Why I Hate Cory Doctorow
First, yes I've read his books. Well, some of them. Well, part of one of them. I got fed up and stopped because it was stupid and poorly written. But that's neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that I hate Cory Doctorow, I hate Boing Boing, and it's time somebody called Doctorow and his cohort of yes-men what they are: a bunch of assholes.
Normally it's not something that I feel like wasting too much time on, the hate of all things Doctorow. I mean, live and let live, right? If people want to waste their time on his weird brand of egomania, that's fine. I'm not going to worry about it. Just like I don't worry about that douchebag from Wired who wrote the Longtail book justifying the hegemony of global capital or nutjob libertarians like Eric S. Raymond advocating for creepy lifestyles dedicated to polyamory, computer programming, and owning guns. By and large the creme de la creme of geek nobility are fairly safely ignored. Although I have written elsewhere of the danger of confusing "geek chic" with "being cool," usually these people are no threat to anyone or anything I care about because the things they care about (file-sharing, Linux, web pornography, SF fandom, memorizing monty python sketches) are not things that I give a damn about one way or another. Occasionally tho, these people cross over into my real world life and I'm reminded that they are out there, festering, and are even occasionally presenting the danger of being taken seriously by real people. That, my friends, is a possibility I find absolutely intolerable and so am setting aside my usual Laissez Faire approach to The Doctorow Problem to outline in detail why it is that I can't fucking stand the the man.
It all began rather innocently. A friend on facebook linked to this article from the BBC (here) that referenced Cory Doctorow's comments (found here) regarding some offhand comments Bono had made in a New York Times column (here) about the coming problems with file-sharing that the motion picture and television industries are going to be suffering in the coming decade as online piracy becomes more of a problem for them as bandwidth expands to accommodate their large file sizes.
Assuming you've read through all of that, this particular web-go-round perfectly illustrates why Cory Doctorow is a jerkoff. Lets begin at the beginning. Bono's point, I don't think he's making an argument really for all that Doctorow & Co. act like he is, is well taken. Bandwidth is expanding and in the coming decade sharing multimedia entertainment files like television and cinema programming will be convenient to distribute via file-sharing schemes. As such, the limited "bricks and mortar" piracy that Film and Television have dealt with in the past is likely to evolve into something similar to the heyday of Napster in the late nineties. As such, policy makers, creative types, and Intellectual Property industry types would be well advised to look to the music industry's experience over the last fifteen years and try to learn from it. He makes a couple of other points as well that are more subtle and therefore were missed by the Doctorow/Boing Boing analysis.
The first is that it has been the smaller songwriter and artist that's been hurt the most in the way that the music industry has changed to deal with the problem of online piracy. I myself hate the RIAA, I can't fucking stand the major labels, and I think that they deserve everything they get for putting themselves in the box that they're in. Their solutions to the problem of copyright infringement have been silly and ineffective and DRM has created more of a hassle for legal purchasers of their products than for pirates. But problematically in the aftermath of all the changes in the industry, fewer artists than ever are being supported through sophomore record sales, there has been a greater reliance on a smaller number of "star maker" record producers, fewer risks are being taken on risky or creative material, and what success a successful act can expect to gain in the changed marketplace is much more limited than what was possible twenty or more years ago. The only people who can make a living now are acts committed to relentless touring and self-promotion, leaving no room at all for non-performing songwriters who were already a rare breed in the mid nineties when online file-sharing began. The thinner margins of the record companies have forced them to consolidate promotion, production, and distribution even further and has led to the death of many bricks and mortar record shops that once functioned as an important outlet for consignment sales of local acts and more obscure artists. This in turn has made it even harder for smaller acts to build a fanbase and a following. The end result is that rock and roll, always first and foremost a recorded musical genre, has become more of a live music genre than it has ever been, and the independent music scene has become localized and fragmented as a result. People who are passionate about music have to dig harder to find obscure acts than was previously the case, and the number of independent music acts capable of sustaining themselves through their work as musicians alone has dwindled. The music industry is just now finding ways to recover. Distributors like Tunecore and Reverbnation offer a possible solution, but again these solutions place ever more burdens on artists who at one time had the luxury of reaching a certain phase in their career development when they could leave all the marketing and promotional work to the suits and concentrate on the creative work that they loved. It's beginning to look like we are going to have a future where that is no longer the case. On the one hand that's very encouraging, on the other the reason for that is that musicians just won't see the kind of profits that warrant the additional employees to help manage the scale. This is something that people working in film and television should take very seriously, not leastwise because film and television production has always been much more labor intensive than music production. The collapse of the film and television industry on the scale of what happened to the music industry will be a huge employment crisis as well as a terrible hit to the GDP.
