How to Destroy the Book, by Cory
This article was published on Dec 14, 2009 in the Features section
From his speech on copyright at the National Reading
Summit. Transcribed by JADE COLBERT
On November 13, Cory Doctorow spoke to a crowd of about a hundred librarians, educators,
publishers, authors, and students on “How to Destroy the Book,” as part of the National
Reading Summit held at the ROM.
Doctorow has a pretty impressive bio: co-editor of Boing Boing, former Director of European
Affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fulbright Chair at the Annenberg Center for
Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, visiting Senior Lecturer at Open
University, and New York Times bestselling author. He has been called (okay, admittedly by
Entertainment Weekly) “The William Gibson of his generation.”
What I don’t like about such bios is how they leave you without much sense for how the
accolades were earned in the first place. Not to give the impression that it’s his best work, but
for evidence of Doctorow’s refreshing attitude, look no further than his email signature.
Whereas a typical email from Maclean’s might conclude:
This e-mail (and attachment(s)) is confidential, proprietary, may be subject to copyright and
legal privilege and no related rights are waived. If you are not the intended recipient or its
agent, any review, dissemination, distribution or copying of this e-mail or any of its content is
strictly prohibited and may be unlawful. All messages may be monitored as permitted by
and so on for another couple of lines, and then in French, Cory Doctorow’s emails end thusly:
READ CAREFULLY. By reading this email, you agree, on behalf of your employer, to release
me from all obligations and waivers arising from any and all NON-
NEGOTIATED agreements, licenses, terms-of-service, shrinkwrap, clickwrap, browsewrap,
confidentiality, non-disclosure, non-compete and acceptable use policies ("BOGUS
AGREEMENTS") that I have entered into with your employer, its partners, licensors, agents
and assigns, in perpetuity, without prejudice to my ongoing rights and privileges. You further
represent that you have the authority to release me from any BOGUS AGREEMENTS on
behalf of your employer.
For this alone the man deserves a medal.
In October, Doctorow’s latest, Makers, hit real, physical bookshelves to generally happy
thoughts from Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, and The Globe and Mail. Makers
is also available as a free download, as are all of Doctorow’s books, from his website.
Here is Part One to his talk.
An elegy for the book
I’d like to start my talk today with an elegy for the book. The first part of the elegy is called
There is a group of powerful anti-copyright activists out there who are trying to destroy the
book. These pirates would destroy copyright, and they have no respect for our property. They
dress up their thievery in high-minded rhetoric about how they are the true defenders and
inheritors of creativity, and they have sold this claim around the world to regulators and
lawmakers alike. There are members of Parliament and Congress-people who are unduly
influenced by them. They say they’re only trying to preserve the way it’s always been. They
claim that their radical agenda is somehow conservative. But what they really see is a future
in which the electronic culture market grows by leaps and bounds and they get to be at the
centre of it. They claim that this is about ethics, but anyone who thinks about it for a minute
can see that it’s about profit.
Part two of this elegy is called “The people of the book.”
The people of the book
We are the people of the book. We love our books. We fill our houses with books. We
treasure books we inherit from our parents, and we cherish the idea of passing those books on
to our children. Indeed, how many of us started reading with a beloved book that belonged to
one of our parents? We force worthy books on our friends, and we insist that they read them.
We even feel a weird kinship for the people we see on buses or airplanes reading our books,
the books that we claim. If anyone tries to take away our books—some oppressive
government, some censor gone off the rails—we would defend them with everything that we
have. We know our tribespeople when we visit their homes because every wall is lined with
books. There are teetering piles of books beside the bed and on the floor; there are masses of
swollen paperbacks in the bathroom. Our books are us. They are our outboard memory banks
and they contain the moral, intellectual, and imaginative influences that make us the people
we are today.
Copyright recognizes this. It says that when you buy a book, you own the book. It’s yours to
give away, yours to keep, yours to license or to borrow, to inherit or to be included in your
safe for your children. For centuries, copyright has acknowledged that sacred connection
between readers and their books. We think of copyright as something that regulates things
within a bunch of buckets—DVDs, video games, records—but books are more than all of
these things. Books are older than copyright. Books are older than publishing. Books are older
The anti-copyright activists have no respect for our copyright and our books. They say that
when you buy an ebook or an audiobook that’s delivered digitally, you are demoted from an
owner to a licensor. From a reader to a mere user. These thieves deliver our digital books and
our audiobooks wrapped in license agreements and technologies that might as well be
designed to destroy the emotional connection that readers have with their books.
