How do you describe Cory Doctorow? Digital pirate, young adult author, science-fiction novelist, blogger and co-editor of boingboing.net and a prolific contributor to a variety of magazines on the world of publishing and copyright law seem to fit the bill, but he’s much more than that.
He’s definitely more than a one-man band. He has a symphonic voice when it comes to the bloody edge of technology and the publishing industry. In a recent phone call from his home in Toronto, he spoke candidly about what he calls the archaic copyright laws, which he has derided for years, and who will ultimately win the war over control of computers, corporations or consumers.
His current book “Pirate Cinema” delves into that arena as his protagonist Trent McCauley, a teenage genius, follows his obsession of making movies by sampling and rearranging video he downloads illegally from the web. The catch is if you are caught you lose your internet rights for a year. When it happens to Trent he takes his skills underground to London becoming a techno-activist, fighting government and corporations over the control of computers.
Doctorow says the premise is not that far-fetched or even futuristic-it is here now.
“I get the dumb question where do you get your ideas- look around you.”
His numerous science fiction novels and short stories are permeated with observations and allegorical tales about how technology affects our culture and how his characters fight government intervention buoyed by corporate lobbyists.
The author likes to reel off examples of corporate spying on employees: video cams following our every move, hidden microphones in airports, websites tracking our purchases and the list is endless.
“No one seems to mind spying on employee’s internet use, after all it’s not their computers, ” he says.
And you can guess what he thinks of prospective employers wanting personal Facebook login credentials. He calls it the “urine testing of the 21st century.”
There is a war on general purpose computing,” he said.
Doctorow, like many science fiction writers, often use the common theme of one person standing against a repressive government, but he not only writes about a dystopian world, he lives it on the web, often experimenting with self publishing and free downloads that make book publishers cringe. His new adult book “Rapture of the Nerds” is available as a free download as are all of his novels through the alternative Creative Commons licensing process. He only asks that you “thank him” by promising to buy a hard copy and donating it to a library.
Having worked in the computer industry as a programmer, CEO and as a representative for the Electronic Freedom Foundation he sees the digital world differently than most hidebound authors and publishers.
“Copyright has gotten too big for its britches,” he says.
Doctorow believes copyright law is based on outdated industrial rules designed for making a physical copy. He equates it to the recording industry where to make a copy or pirate a record you needed a pressing plant.
“Everything you do on the web involves making a copy. As an artist I’m all for copyright, but it needs to be unambiguous and not make criminals of us all. I’m talking about friends sharing music, not selling bootlegs off blankets on Broadway.”
He believes copying on line is a “fact,” and not a problem that will go away, or that can be solved.
“We are not converging on the issue we are diverging.”
He said entrenched interests are pushing for what he calls “worse and worse law.”
Interestingly, Doctorow points to a six-week stint he spent on the campus of MSU in 1992 as a participant in the Clarion Writer’s Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers which has since been relocated to California due to lack of funding. The workshop uses established science fiction writers as teachers and pairs them with promising young writers. Both the graduates and students read like a who’s who of science fiction writers.
“MSU was the site of great transformation,” (for his writing) he said.
Doctorow also fondly remembers the years he spent exploring pulp science fiction magazines (some at Curious Book Shop in East Lansing) which are often pointed to as the golden age of science fiction.
“In reality they (pulp stories) were very uneven, but, in the recollection of the past, we have a cognitive bias for remembering lovely things.”
Doctorow likes to quote Sturgeon’s Law, which says “90 percent of everything we create is crap.” Theodore Sturgeon, a science fiction author of some renowned, coined the law to describe what he believed was a characteristic of creativity. Doctorow borrowed from the law to name one of his books (Craphound) and his blog craphound.com.
The author tempers the Sturgeon maxim, by adding, “you double your success rate if you triple your failure rate.” He said that especially applies to the web, YouTube and self publishing.
Doctorow likes that his book events are often attended by parents and their sons along with guys with “big unix beards.”
He is especially pleased that young boys read his books since they are so often reluctant readers. It’s easy to see why young boys are attracted to his books: he’s the Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells of his generation, taking kids on a techno-fused pirate adventure.