Surprise! You don’t own your stuff. (Review of CONTENT by Cory Doctorow)

CONTENT: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future. By Cory Doctorow, doctorow@craphound.com 

It’s 2004, and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow has been invited to present to Microsoft’s Research Group about Digital Rights Management (DRM). This is this outline: “1. DRM systems don’t work; 2. DRM systems are bad for society; 3. DRM systems are bad for business; 4. DRM systems are bad for artists; 5. DRM is a bad business-move for Microsoft” (Doctorow, 2008). 

Included in this talk are various illustrations demonstrating that when content is purchased, the owner should never be locked to a proprietary player/viewer. This creates a situation in which perpetual access to purchased content is entirely dependent on the vendor’s ongoing support of the platform. Doctorow goes on to make the case that it is in the best interest of everyone – the artists, the users, and Microsoft – for Microsoft to move away from distributing content and players supporting DRM.  

Fast-forward 15 years to April 2, 2019.  

Announcement from Microsoft!  

“Starting April 2, 2019, the books category in Microsoft Store will be closing. Unfortunately, this means that starting July 2019 your ebooks will no longer be available to read, but you’ll get a full refund for all book purchases” (Microsoft, 2019). 

Granted, I don’t know anyone who was personally affected by this decision, but it is a case-in-point that DRM works against users, even if you choose to purchase from a company as well-established as Microsoft.  

Doctorow’s response to this announcement puts it best, “Microsoft once had an ebook store filled with ‘buy now’ buttons—today, Microsoft tells us that we never bought anything, that we merely conditionally licensed it” (quoted by Restar, 2019).  

Content is a collection of 28 essays that examine copyright, the Internet, and DRM from a variety of different angles. All of these essays come together as a very strong defense against DRM, which he contends was created by distributors – in the name of copyright – to give these distributors a way to retain ownership and control of the content that they were “selling.”   

Copyright was conceived as an incentive for creators, researchers, and visionaries to share their ideas and thus spur on the work of other like-minded people. All the while, this expression of their ideas was protected such that they would be able to benefit professionally and monetarily.  

This was relatively simple… BEFORE the Internet. But now, we have the capacity to distribute content in a way that was unimaginable to those who designed copyright law. Doctorow pinpoints the core issue. “Here are the two most important things to know about computers and the Internet: 1. A computer is a machine for rearranging bits; 2. The Internet is a machine for moving bits from one place to another very cheaply and quickly” (2008). 

Some observations specifically related to hyperlinked libraries and librarians:  

  • The DRM issue is core to librarianship. We are increasingly being pushed into situations where we are renting our content, and even “perpetual licenses” have strings attached.  
  • We should be informing our users about DRM, purchase agreements, and licensing agreements. Basically, if there is DRM, a purchase isn’t really a purchase. It is a perpetual license to be enjoyed so long as the vendor chooses. 
  • The argument that DRM is the modern solution to copyright (and the protection of creators’ rights) doesn’t hold up. There is increasing evidence that authors (like Doctorow) who make their works available online for free have INCREASED sales of the same works in print. 
  • Pay attention to Cory Doctorow! He continues to stay engaged in this discussion, and I have found him to be uniquely thoughtful, knowledgeable, and articulate. And funny. His books are available (many for free download) at craphound.com, and he blogs at boingboing.net.  

An additional observation related to our core reading. @michael wrote,  

OCLC’s study, ‘Perceptions of Libraries, 2010,’ reports that the number of people who associate the word library with books has risen to 75 percent—up from 69 percent in 2005. As Borders stores have closed around the country and e-reader popularity soars, we need to focus on what comes next in the evolution of our services. (Stephens, 2016) 

As we consider the “evolution of our services,” I’d like to share Doctorow’s comments about new media vs old media.  

“New media don’t succeed because they’re like the old media, only better: they succeed because they’re worse than the old media at the stuff the old media is good at, and better at the stuff the old media are bad at” (Doctorow, 2008).   

To boil it down: there are strengths and weaknesses to print books, e-books on e-readers, e-books read in-browser, and audiobooks. There are also strengths to print journals, e-journals, indexed microform, DVDs, VHS (maybe?), CDs, LPs, audiocassettes… ok I’ll stop. Therefore, when considering what comes next, we have to look at the needs of our users, the strengths and weaknesses of new media/old media (including access/DRM) and determine what can be implemented to best serve our communities. 

References:  

Doctorow, Cory. (2008). Content: selected essays on technology, creativity, copyright, and the future of the future. Retrieved from https://craphound.com/content/download/ 

Microsoft. (2019). Books in Microsoft store FAQ. Retrieved from: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4497396/books-in-microsoft-store-faq 

Restar, Al. (2019). You will no longer be able to read ‘Ebooks’ you bought from ‘Microsoft.’ Retrieved from https://z6mag.com/2019/07/02/you-will-no-longer-be-able-to-read-ebooks-you-bought-from-microsoft/ 

Stephens, Michael. (2016). The heart of librarianship. ALA Editions. Chicago. 

4 thoughts on “Surprise! You don’t own your stuff. (Review of CONTENT by Cory Doctorow)

  1. Tori says:

    I used to work for an academic publisher to secure permissions/licenses for third-party material, so the word “copyright “gave me flashbacks to the hours I spent explaining copyright law to authors and searching for publications that would let me license their material on Copyright Clearance Center. I think I might share a lot of Doctorow’s opinions when it comes to digital media and copyright law, and your post definitely piqued my interest. I love the quote you chose about how new media are “worse than the old media at the stuff the old media is good at, and better at the stuff the old media are bad at.”
    On the point of digital “ownership” being something of a moving target: do you remember reading about how Penguin Random House changed their licensing terms for library books? I could have sworn I read something about it recently, but a quick google pulled up discussions about a licensing change last year, which is not nearly as recent (or directly linked to our personal connections to books/library communities) as the Microsoft example you gave.

  2. Britt Liukkonen says:

    This is a great review and makes me want to read the book! Copyright has always been a very interesting topic and DRM seems to be very controversial. I play a lot of video games and Steam is a major DRM platform. You’ve outlined a lot of the cons to DRM (You mean I paid $60 and don’t own my game???), but at the same time, Steam provides a service: game database, reviews, news, friend lists, forums, game overlay, and multiplayer platform. Without it, it would be difficult to keep track of my (over 110) games, but my DRM keeps them nicely in order. What would I do if Steam ever stopped being supported? I don’t know, but the Internet would probably riot.

    Games are a totally different animal from information, though. I agree that DRM for information, and especially for information paid for by the government, should be easily accessible and not shoved behind a paywall in which you have to subscribe to just view it. Open access, creative commons (like this book I love: https://automatetheboringstuff.com/), and open-source seem to be on the rise and the people of the Internet are championing the cause. I hope things continue to move in the direction of open access.

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