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SIGGRAPH keynote review: Cory Doctorow discusses copyright laws

SIGGRAPH keynote review: Cory Doctorow discusses copyright laws

The annual SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference has always had a knack for attracting some of the brightest minds in the computer graphics industry, and 2011 is no exception. Nestled away in the waterfront Canadian city of Vancouver this year, Cory Doctorow was invited to give the keynote address at SIGGRAPH 2011.

Cory Doctorow is an esteemed writer, contributing to The Guardian, the New York Times, and Wired, as well as a science fiction author of books such as Little Brother and For the Win. He is currently the co-editor of the popular blog, Boing Boing.

During his talk, Cory focused on the role of copyright laws. These laws have, unfortunately, struck a sour chord with people everywhere. From RIAA crackdowns to tyrannical DRM in games, copyrights have gone from protecting content creators to becoming a jailhouse for digital freedoms. Cory firmly believes that this isn’t how it has to be, and begins by inviting us to record and upload his talk, which can be viewed at the end of this article.

“In the digital age, everything we do involves making copies,” he begins. “In the U.S., we copy like we breathe.” Copyright is here to help govern how these copies are made, and to protect the rights of content creators. While copyright has received a bad rap lately, “a good copyright system results in more people making more creations—one of copyrights’ most important goals is to serve creators.”

When copyright goes wrong

Almost two decades ago, governments realized that they needed to address the growing amount of digitally transferred copying. Copyright law had to be modernized to cope with the digital age, starting with the passing of law to protect technologies used to prevent unauthorized copying. In 1996, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty pressed nations to adopt special protections for “technical protection measures”, today known as Digital Rights Management (DRM).

Two years later, one of the most notorious pieces of American legislation came into being: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1998, the DMCA went beyond WIPO’s suggestions by not just protecting copy-preventing digital locks, but also making the act of circumventing these locks illegal—even for using the copyrighted content for otherwise legal means. This means while it is legal to back up, format-shift, time-shift, or quote for the purposes of criticism or discussion copyrighted material, all of this is barred once DRM is applied.

DRM-free since 2003. The DMCA didn't work.

This removal of previously available rights became the DMCA’s exploitable flaw. Because of the almost unfair protections the law has given, “DRM companies have more say over our works than we do.” Cory uses Apple and the iTunes audiobook store as an example. Content makers must agree to have Apple’s DRM applied to their wares, which prevents end users from taking audiobooks purchased from iTunes onto different platforms, should they decide to later switch. Meanwhile, Apple gets to enjoy the lion’s share of copyright protection, rather than the authors—maintaining almost full control over the content.

The slightly ironic thing about DRM is how painfully ineffective it is at preventing copying. I can almost guarantee that most of you reading this have at one time used software to copy a protected DVD or use a cracked version of software. All it takes is for one bright person to shatter a products’ DRM and share the results online. Sadder yet, often the only way to obtain a pristine, fully-functional version of a digital product is to pirate a cracked version of it.

Doctorow’s Laws

At this point, Cory goes to talk about what he calls “Doctorow’s Laws” in regards to copyright, of which there are three. Doctorow’s Law #1 is that “anytime someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, they did not put the lock there for your benefit”. While this may seem obvious, it goes back to the idea of selling a crippled product to end-users, especially when some vendors go as far as touting the DRM as a “feature”.

Doctorow’s Law #2: “Fame won’t guarantee fortune, but nobody has ever gotten rich by being obscure”. While this may be a slightly odd statement with regards to copyright, the point of this is twofold. First, it is indeed quite true that just being well-known doesn’t automatically give you a pool of money to swim through like Scrooge McDuck. However, people can’t buy something that they don’t know even exists. Thus, fame and notoriety are useful for garnering commercial success.

Stewart got it half right.

Now here’s how copyright comes into play with Law #2: getting people interested in your content can be difficult, but copying solves the “getting stuff to your audience” problem. Content can be hosted on and shared via intermediaries such as YouTube and Blogger. Fortunately, these intermediaries are not required to police every single submission, which is impossible due to the sheer volume that users push. However, entertainment companies such as Viacom are lobbying to apply these liabilities or remove privacy options, which would crush content hosting and thus diminishing the ability for creators to share their works.

Doctorow’s Law #3: “Information doesn’t want to be free, people do”. Way back at The Hackers Conference in 1984, Stewart Brand once said to Steve Jobs, “information wants to be free.” However, Cory argues that it isn’t the information that needs to be free and pirated, but for people to be “free to own devices that don’t let remote authorities set policy against our will and against our interests, free to use networks that don’t spy on us in case we’re infringing the copyright, and free to communicate in private without having to worry that our personal lives will be made public in the name of protecting copyrights.”

The future of copyright

Looking to the future, Cory made two distinct predictions. First, copying will become increasingly easier due to larger and cheaper storage solutions, faster and easier networks, and peoples’ knowledge and desire to copy and share. Second, everything done in the physical world will increasingly require some online-connected component, causing internet policies to affect every single aspect of our lives.

To this end, it is very important that copyright laws return to protect and create a proper marketplace for creative works, while restoring freedom to consumers that wish to use their legitimately-purchased content in ways that suit them. In the meantime, entities such as the DMCA and the DRM it supports continues to hinder and stagnate both creators and consumers. Cory ends with a dramatic call to action: “Let’s keep the creative industries where they belong: on the side of free speech, free assembly, and freedom of conscience.”


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