Home > Interviews > An Interview with Cory Doctorow, Part 2 of 3

(Read part one here.)

By Geoffrey Cole

Portrait by Joi Ito (joi.ito.com)

Portrait by Joi Ito (joi.ito.com)

Speaking of DRM (Digital Rights Management), Tor recently got rid of all the DRM on their catalogue. Did you have any hand in that?

Strauss and (John) Scalzi and I all had a bunch of discussions with the senior management at Tor and at Macmillan. All three of us were brought to New York to present on Tor’s behalf at the Book Expo America. We were all very intimately involved.

How did the other writers at Tor accept the change?

As far as I know, there has been universal acceptance. I know that Hachette, who are Little Brown (Orbit), have written to their writers who are published by Tor in other territories than the ones where Hachette has rights, and they have told their writers that they have to tell Tor that they have to put DRM back on their works. This is a bit like divorced Mom and divorced Dad using the kids to get back at each other. It’s completely outrageous. To call it unethical is to do a disservice to unethical people.

Your previous books have been released under an Attribution – Non-commercial – Share Alike licence, meaning people can share and make derivative work from your work, provided they don’t sell it and attribute the work to you.

Pirate Cinema, by Cory DoctorowThe last two books have not had the derivatives allowed. Pirate Cinema and Rapture. That was because my foreign rights agent said that he wanted the order in which the discussion about fan translation occurs in the foreign market to be same as it occurred in the English markets. In the English markets, how it works is that I sit down with the editor, I explain my reasoning for Creative Commons, they explain it to their boss and they come back and say yes. The foreign ones, my sub-agent goes to Frankfurt and sells my book to the only English speaker in the house, who then goes back and starts production, and then they find a fan translation, everybody has massive fucking kittens, and then through five layers of intermediaries and several mistranslations, I try to explain this to people who are having meltdowns. What I would prefer to do is when people want to do fan translations, right now whoever has the foreign rights, clear it with them, authorize the fan translation, and then give them the go ahead. For everything else, I don’t give a damn.

We live in a litigious world, and you use pinch-zooming for some of the navigation in the transcended metaverse: are you worried Apple might sue you?

That’s not a patent infringement. Litigious or not, I’m pretty clear on what is a patent infringement and a trademark infringement, which is why I set my first novel (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) in Walt Disney World. It’s not a trademark infringement to describe trademark or to set work in trademark places, or to describe copyrighted goods. It’s not a patent infringement to describe the working of a patent or to fictionalize those workings. If nothing else, the description of this takes place long after the patent will have expired, by several centuries. If indeed it isn’t overturned beforehand, given that there is so much a priori that invalidates it, and if the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office didn’t have its head wedged firmly up its own ass, it never would have been issued in the first place.

Speaking of huge media corporations, let’s talk about your latest YA novel, Pirate Cinema. Your first YA novel, Little Brother, looked at the malignancy of the security apparatus: Pirate Cinema does the same for Big Media and their pawns in the British Parliament. Can a work of fiction really change the way our society is heading?

What a work of fiction does is put blood and sinew into the argument. In 1947, someone had a plan to put cameras all over the place, because of the Sermon on the Mount, “His eye is on the sparrow;” if we can be men like gods, if we can see all the things that happen, we can detect and prevent the crime even as it is occurring. The argument against that is very hard to market: that I would feel different, that I would live my life differently in some very inchoate way, if you put cameras everywhere I was. 1948 Orwell writes Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949 it is published. Now we have the word Orwellian. With just one word, we can import all the emotion of that inchoate feeling.

I don’t expect, especially with young adult literature, for young adults to read the book and come over to my point of view necessarily. We overstate young people’s credulity. I think young people read books to find out how the world works, but they argue with books. That’s one of the great things about being a young adult writer. Steve Brust the fantasy writer said, “Telling someone he’s written a bad book is like telling someone he’s got an ugly kid. Even if it’s true, there’s nothing you can do about it.” With young adults, I make an exception. When young adults tell you about the things they don’t like in your books, and they do in excruciating detail, it is because they have an argument with your book that they have taken seriously as a roadmap to understanding the world and they want to duke it out with you.

What I want to do is recruit them, not to my side of the fight, but to the fight. I don’t know if you remember the show Family Ties. There were three kids in the family, the two eldest were the ones that mattered. One was a girl who was a fashionista who didn’t care about politics, and the other was a boy played by Michael J. Fox who was a young Reagan Republican and the parents were old hippies. Everybody who watched that show contrasted the boy with the parents, because they were Lefties and he was a Right winger, but I think the greatest gulf was between the girl and the parents, because the boy and the parents both agreed on what was important, they just disagreed on what way it should go. The girl actually discounted to zero everything that those groups held dear. The opposite of a soldier is not a soldier in the opposing army, the opposite of a soldier is a civilian. What I hope to do with young adult literature is recruit young people to the struggle. It doesn’t matter to me which side they are on, I want them around the table. I want them not to be complacent about these issues.

Pirate Cinema attacks what Big Media is doing with copyright reform. Do you have ambition to see your work turned into film, and does writing a work like Pirate Cinema affect those ambitions?

I can count all the successful adaptations of science fiction novels on the fingers of one toe. I’m not super enthused as an artistic matter. Certainly there are huge sums of money for those who succeed, and like Tom Wolfe, I would be happy to go the California state line once a year, collect a big bag of money and walk away. I’ve sold film rights. The option on Little Brother just got renewed by John Norman, who made Transformers. He’s a very nice guy and says he wants to make a very good movie out of it and maybe he will, that would be great, but I’m not holding my breath. Most film people, in my experience, start a hundred times more projects than they finish. It seems like compared to the overall cost of a film versus the cost of an option, it’s worth their while to lock up options for lots and lots of works to have in the hopper in case the right circumstances come together for it. I have another option for my short story “Clockwork Fagan” from the producers of Futurama, and I think that might be a little better. It would make a great animated short or a live action film.

There are plenty of people in Hollywood who agree that remixing is what it’s all about. There are lots of civilians in Hollywood who are committed to the discussion of what is and isn’t art, and there are lots who think that remixing is art. The fact that as an industry they lobby the wrong way about this doesn’t mean that as an individual or as a company that they would go the wrong way. There are lots of very well-done movies about clueless Hollywood people. In the same way that Rupert Murdoch will fund The Simpsons all day long, there are studios that will do it too. Mostly they are investment entities.

Pirate Cinema is also a movement, or a subculture. How involved are you in that subculture?

I’ve been to several pirate cinema nights in London. I emailed one of the main organizers and asked if they minded that I named my book Pirate Cinema and they never responded. I assume that that was a yes.

In Part 3 on Friday: Orwell and the perils of ubiquitous surveillance, boingboing.net, and