the people who wrote about aliens before you - do they have a moral right to own all stories about aliens?

MALONE: And Doctorow says something like, ah, no? Maybe not?

DOCTOROW: So by the time we got off the plane 12, 15 hours later - however long the flight is from San Francisco to Hong Kong - I had serious doubts. And then wandering around Hong Kong for the next two days when we weren't at the conference, going to the - because we were all horribly jetlagged, too - so, like, going to the Temple Street Market at 2 in the morning to eat, you know, tentacles and shouting about copyright.

GOLDSTEIN: It's my dream trip, by the way.

DOCTOROW: (Laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: The lawyer convinces Doctorow that copyright is not about some moral right to property. It's much more practical than that. In fact, it's spelled out explicitly in the U.S. Constitution. The new, transformed Cory Doctorow can quote it off the top of his head.

DOCTOROW: To promote the useful arts and sciences, Congress shall create monopolies of limited times, right? So not because you get property rights on everything you make but to promote the useful arts and sciences.

MALONE: In other words, the point of copyright is to get people to make more stuff because it's good for society when people make stuff, when they write songs and books and make movies. More is better.

DOCTOROW: And in the end, I realized that copyright was a policy that's created to encourage certain kinds of creativity and that the limits on copyright, like how long it lasts or when people can use your work without your permission - those aren't just off to one side of copyright. They're as important as the exclusive rights that the creator gets.

MALONE: The conference ends. Doctorow goes home. And before long, he decides, what my company is doing, using digital rights management, putting all these copyright rules into computer code - it's not doing what I thought it was doing. It's not really encouraging creativity. It's not really helping little artists. It's mostly helping big companies.

DOCTOROW: And I wrote a letter to the investors and told them I wasn't going to work there. I was quitting.

GOLDSTEIN: He goes to work for this foundation that pushes for less strict copyright rules, starts arguing publicly that the details of copyright law serve big corporations more than little artists. He says copyright protection should be shorter. He is essentially out in public, arguing the exact opposite of what he believed before.

MALONE: This makes him a star among a lot of tech nerds. But a lot of his pals in the science fiction world - much less impressed.

DOCTOROW: My writing teacher once threatened to punch me in the face in a panel about copyright years later. And there's another writer who I think literally hates me over this. And she's still one of my heroes. It sucks to have people say that I have done something to deprive the children of working artists of their due. I think they're wrong, though.

GOLDSTEIN: One thing that's striking to me about Doctorow's story is I feel like he changed his mind in part because he is one of these people who has all these different jobs and sort of moves in all these different worlds. You know, if all his friends were writers, say, I feel like this story would have been really different. I feel like he probably would not have changed his mind.

MALONE: Cory Doctorow is still writing. He published a novel earlier this year. Another project that he's working on - trying to get companies to stop using digital rights management, DRM. In other words, he's trying to get rid of the exact thing his old company was built on.