Monday, 15 November 2010

Cory Doctorow at TAM London 2010

The subject of copyright might not at first appear entirely relevant to the skeptical theme of TAM London, but Cory Doctorow is an engaging speaker and I was keen to hear him in person. (I also had a personal interest in hearing him speak, as I've had my own creative work published beside his, in the podcast fiction anthology Voices: New Media Fiction, edited by Mur Lafferty.) In the event Doctorow's talk fitted the theme perfectly, as he is skeptical of the whole idea of copyright as it is attempted to be implemented in the modern digital world.

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Doctorow is himself a pioneer in copyright reform. As a science-fiction writer he makes all his novels available for free under Creative Commons, yet still earns money from the same novels published conventionally. He worked for some years at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, so is no stranger to challenging accepted paradigms.

He pointed out that the way copyright-owners currently seek to restrict use of their intellectual property is simply impractical in the age of the internet, and that "yesterday's pirates are today's admirals". As an example he cited the invention of the phonograph, which appeared to threaten publishers of sheet music. When it became possible to mechanically record music played from the printed sheets, the music publishers understandably objected to the recording companies' selling their recordings direct to the public. They considered the recording companies pirates, but now the recording companies are the admirals, protesting at the ease with which their recordings can be shared at very low cost without remuneration to the companies that manufactured the recordings. He described Viacom's attempts to force YouTube to vet — for copyright violation — all uploads to the world's most popular video-sharing website as doomed: there simply isn't enough time between now and the heat death of the universe for YouTube to do such a thing.


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Cory Doctorow is always great value as a speaker — clear, provocative, funny and disciplined. He dealt with questions from the floor in typical no-nonsense fashion. Other public speakers could learn a lot from his style. If you want more Doctorow, I recommend his website Craphound.com as a first stop. He's also an editor of BoingBoing, the well-known tech/culture blog.

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