Review: Information Doesn't Want to Be Free (Cory Doctorow)

Review: Information Doesn't Want to Be Free (Cory Doctorow)

Canadian science fiction writer, journalist, and blogger Cory Doctorow has published a new book on Copyright and Digital Rights Management (DRM) reform Information Doesn't Want to Be Free.  The book approaches these subjects from a content creator's perspective, and is a succinct and thoughtful piece that explores the challenges of Copyright and the use of Digital Rights Management in the content publishing and distribution industry.

Jacket Cover

(image used with permission)

The title of the book Information Doesn't Want to Be Free is a twist on the famous quote by Stewart Brand (founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, and the WELL).

"On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable.  The right information in the right place just changes your life.  On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.  So you have these two fighting against each other." -- Stewart Brand

Doctorow's main theme throughout is the use of DRM (or Digital Locks, as he says), and its implications for content creators such as musicians and writers.  DRM has historically been sold as a means to limit copying and aims to provide a measure of protection for copyright owners.  The history of the use of DRM is littered with many failed attempts at digital copying restrictions including DVDs (DVD Jon), HD-DVDs (Muslix64), the restricted formats for ebooks including epubs and Amazon's Kindle, and gaming consoles including the various iterations of Sony's Playstation and Microsoft's Xbox (although DRM on purpose built hardware has fared better lately).  Given how easily and extensively these DRM systems have been compromised, Doctorow considers why they are even used at all.  The positive benefit of copy restrictions by the use of DRM comes with many serious negative side effects including the inability of users to format shift, incompatibility with devices and alternative operating systems (ask a Linux user), the cost of the added system complexity, and the cost when platforms become obsolete (ask any Zune user).  Principally though, the problem is that these copy protections have failed at their main goal: piracy prevention.


So if these copy protections have failed so spectacularly at preventing illegal copies being made of media and are inconvenient to users, why are they still used so prevalently?  The answer is offered next in Doctorow's discussion of the role of Amazon and Apple as the content intermediaries.  The function that DRM accomplishes quite efficiently is platform lock-in, both for content publishers and for end-users.  End-users, especially ones with large content libraries, are unable to legally shift their purchases and are faced with either purchasing content again on other services or not switching.  Having a "captive" audience shifts leverage away from the content creators to the intermediary, a lesson played out recently with the bitter dispute between Amazon and Hachette over ebook pricing.

"If you're a publisher, label, or studio, the answer is simple:  don't let companies sell your goods with digital locks on them.  And if a company refuses to sell your goods unless they can put their locks on your products?  Well, you can be pretty sure that those locks aren't there for your benefit." -- Cory Doctorow

One of the newer methods of copyright enforcement has been through the use of notice and notice, and notice and takedown systems.  Canada added a notice and notice system in the changes to the Copyright act that were passed in the Copyright Modernization Act, that came into effect this year on January 1.  These systems allow rights holders to send notices to ISPs, who then send them on to (potentially) infringing users.   This system is a step forward, since it is a better balance between rights holders and users.  Notice and notice however is not popular with publishers because it requires them to scour the internet for infringing content, and then pay for someone to send notices to each offending user.  It also opens the door to abuse by parties sending false takedown messages for content that is not infringing as a method of silencing criticism.


Doctorow also discusses the more aggressive forms of enforcement found in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect-IP Act (PIPA) that were defeated by a large public outcry.  The ideas found in these two proposals continue in the ongoing negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  These agreements double down on DRM protections, and attempt to introduce intermediate liability for internet providers (from ISPs, to search engines, to other service providers) by giving the ability to the entertainment industry to control vital components of the internet (including DNS providers) to block pirate sites.  This approach threatens the nature of the internet itself as a open system.


Information Doesn't Want to Be Free is a great book for content creators and IP wonks alike.  Cory Doctorow provides several solid recommendations for Copyright reform and does a great job setting down the reality of the entertainment industry and its challenges.  It stands in contrast to other more academic literature such as Blayne Haggart's Copyfight, that has a heavy policy driven approach.  Copyfight provides an understanding of how Copyright laws have developed from national and multinational pressures.  Doctorow's title argues from the bottom up, from the perspective of a content creator writing to his peers.  Information Doesn't Want to be Free would be an ideal title for prospective or current artists or writers to explain the intricacies of copyright and enable them to plan the distribution of their content strategically.


A free podcast of the first chapter read by none other than Wil Wheaton is also available.


Paul Blizzard is an IPilogue Editor and a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. 

Twitter: @paulblizzard