Author Doctorow Gives His Take on Dilemmas of the Digital Age

By Lauren Boyle

January 31, 2010 —

Cory Doctorow delivered this year’s visiting writer lecture to a packed house in Main Auditorium at the annual event sponsored by the Freshman Reading Program and the College of Arts and Sciences. A science fiction writer, blogger, and technology activist, Doctorow is a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-editor of the popular blog site “Boing Boing.” He has won numerous awards for his writing and activism, including the 2000 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the 2007 Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, and the 2009 Sunburst Award.

Dean Donna Murasko, Dr. Scott Warnock, Cory Doctorow, and Dr. Abioseh Porter 
Dean Donna Murasko, Dr. Scott Warnock, Cory Doctorow, and Dr. Abioseh Porter

Doctorow’s compilation of interconnected short stories, Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present, was the assigned summer reading for incoming Drexel freshmen, and was used in their 2009-2010 freshmen English courses. These stories provided students with new, generationally relatable material for written assignments and classroom discussion, provoking questions like: What are the consequences and implications of our ever-increasing reliability on technology? How will the lives of humans and future societies be changed by our evolving digital world?

As an author, Doctorow is interested in digital media and file sharing controversies, and these topics were at the heart of his lecture. Doctorow cleverly and correctly pointed out that people have been copying as long as humans have existed. It is how we have continued to grow, adapt, and survive. Many of the same themes in literature have been written about and explored across time and generations. Doctorow himself began writing by copying ideas he saw on Star Wars or Conan O’Brien. After a great deal of practice, copying eventually led him to produce his own original material. In his article “Why I Copyfight” Doctorow delves into the cultural relevance of copying, and how it ties into our humanity. “There's a word for all the stuff we do with creative works,” Doctorow explains, “all the conversing, retelling, singing, acting out, drawing, and thinking: we call it culture.”

Singing songs at parties, telling stories to children, or watching a film with a significant other—these are activities we engage in to express ourselves, relate to one another, and ultimately, to experience human growth. His criticism of copyright law and the publishing industry stems from the fear that the emotional experience of reading will eventually be destroyed.

He believes copyright holders, like publishers and record labels, should not have a monopoly on selling an artist’s digital work. Copyright laws should only be drawn upon when one person is trying to profit from another person’s work. He suggests weakening the rights of the holders, who prevent any creative sharing, and strengthening the artist’s copyright hold. Doctorow is a supporter of the Creative Commons organization, and uses their licenses for some of his books. The organization functions to increase the number of creative works people can share legally. A Creative Commons license allows the artist to decide which rights to reserve and which to waive. Doctorow makes his own work available digitally, allowing readers free access and the ability to share, as long as they are not profiting from the work or using it to create subsequent works. In his lecture at Drexel, Doctorow made an interesting point; although posting online may cost him money in book sales, the increased accessibility helps him to connect to a larger audience, thus granting him more visibility than traditional methods would allow. In his opinion, the natural inclination of someone who enjoys a particular book, song or film is to share that creative work. The problem here is that on the internet, sharing is synonymous with copying. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was created in part to protect electronic material from being disseminated unfairly, seems to be doing more harm than good.

Doctorow sees the abuse of the DMCA as the greatest threat in the realm of digital media today. The DMCA, he says, criminalizes the production and dissemination of any copyrighted material, as well as any attempt to circumvent the copyright control. When someone breaks the DMCA three times, their internet access is shut down and they are blacklisted. Doctorow sees this punishment as an infringement on constitutional rights, as freedom of speech, press, and even access to medical advice, is blocked. Record labels and publishers are picking and choosing who they want to prosecute and taking vast sums of money from Americans charged with breaking copyright law. The legal cases become matters of “selective leverage,” as Doctorow put it.

“This is the problem with being a nation of pirates,” Doctorow explained, “everyone is ‘committing crimes’ and everyone knows it.”

In a recent post on his blog “Boing Boing” Doctorow brought to light a situation involving law officers in Boston infringing upon a citizen’s constitutional rights for personal benefit. A man decided to film the officers engaging in an excessively abusive arrest on public property. The man’s phone was seized and he was charged with illegal electronic surveillance. Doctorow urges us to realize that pirating movies and music is not the greatest issue at hand. Rather, the threat of surveillance in what is supposed to be a free, unmonitored society is far more troubling to him.

Most people today, especially in university settings, rely on the internet to help organize their lives. It is a necessary tool in many fields, especially education, as it enables both communication and research. Here at Drexel, students register for courses, correspond with instructors, participate in online classes or activities, stay updated on campus life, and engage in academic research via the web. Doctorow’s remarks struck a chord with students in the audience who recognized their own dependence on the internet for academic success.

In order for artists to continue flourishing and expanding the world wide cabinet of creativity, perhaps our society needs to embrace this notion of copying because, as Doctorow put it, “Culture's imperative is to share information: culture is shared information.”

Lauren Boyle graduated in June of 2010 with a B.A. in English.