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Aug 21

@ontent by Cory Doctorow

If you like SF or issues of fair use for intellectual property, it’s likely you have read some of Doctorow’s opinion pieces online. If you haven’t, he has collected many of his previously published essays into book form, which is free to download. I bought an autographed, paper copy of @ontent at WorldCon. I’m old-fashioned and I love paper books.

This book of essays is such compelling reading, I found myself devouring it like a thriller fan, losing sleep to find out what he would say next. It’s so cleverly written and so well-argued, I’m not sure how to review it. Let’s just say his are some of the sanest and most reasonable opinions you can find on peer-to-peer file sharing and ebooks.

His views are radical, in that he does not support the big recording labels and book publishers in efforts to prevent piracy, but his opinions are practical. Encryption technology doesn’t work and treating even the most naive and law-abiding citizen like a pirate for wanting to copy a song onto several computers (such as the case with DRM-protected music from iTunes) is wrong. It should be easy to back up our hard drives and upgrade our hardware, without losing access to our music.

For the artists, many of whom cannot make a living simply from writing fiction or recording music, it has always been necessary to publicize and make money via other means. These are areas where artists benefit from having a personal dialogue with a community of fans. To build such a community, word of mouth, sometimes in the form of file sharing and downloads, is helpful.

I have reversed my opinion on this issue twice in my life. As a teenager and in my twenties, I believed in the old medieval ethos where ideas were free and belonged to everybody. In the history of literature, stories are used, reused and reshaped by every story teller with no apologies. Why then, according to Doctorow, shouldn’t fan fic be valued highly?

I think most authors would be honoured to have fan fic devoted to the worlds they create. Brilliant writers inspire imitators but each work is unique. Some great works of fiction inspire new genres. Should we tell new writers there is something wrong with rewriting the story of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? These stories have become archetypes in our society and whole fiction genres have grow out of them. Who is to say a fan fic writer won’t be the one to create the next Dracula or Sherlock Holmes?

For a while, perhaps influenced by my very law-abiding job and influenced by my ambitions as a writer, I thought that copyright should be respected by everyone in every case. People should not steal money from artists by not paying royalties. Certainly the professional development I have received from my board of education stressed the respect for copyright. It was all about teaching children to use technology without the unauthorized use of copyright materials. I’m all for teaching children to respect artists and the hard work they must do to make a living but I’m waiting for a better set of regulations.

In Canada, we have had some ideas about fair use that worked. Cancopy was a program where writers received a certain amount of money based on their popularity because it was expected that some people would photocopy books. In the same way, a certain amount of money was charged on blank cassettes and paid back to recording artists based on their airplay. This system recognised that people liked to record songs from the radio and create their own ‘mix tapes.’ Maybe something similar could be done for ebooks.

Right now Access Copyright is working on the Google settlement for copyright holders who have had their work digitized, mostly without their permission. Nearly every book published before January 2009 is affected by this settlement. The date to opt out and retain your right to sue Google independently is September 4, 2009. For more information from the Canadian point-of-view, look at this article on the Access Copyright webpage.

One of Doctorow’s main points is copyright is always changed to catch up with new technology. Whatever law is in place at the moment, was written in reaction to the last wave of technology. He cites the introduction of the player piano (which hurt performers and sheet music printers), the radio (which hurt Vaudeville acts), or P2P sharing (which is hurting CD sales). I eagerly await new developments in this area. In the meantime, why don’t you download a copy of Doctorow’s book for free and make your mind up for yourself?

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