As a Toronto teenager, Cory Doctorow spent many happy after-school hours at the Spaced Out Library, the science-fiction collection founded and run by the writer and socialist Judith Merril. "I would take the subway down there," he recalls. "She got me to join a writing group that still meets and, with her encouragement, I started sending out my own stories." Doctorow was first published at age 17.
Now 44, living in Los Angeles, Doctorow has become a prolific, award-winning author and also an activist, taking the values he absorbed in those salad days forward into a world where at least some of what was in the fiction he loved as a boy has become fact. "Science-fiction writers aren't great predictors of the future, but sometimes they get a few things right."
In gadfly mode, Doctorow uses his talks at all the right conferences to sting the corporations and governments that are, in his view, ruining the Web. "At this recent South by Southwest, everyone was worried about the Internet of Things and privacy, with rectal thermometers, cars, pacemakers sending your highly personal information out there." When the Electronic Frontier Foundation honoured Doctorow with an award for his activism, they also bestowed upon him the red cloak and goggles that a fictionalized version of himself sports in the web-comic xkcd as he flies about saying penetrating things.
Doctorow doesn't put out the anti-establishment word just at confabs and among his 400,000-plus Twitter followers. Boing Boing, the website he helps run, is one of the Net's most bully pulpits. On the analog side, he supplies trenchant essays and reportage to legacy-media outlets like The New York Times and Wired. And, perhaps most important, he has the ear of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a.k.a. the Internet's benevolent dictator.
He doesn't always have the last word with Berners-Lee, though. "I was surprised and disappointed that he recently announced that W3C was going to start standardizing DRM.…There is a sense among a lot of people that the Web is cooked."
W3C is the World Wide Web Consortium, which Berners-Lee runs, and Doctorow is upset because it's setting up a standardized regime for digital rights management, or DRM—the locks that tech and entertainment companies put on their products—to prevent people from sharing their wares.
Doctorow criticizes American and Canadian legislation that makes it an offence to tamper with these locks. After all, analog publishers can't control what use purchasers make of their books. And the locks seldom help the creatives who originally produced the content. (1) In joking homage to Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics, Doctorow has his own law: "Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won't give you the key, that lock isn't there for your benefit."
"Old copyright rules aren't suited to the Web," he says. "The Internet is a copying machine. Almost every time I click my mouse [and load a Web page], a thousand potentially copyrighted works are copied inside my computer."
He cites a case where entertainment conglomerate Universal pushed YouTube to take down a video a mother posted of her baby dancing to Let's Go Crazy by Prince (RIP). Doctorow is proud that the Electronic Frontier Foundation helped win an appeals-court victory in the case. "It's one thing when an entertainment company is negotiating with Harry Potter's publisher for the right to do a Harry Potter ride at a theme park. (2) It's another when there's some teen in her basement in Calgary, writing and posting Harry Potter fan-fic."
Unlike many new-age copyright theorists, Doctorow has had a chance to practise what he preaches, giving away his own books free online while selling the print rights to conventional publishers. These days, his books garner mid-six-figure advances, including an adult novel, Walkaway, that is coming out next year. ("I just got a blurb for it from Edward Snowden.")
Doctorow's writerly business model has been both successful and controversial—controversial because, the argument goes, those who give their work away for free lower the going rate for writing and undermine the institutions that pay for it. (When Doctorow criticized The New York Times for putting up a paywall, a media critic sardonically pointed out that it was not Boing Boing that, at the time, had reporters imprisoned in the Middle East.)
But Doctorow says creatives have to adjust their approach to the new era. It's no good, he says, "shaking your fist and telling the Internet to get off your lawn." Doctorow says musicians, filmmakers and writers have to start thinking of themselves as dandelions, not mammals. "When my daughter was on the way to being born (3), I realized how much effort mammals put into reproduction," he says. "But dandelions send their seeds out everywhere. They don't worry that every single one succeeds, but instead that every crack in the sidewalk is filled."
1. Netflix, a company that relies heavily on DRM, anticipated spending $5 billion (U.S.) on programming this year.
2. As part of a $1.6-billion (U.S.) upgrade in April, Universal opened a Harry Potter ride on its L.A. lot, after paying an undisclosed rights fee to Warner Bros.
3. Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow is the name of his daughter with Alice Taylor, a former VP of digital content for the BBC.