Don't tell this to Cory Doctorow though. Doctorow, a self appointed expert on copyright whose credentials are primarily that he has spent a lot of time speculating on how file-sharing might be scalably profitable in another possible world, is now and has always been a poor man's Neal Stephenson. But whereas Neal Stephenson earned his credentials as a thinker on science and technology through the thoughtful application of new ideas in his novels as well as careful and insightful essays like his book length work on human computer interaction "In the beginning was the command line," Doctorow has generally opted for the kind of vapid punditry that can only be found in the rarified air of the blogosphere. It is only in such an atmosphere, of course, that someone like Doctorow could ever hope to be taken seriously. A multiple college dropout, Doctorow has managed to parlay his luck at launching a moderately successful tech company during the dotcom bust into a job with the Electronic Freedom Foundation and from there developed his alleged expertise on digital copyright that he cashes in on regularly as a guest writer for Wired among other places. Doctorow's solution to digital piracy? Decriminalize it. Gee, thanks Cory.
But the geekworld would have it otherwise, particularly from Science Fiction authors who tell them what they want to hear, i.e. "there's nothing wrong with you pirating stuff because Big Content is bad, booo, bad Big Content!" I'm as much a skeptic of market capital as the next red blooded communist sympathizer with a picture of Ho Chi Minh with an AK-47 on his desktop, but I like my anti-corporate agitators to be a bit more coherent. Coherent, Cory Doctorow is not. His politics seem to swing wildly between a sort of bizarre open source libertarian capitalism as evinced by the likes of Eric Raymond, and a vaguely leftwing social consciousness harking back to his "Trostskyite" parents. Which attitude is generally belied by the snarky title of the Boing Boing article above: "Having fixed AIDS and Africa, Bono tackles filesharing." As should be clear to anyone who is even half awake, Cory Doctorow's core interest is the promotion and advancement of Cory Doctorow. Still people take him seriously, embrace the unworkable solutions to digital piracy offered by Open Source, liberalizing copyright law, and other such methods, and generally regard him as an expert on things he really doesn't have the credentials to hold himself forward as an expert on.
Let's be clear about this: Copyright is a vital and necessary aspect of American law and the absence of strong copyright protections creates a vacuum where creative artists get fucked. If you don't believe me, I invite you to spend some time looking into how some of the best blues and jazz musicians of the early twentieth century spent their golden years. The short version is that they lived in poverty and died broke because they had no legal recourse against the piracy of the commodities they produced. Prior to the 1976 copyright act that fixed copyright at the moment of creation rather than the byzantine complex of federal and state protections that existed previously, there were all manner of problems with various works that led to artists never reaping any financial rewards from the exploitation of their creations. Now, I'm not going to say that there aren't problems with copyright law as it now stands. I have never liked the idea of work-for-hire and the way it displaces ownership from the creator to the creator's employer. Current copyright length, particularly for works owned by corporations, are probably too long. And I don't care for the take down provision in the DMCA. But that said, these problems are relatively minor compared to the pre 1976 environment and the rampant exploitation that would clearly exist without strong protection of copyright. If you don't believe me, just look at the piracy in east Asia as a result of China's intransigence over the issue. It is significantly more difficult for asian artists to make a living through the exploitation and distribution of their work than is the case in Europe and the United States. That's not a circumstance that I would care to see extended to the artists in my corner of the world, and it's precisely the sort of changethat Cory Doctorow and his ilk advocate for.
But really, Doctorow's inability to understand these very simple truths aside, he's just another mindless pundit with a slanted worldview who writes didactic nonsense full of straw men and generally relies not on empirical evidence but anecdotes and his version of how things ought to be as the foundations for his positions. Just like any talking head on Fox News, a decent sense of sarcasm and a strongly partisan worldview is all that recommends Doctorow to the masses. But that isn't sufficient justification to call someone names and take his comments out of context to paint him as a douchebag simply because he disagrees about Doctorow's pet policy topic. Now, before I go any further, lets get a few things straight about Bono. The guy is ridiculous. He's more of a cartoon of a rock star these days than a real person, and U2 is well past their heyday. But nevertheless Bono is a guy, for all his ludicrous stardom, who's done more to help the poor and sick of the third world than any other celebrity or pundit you could name, including Cory Doctorow, and the fact of the matter is the guy's heart is clearly in the right place and he clearly uses his celebrity status for the good the vast majority of the time he's in the public spotlight.
So when Doctorow conveniently edits out Bono's acknowledgement that people at his level aren't really being hurt all that much by file-sharing and that they make most of their money off of touring and merchandise sales, and then goes on to accuse him of hypocrisy because he makes so much money touring; when he neglects to note the self-deprecating tone with which Bono clearly acknowledges how ridiculous it is for wealthy rockstars to complain about file-sharing, and then accuses Bono of supporting draconian invasions of personal privacy in the service of Bono's avarice although it's clear from his comments that Bono's real concern is for less established artists than himself; when he does that, Cory Doctorow is showing his true colors. Because Cory Doctorow is a fucking dick. And that's why I hate him.