AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Information wants to be free. That phrase has become a mantra in the Internet age. For some, it's a way of explaining why so much writing and music and video is available online free of cost to the consumer.
The phrase actually predates the Internet and the original idea is a bit more complex. In 1984, futurist Stewart Brand was talking about the tension between the high value of information and the plummeting cost of distributing it. He said on the one hand information wants to be expensive, and on the other, information wants to be free. And it's that first part - the expensive part - that's often forgotten.
Well, now along comes writer Cory Doctorow with a new book called "Information Doesn't Want To Be Free." Doctorow wants artists to get their fair share. And he argues the problem these days is that tech platforms - devices and apps - have more control over content than the people who make.
CORY DOCTOROW: I'm not really interested in whether the stuff that I get on the Internet is free or isn't. I certainly pay for a lot of stuff. For me the concern is whether or not the money that's spent when we buy things on the Internet goes mostly to creators and then to their investors and then to the platforms or whether, as it is today, the platforms have the whip hand and then the investors can extract monopoly rents from the creators and then the creators sort of sit at the bottom of the barrel.
You know, people have always found ways to get stuff for free. And certainly copying is not going to get any harder from here on in. You know, your grandkids will marvel at how incredibly hard it was to copy in 2014. So the interesting thing for me as a creator is how do I make sure that my share of the money that people spend is as large as possible?
CORNISH: And in the book you do talk about the audience. You talk about the creators, meaning the artists, writers, singers, authors, the publishers and studios and then also the platform, which I think most of us would recognize as the tech companies, whether it be an Amazon or an Apple or a Google. And you talk about this idea of copyright as protected by a digital lock. Can you give us a short summation of what you mean by digital lock?
DOCTOROW: Sure. Well, if you've got an iPhone and you want to buy an app from someone other than Apple, you can't, not because your phone can't run software but because your phone has a lock on it that tries to stop you from loading software that Apple hasn't gone a 30 percent cut of the sale price of.
And, you know, under normal circumstances, you would expect that to just sort of be taken care of by markets, right? If you bought a dishwasher where you could only use the manufacturer's dishes, you would expect another manufacturer to make compatible dishes. Like, if you have a K-cup machine - now the patents have expired. There's lots of people who are making pods for your K-cup coffeemaker. And...
CORNISH: So the idea is consumers would say that's ridiculous. I'm going to go with another product.
DOCTOROW: Sure. Yeah, I'm a grown-up.
CORNISH: But you say here when it comes to tech and these platforms, the platforms have real control. What's the difference? What's going on there?
DOCTOROW: Well, so what happened is in 1998, we passed this law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the DMCA. And what it says is that it's against the law to remove a lock even if you own the copyright to the work the lock is protecting. So, you know, one of the big publishers right now - Hachette - they've always insisted on digital locks on their e-books. And they're in a pricing dispute with Amazon, who wants to take more of the money that they're generating through their books.
And under normal circumstances, if Amazon decided not to sell Hachette's books, you would expect Hachette to say to all of the people who want to read J.K. Rowling or Amanda Palmer's new book here's a tool that lets you convert your e-books to run on iBooks or on Google Play or on Kobo or on Nook. Go ahead and just switch to someone else's store and buy your books there. But because only Amazon is allowed to unlock Hachette's books, even though Hachette controls the copyright, Amazon controls the lock, Amazon now runs that negotiation. They have all the negotiating leverage. And what happens is the rightful share of the investor is expropriated by the platform.
CORNISH: So talk to us about what kind of digital copyright do you think would be fair in this kind of environment that would make more sense at least to the creators, right?
DOCTOROW: So we can easily see how you could make a digital locks rule that didn't do this crazy thing. What you would say is that it's against the law to break a digital lock if you're violating copyright. And if you're not violating copyright, it's not against the law to break a digital lock.
And that would - that would solve the problem pretty handily because then we could make tools that let people do things that are illegal, but that the manufacturer doesn't want them to do, which is a time-honored tradition, you know, whether that's plugging things into your cigarette lighter in your car that the manufacturer never intended for you to do or using your blender to mix paint. You know, what we do with our stuff is our own business. And if we break the law, then maybe we get punished. But just using a product in an unintended way shouldn't be a felony. But I think the industry can and should sit down with its regulators and work out what the rules should be. The point is that if you have to care about copyright in order to just walk around in the world or use the Internet, then something is deeply wrong.
CORNISH: Given all you've described, copyright is not dead. There's still some way to have kind of rules for the road. Can you talk about some ideas - what you think those will be or could be going forward?
DOCTOROW: Yeah, of course. I mean, once we give up on the idea of applying copyright to normal people and we limit it to the industry, we know how to regulate the industry because we know where they all live. And historically, the way that we have managed contexts in which it no longer became possible to control individual uses was to just let people pay once to use everything and then use statistical analysis to figure out who the money went to.
So if you're at a radio station, you drop the needle. You don't call the record label to find out how much it's going to cost you to play a song. You just pay a single fee, and then you figure out statistically at the end of the quarter whose music was played. And the money is dispersed that way. And the important thing is that as imperfect as this solution is, it's way more perfect than adding censorship and surveillance to the Internet in the name of making sure that people listen to music the right way.
CORNISH: What role did we play in this as the audience? I mean, every time we all sort of shrugged at the fact that Apple said you can only use this software or, you know, we downloaded a music program and it was only in one format and couldn't be played elsewhere. It seems like we all sort of agreed collectively to that trade-off.
DOCTOROW: Well, I think we agreed in the sense that when you click that I-agree button at the bottom of, you know 7,000 words of abusive legalese every time you try to do something on the Internet, you agreed. But I think that we shouldn't blame the public for having the intuition that if you buy something, it's yours and you will be allowed to use it in new ways.
You know, when we bought CDs, we could only play them. And now we can rip them and we can use them as alarm tones and ring tones and we can stream them and back them up and do all kinds of other things with them.
If you want to listen to a CD on your phone, you just rip it and load it onto your phone. You should be forgiven for not understanding that the DVD, which looks identical, is made in the same factory and is read in the same drive doesn't have that feature because removing the digital lock is illegal. And I don't think we can really blame the public for not understanding that Congress had passed this completely ridiculous law and understand what its consequences would end up being.
CORNISH: Well, Cory Doctorow, thank you so much for speaking with us.
DOCTOROW: Thank you.
CORNISH: Writer Cory Doctorow - the book is "Information Doesn't Want To Be Free: Laws For The Internet Age."
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