While I was living in South Africa, I bought a limited edition DVD of Star Wars: A New Hope that featured the original theatrical release of the film. A friend and I were working on a parody of the movie at the time, and we wanted it before George Lucas had pasted those ridiculous computer animations all over the screen.
The theatrical release was amazing, crisp and clean, and it was like watching it for the first time. I moved back to the U.S. in 2007 and decided to watch the movie again — I try to screen the original trilogy at least once per year—but when I popped the DVD into my player it didn’t work. It was protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM), essentially a digital lock that prevented me from watching the film in my “zone” in the U.S.
I remain upset about this. In fact, I’m looking at the movie on my table right now and I’m still pissed off that George Lucas’s crowning glory sits right before me and I can’t watch it. I paid good money for the DVD in South Africa. I am not, in short, a pirate. But I refuse to buy the film again. If I tried to break the digital lock myself, I would make myself a criminal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (especially if I shared my solution.) I can now only use the DVD as a coaster.
This is a sad state of affairs. Yet DRM explains many of the strange decisions that can turn a willing customer into a pirate. These locks encrypt media to prevent others from copying or distributing them in an unauthorized manner. When pirated copies are shared on social media, ISPs and intermediaries have to immediately respond to requests to take down that material, which usually come from the big three record labels or the big six movie houses.
The entertainment industry doesn’t like having to request the take-down and the intermediaries don’t like having to comply. Twitter, for example, received 9,199 notices in the first half of 2014. Plus, ordinary people get swept up in the mess with little due process. The website Chilling Effects, which documents trends in take-down notices, reported that the feminist blog Eschergirls received multiple take down requests for spotlighting the work of a comic book artist who depicted women in degrading poses. The locks can even create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by criminals.
What about the creative artists, the people who make the content that we enjoy? The internet has brought amazing opportunities for creative artists but they fall victim to rights restrictions too, and not in the way you think. Each new YouTube hit is accompanied by a concomitant sneaky method of rights-holders to restrict copying and punish those they suspect to be evil wrongdoers. Artists suffer as a result because they now have one more barrier sitting between them and their audience.
Cory Doctorow has been tackling this issue for a long time. In 2003, he released his book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom online for free. I downloaded it, but I couldn’t enjoy reading an entire novel on a crappy CRT monitor. Doctorow went on to grow the site Boing Boing into a multimillion dollar enterprise and to write several successful novels, including the prescient bestseller Little Brother. All the while he has maintained his side-hobby as a digital activist, co-founding the Open Rights Group in his adopted home in the U.K.
In his new book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (McSweeney’s), Doctorow provides a thoughtful treatise on creativity in the digital age. The book is part how-to manual for aspiring creative professionals and part indictment of the entertainment industry.
This is a strange mix, but it doesn’t take long to understand why he combined the two. As he writes:
“The single most important thing you need in order to have a career in the arts is persistence. The second most important thing you need is talent. The third most important thing is a ground in how the online world works. It’s that important.”
You can no longer just start a blog and hope to sell a book about it. Your chances are about as good as winning the lottery. Similarly, if you do create a viable product, you can still be steamrolled by the entertainment industry or numerous intermediaries who do not have your best interests at heart.
Intermediaries are important, according to Doctorow, because they affect your ability to negotiate with companies and the people who stand between you and your audience. It grows more complicated once you factor in social media, where content is being created and distributed at “unimaginable scale.” YouTube users now upload 100 hours of video every single minute. While a portion of that content might be pirated, the vast majority involves home recordings of babies taking their first steps or kids teaching tricks on their skateboards. People use these tools to explore their interests and communicate—it would be silly to allow a few bad apples to take down the entire system.
Doctorow’s solution comes in two parts. First, we shouldn’t allow legislation to be passed that criminalizes even more people for copying. This means stopping draconian legislation like SIPA, SOPA, and ACTA, and preventing companies from worming their terms into massive trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership. Copying is here to stay.
The second solution is for entertainment groups to develop better blanket licenses. These licenses currently allow radio DJs to play whatever music they like — they pay a blanket license to a collecting society like ASCAP that is negotiated in advance. Doctorow contends that the entertainment industry should be proactive and develop new licenses based on digital analytics that strike a better balance between artists, intermediaries, and distributors:
“If there’s one single characteristic that defines today’s technology world, it’s analytics… A collecting society run with the smarts of Google and the transparency of GNU/Linux has the potential to see to it that payments are fairly dispersed.”
A new, dynamic collective licensing society could in theory solve some of the problems in the music industry, and it’s better than accusing kids and their mothers of being pirates, because copying is only going to get easier as computing power expands. But the devil is in the details. For example, artists claim that services like Pandora and Spotify don’t pay them, but those companies are often paying quite a lot for each song played. The record labels just keep those royalties because of fine print in the contracts with artists instead of passing the royalties along.
Intermingled with the history of copyright and DRM in Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free are several choice tidbits of advice that any aspiring artist should read. To promote the book, the author commissioned several creative artists to provide their tips about how to survive in the digital age.
What became of my Star Wars parody? Nothing, but it certainly didn’t help that I could only use my DVD as a coaster. It’s not as if these problems are going away, either. Last year, I traveled to Krakow, Poland, for work and struck up a conversation about Game of Thrones with a college student. He explained that he was able to download an episode of the series the day after it aired—with Polish subtitles already added to the video. I don’t have cable, so I was not able to buy the season until eight months later.
What’s worse, I couldn’t even talk to the student about the show because of spoilers. This is an absurd situation. I don’t fault the college student at all—he probably couldn’t afford to shell out $40 and likely didn’t have the patience to wait—but I was more than willing to pay.
I can see it now: in October 2015, we make first contact. Our alien visitors, to break the ice, ask us our thoughts about the ending of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Cue intergalactic war.
Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of Nigerians in Space, a thriller about brain drain from Africa out now from Unnamed Press. He fights for digital rights at the international organization Access. Follow him on Twitter @dejiridoo.