Content: Cory Doctorow’s Copyright Philosophy and Libraries

I was initially drawn to Cory Doctorow’s Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future (2008) because I recognized his name as an author of science fiction. I read his novel For the Win (2010) as part of a video games and literature class as an undergrad, so I was curious about the kinds of connections I would find to libraries. It turns out, there are some very big ones: innovation, participation, and interconnectivity to name a few.

Doctorow begins the forward to Content by stating that he as been releasing his books online for free since publishing his first novel in 2003. He writes that “every one of those books, [he’s] included a little essay explaining why [he] does this sort of thing,” and rather than do it again in this book, he realized that this “whole book is [his] explanation for why [he’s] giving it away for free online. He refers to this collection as the closest he has ever come to a “Comprehensive Doctorow Manifesto” (p. 2). Upon reading this, I immediately checked the introduction to For the Win, having downloaded both books from his website, and sure enough there was a thorough explanation of his thoughts on copyright and making his work available online. I will return to the introduction in For the Win later because I would first like to discuss how Doctorow’s ideas establish a philosophy of innovation that speaks to the development of libraries today.

Doctorow wants to make his work available online because he sees that as an inevitability. He writes, “Once it’s in the world, it’ll be copied. This is why I give away digital copies of my books and make money on the printed editions: I’m not going to stop people from copying the electronic editions, so I might as well treat them as an enticement to buy the printed objects. The information economy is all around us” (p. 50-1). Rather than keeping information behind what he sees as easily overcome obstacles such as digital rights management (DRM), it is important to recognize that in a world run by DRM, nothing would be accessible online at all without payment. His opposition to DRM speaks to one of the core tenets of libraries to make information accessible. While some economics remain involved in libraries, such as access to journals, e-books, software, etc., this is a barrier that is being intentionally torn-down when possible rather than built up. Doctorow describes this relationship by describing the failures of DRM, “Better access to more information is the hallmark of the information economy… none of us rely on curtailing access to information… we compete by supplying a superior service, not by eliminating competition” (p. 63). Doctorow’s innovative approach to copyright and publication speaks to idea of “radical trust” espoused by Michael Stephens. Providing a product online is Doctorow’s way of marketing his work, not undermining the existing economy of artists selling their work for a living.

Doctorow’s philosophy falls in line with Brian Kenney’s “Three Ways Libraries and Publishers Can Work Better Together” (2016) in not only advocating for e-books alongside print books but also seeking to remove barriers to access. Kenney calls for changes in the way libraries access e-books, noting the increasing cost of the Penguin Random House model. Publishers and authors need to work together with libraries to make their work accessible. This is where Doctorow makes a radical comment about the nature of e-books that highlights the participatory and interconnectivity of the hyperlinked library of today and the future. He writes, “The thing about an e-book is that it’s a social object. It wants to be copied from friend to friend, beamed from a Palm device, pasted into a mailing list” (p. 68). For Doctorow, e-books and the internet in general, as he later notes (p. 69), are social by nature. The sharing of information is essential in his eyes as it is for libraries that seek to reach more users. In K.G. Schneider’s  “The User Is Not Broken: A meme masquerading as a manifesto” (2006) as well as Kenney’s later “The User is (Still) Not Broken” (2014), the path toward innovation and continued success of libraries is an emphasis on the user. Doctorow is acutely aware of his users and appreciates their importance in the way he distributes his work. He further establishes this point by highlighting the importance of the individual, “That’s the purpose of copyright, after all: to decentralize who gets to make art” (p. 73). It is not for large organizations to decide, but for any participant to have the right to take part in creating and sharing information.

Doctorow also turns his attention towards the concept of Wikis as a space where there is a truly participant and collaborative culture enabled by the internet. He asks the question, “Can we merge composition and editorship into a single role, fusing our creative and critical selves?,” and then answers it himself, “You betcha” (p. 136). They type of collaboration involved in developing Wikis is similar to what Michael Casey calls for in his post “Revisiting Participatory Service in Trying Times” (2011). In it, Casey wonders why libraries have remained somewhat limited in their use of emerging technologies to foster true participation on the part of users. It is easy to use new systems of sharing information to spread news and ideas, but to actually allow users to contribute themselves is the goal of 2.0 libraries moving forward.

Although I have gotten a bit carried away with this post, I said I would return to the For the Win introduction, and I will do so to continue discussing innovation in participation and interconnectivity. After receiving numerous emails offering donations because of his free online model, Doctorow created a fund that would allow teachers and librarians to receive free copies of the novel for their libraries or classrooms. He writes that this system has put more than a thousand books into the hands of readers in schools and libraries (p. 3). This anecdote about the impact that his copyright philosophy has had reminded me of Michael Stephens’ post about keeping, sharing, and making stories (2017). Doctorow’s philosophy allows stories to be kept and shared easily, which in turn lets new users make their own stories by participating in the ones he created and sharing them with others. He advocates for a change in the way we use technology and a new approach to copyright that aligns with the evolution of libraries and librarianship.

Works Cited

Casey, M. (2011). Revisiting participatory service in trying times. Retrieved from:

Doctorow, C. (2008). Content: Selected essays on technology, creativity, copyright, and the future of the future. Retrieved from:

Doctorow, C. (2010). For the win. Retrieved from:

Kenney, B. (2014). The user is (still) not broken. Retrieved from:

Kenney, B. (2016). Three ways publishers and libraries can work better together. Retrieved from:

Scheider, K.G. (2006). The user is not broken: A meme masquerading as a manifesto. Retrieved from:

Stephens, M. (2017). Telling stories. Retrieved from:

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