November 13, 2004

Cory Doctorow on Digital Rights

by Scott Rettberg · , 6:15 am

Cory Doctorow’s talk was one of the highlights of the Digital Og Sosial Conference yesterday in Bergen. The talk is available as a Quicktime video. I encourage you to watch the video for yourself, but here are some notes for readers who prefer text. Doctorow made a case that the audience of the conference, primarily librarians, authors, and archivists, ought to take an active interest in the doings of technology and entertainment consortiums looking to enforce copyright and patent laws and to create new ones. When it comes to technology, Doctorow argued, consortiums have a nasty habit of turning features into bugs, of disabling rather than enabling new technologies, and of doing everything they can to take control of technologies (such as the general purpose computer) away from the people who purchase them. Doctorow, on his way to a WIPO meeting where he will represent the EFF, joked that the WIPO in Geneva is for copyright what Mordor in Lord of the Rings is for evil in Middleearth.

Doctorow did a great job of drawing comparisons between the current copyright fight and situations from the history of previous technologies, where vested interests had argued that features of new technologies should be disabled in order to protect their cash cows. He reminded us that when Marconi developed the radio, record companies and music publishers wanted to charge people subscriptions in order to use radios, and were disturbed that the technology enabled virtually anyone to listen in on a broadcast. Marconi argued successfully that the purpose of radios was to extend musical performances beyond the music hall, thatt this was a feature, not a bug.

Doctorow detailed the movement by consortiums of entertainment companies and technology manufactures to legislate anti-circumvention laws, which make it unlawful to break locks on computer programs — make it unlawful to use and understand the operations of your own computer.

Doctorow detailed a laundry list of bad signs for end users of contemporary technology. Tech companies used to take the side of the user, used to say “it’s not our job to serve the entertainment industries claims” but the tide has turned. ISPs, which initially resisted signed up to enforce copyright claims for copyright holders. The equivalent would be requiring restaurateurs with enforcing petty theft on the street — say a man barges into a bistro and claims that another man stolen his hat — with removing the hat from their customer’s head and giving it to the man who just barged in the door.

It’s no surprise, Doctorow said, that vested entertainment interests work against innovative technologies. Every innovative technology has started as a pirate technology, from piano rolls to VCRs. Confronted with the phonography, John Philip Sousa said that the “talking machine” would leave us in a world without vocal cords.

Format wars over DVDs. Only features that don’t challenge the market of the DVD consortium are improved. Studios have control over technology and DVD player today is substantially the same as it was 10 years ago as a result.

Trend towards consortiums. The problem with consortium model is that it stifles innovation. Consortiums have no transparency, are not accountable, are not overseen by any government and do not serve the public interest, only that of their member companies. Putting consortiums in charge of regulating new technologies is like asking the blacksmiths how they feel about locomotives. Tech companies are in the process of selling us out.

Rather than new features, consortiums tend to encourage more and more restrictive DRM — example of iTunes — iTunes 4.0 had streaming feature where you could stream your music from your home computer anywhere. With the first upgrade, this feature was removed, at the request of the music industry. The ability to download music from iPod to your hard drive was similarly removed with “upgrade.”

Some examples specific to Europe. The Database Treaty in force in Europe. By dint of having assembled a catalog, you become the owner of that catalog for 50 years. As a result, there has been no substantial growth of Europe databases. The treaty enables monopoly ownership of public facts.

DVD Forum — sets standards for Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America. Wants to make standards like American ones. Broadcast flag — If you’re going to build a digital television, you need to get approval from the entertainment industry. The manufacturer needs to guarantee that users cannot modify components. Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut? Pushing for the ability to remotely disable features in new technologies. Example of TIVO type devices — you can’t burn shows to DVD. You are only allowed to save a few shows and you can’t archive them. Consortium attempting to make an entire class of devices (DVD burners) illegal.

Trend towards restriction of analog outputs. Consortium desire to ban devices such as Slingbox. Device with analogue inputs and an ethernet jack that would allow you to listen to anything available on your home TV or stereo from any high-speed Internet connected device anywhere in the world. Consortium solution is analog hold. Proposed watermarking of analog signals. Demand for technology that would shut off any device that picks up copyright-watermarked signal. One potential example of a result — you’re videotaping your daughter’s first steps, but the TV is on in the living room. The camera picks up the watermarked signal and shuts off the device.

After all the bad news, some positive developments.

Development agenda— proposing that WIPO exists not to make copyright laws but to serve the public interest.

Creative Commons’ new Developing Nations License — enables copyright holders to set different license for developing world than for customers in the industrialized world.

European performance license — currently copyrights on recorded performances can only be held for 50 years. This means that early European performances, for instance, by Elvis Presley should soon be in the public domain.

BBC Creative Archive making broadcast archive available to all Britons to use any BBC content as they see fit. Trying to get other public broadcasting entities to do the same, and then to share content internationally.


Librarians are the first line of defense in the copyright fight. Don’t wiretap your networks and invade your constituents privacy. Doing so is an unprecedented violation of privacy and is not required by any treaty.

Don’t censor protocols — like P2P protocols. In order to catch a few violators, some are willing to burn down the largest library in the history of the world.

Aggressively archive, particularly works that are available in the public domain and under creative commons.

Act for archivists. Treat free culture as though it were free.

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