The Rapture of the Nerds

by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross


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What Cory Says:

The Creative Commons license at the top of this file probably tipped you off to the fact that I've got some pretty unorthodox views about copyright. Here's what I think of it, in a nutshell: a little goes a long way, and more than that is too much.

I like the fact that copyright lets me sell rights to my publishers and film studios and so on. It's nice that they can't just take my stuff without permission and get rich on it without cutting me in for a piece of the action. I'm in a pretty good position when it comes to negotiating with these companies: I've got a great agent and a decade's experience with copyright law and licensing (including a stint as a delegate at WIPO, the UN agency that makes the world's copyright treaties). What's more, there's just not that many of these negotiations—even if I sell fifty or a hundred different editions of Context (which would put it in top millionth of a percentile for reprint essay collections), that's still only a hundred negotiations, which I could just about manage.

I hate the fact that fans who want to do what readers have always done are expected to play in the same system as all these hotshot agents and lawyers. It's just stupid to say that an elementary school classroom should have to talk to a lawyer at a giant global publisher before they put on a play based on one of my books. It's ridiculous to say that people who want to 'loan' their electronic copy of my book to a friend need to get a license to do so. Loaning books has been around longer than any publisher on Earth, and it's a fine thing.

Copyright laws are increasingly passed without democratic debate or scrutiny. In Great Britain, where I live, Parliament recently passed the Digital Economy Act, a complex copyright law that allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement; it also creates a 'Great Firewall of Britain' that is used to censor any site that record companies and movie studios don't like. This law was passed in 2010 without any serious public debate in Parliament, rushed through using a dirty process through which our elected representatives betrayed the public to give a huge, gift- wrapped present to their corporate pals.

It gets worse: around the world, rich countries like the US, the EU and Canada have been negotiating a secret copyright treaty called 'The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement' (ACTA) and 'Trans-Pacific Partnership' (TPP) that have all the problems that the Digital Economy Act had and then some. The plan was to agree to this in secret, without public debate, and then force the world's poorest countries to sign up for it by refusing to allow them to sell goods to rich countries unless the do. In America, the plan was to pass it without Congressional debate, using the executive power of the President. ACTA began under Bush, but the Obama administration has pursued it with great enthusiasm, and presided over the creation of TPP. The secret part of the plan failed—ACTA ran into heavy opposition in Congress and has been rejected by Mexico and the European Parliament—but the treaty isn't dead yet, has supporters on both sides of the house who keep attempting to bring it back under a new name. This is a bipartisan lunacy.

So if you're not violating copyright law right now, you will be soon. And the penalties are about to get a lot worse. As someone who relies on copyright to earn my living, this makes me sick. If the big entertainment companies set out to destroy copyright's mission, they couldn't do any better than they're doing now.

So, basically, screw that. Or, as the singer, Wobbly and union organizer Woody Guthrie so eloquently put it:

'This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin' it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do.'

What Charlie says:

Cory has covered the groundwork pretty well above, so I've got relatively little to add.

There's an old story about a couple of tourists who are on vacation in rural Ireland, and who get themselves lost. They've got a map but they can't figure out where they are (this is the pre-GPS era). Finally they come to a rural five-way crossroads, and a farmer with a herd of sheep. 'Excuse me, my good man,' says one of the tourists, 'we're lost! Can you tell us how to get back to Dublin?' The farmer meditates for a minute, and then offers up his advice: 'Sure I can, but if I were youse, I wouldn't start from here.'

(Pre-emptive apology: This old story applies to just about all rural districts; it's just traditional to set it in Ireland. Please don't hurt me!)

Copyright puts us all in those tourists' shoes, and they pinch and they don't fit very well. If we were designing a rational rural road network for Ireland we wouldn't build anything resembling the shambolic mess of single-track routes that bamboozled those tourists. We'd design a neat network with good signage that lets people know where they are and where they need to go. Alas, we're stuck with what our ancestors have built.

Copyright wasn't designed to get in your face: it wasn't designed at all! Rather, it evolved over a period of centuries, from a tool of state censorship (you could prevent sedition by licensing big, heavy, old-fashioned metal- type printing presses) to a tool for revenue protection (Dickens and other Victorian writers were frequently on the edge of poverty because their works were copied without credit or royalty payment by any printer who could get their hands on them), and finally, recently, into a tool for rent-seeking by big corporations with paid lobbyists. Nobody in their right mind would have designed the current system—but we're stuck with it, largely because it's now a global mess, enshrined in law by international treaty: a many-headed hydra that would require broad international agreement in order to be replaced.

I am a copyright criminal, and so (in all probability) are you.

No, I'm not exaggerating. I will confess to having cracked the DRM lock on novels that I wrote, so that I could have my very own copy of the as-published text! That puts me in breach of the DMCA (in the United States) and the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (in the United Kingdom, where I live). I've also cracked DRM on ebooks I bought so that I could read them on other devices. (Did I say 'on ebooks I bought'? That's the problem: I paid for them, but I don't own them in the same way that I own a chunk of dead tree; the major ebook vendors insist that I'm merely paying a license fee to use the ebook, and that they retain ownership of

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