These licenses of course can run up to thousands of words. If you have an iPhone and buy an
audiobook from Audible using the iTunes store with it, you agree to an estimated 26,000
words of license agreement. The Canadian Copyright Act itself only runs to 33,000 words.
The premise of these licenses is forget copyright. Forget the law in the public realm that gave
you the rights to your books. From now on, we write the law.
These licenses are of course built with unenforceable clauses. You can tell, because they’re
liberally peppered with language like “If any part of this license is found to be unenforceable,
the rest of it will remain in effect.” This is of course the lawyers’ way of saying, “We didn’t
limit this to the things we thought a judge would smile upon. We put everything in here. It’s a
kind of possible wish list and the only way that you’ll find out which parts are real and which
parts are imaginary is to sue us over every point.”
It’s basically a way of saying that copyright is nonsense, and that readers should stop paying
attention to it, and only agree to these crazy, abusive licenses.
And on top of those licenses, they add digital rights management technology. Digital rights
management technology, of course, has never stopped the book from escaping onto the
Internet. To those publishers here today who believe that you can buy DRM that will stop
your books from appearing on the Internet without restriction, I say to you, “Behold, the
So if DRM doesn’t stop people from copying books, what does it do? What it does is makes it
illegal for someone to create a reader that can display a book or play an audiobook. Imagine if
a giant book chain did a deal with Ikea so that Ikea would be the exclusive supplier of reading
chairs and shelves and light bulbs for its books, and actually got a law passed that made it
illegal to sell chairs and bookcases and light bulbs that were compatible with their books. This
would not be in the interests of readers nor of publishers nor of writers. It would very much
be in the interest of Ikea, because they would then have a lock in over our readers that would
allow them to exercise undo power in the marketplace.
We’ve heard publishers and writers and other people involved in various creative industries
bemoaning for years the undue influence exerted by chains like Wal-Mart, because they
control a critical distribution channel. But imagine if that control continued beyond the grave,
after the sale, so that any after-market use of your collection required you have an ongoing
relationship with a mere retailer or distributor. Imagine how bad that would be for publishing.
So part three of this elegy is called “Saving the book.”
Saving the book
After years of writing and talking and thinking about books, I’ve come to a simple but
important realization: I love books. Not just reading them or owning them—I have a deeply
sentimental attachment to the very idea of the book.
And it’s not just me. It’s social. It’s across our entire society. If you’re making a short film,
and you want to illustrate a society that’s falling into tyranny, you can just cut away to a scene
of a pile of books burning, and everyone will know exactly what you meant. If you want to
indicate that a character in a book is very sympathetic, and you mention how much she loves
reading and going to the library, then your readers will immediately show sympathy for her.
Books have this penumbra of virtues, they ooze virtue, and it’s long beyond anything rational
or reasonable, because all of you who are people of the book know that there are many books
that are absolutely unworthy of that virtue, and yet—and yet—when I worked in a bookstore
and had to strip paperbacks to send them back, it was painful to tear the covers off of books. I
can barely bring myself to recycle the phone book every year.
And yes, it’s a wonderful place to be for publishing, because they get a free ride on this
sentimental attachment that people have to books. People go on buying books because they
love the idea of books. Publishers are going out today and paying high-priced marketing
consultants to help them understand “the electronic experience” of a digital book. The
experience of how a book could be consumed.
Which brings me to the second half of that important realization: the most important part of
the experience of a book is knowing that it can be owned. That it can be inherited by your
children, that it can come from your parents. That libraries can archive it, they can lend it, that
patrons can borrow it. That the magazines that you subscribe to can remain in a mouldering
pile of National Geographics in someone’s attic so you can discover it on a rainy day—and
that they don’t disappear the minute you stop subscribing to it. It’s a very odd kind of
subscription that takes your magazines away when you’re done [as is the case with most
institutional subscriptions with Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of medical and
Having your books there like an old friend, following you from house to house for all the days
and long nights of your life: this is the invaluable asset that is in publishing’s hands today. But
for some reason publishing has set out to convince readers that they have no business reading
their books as property—that they shouldn’t get attached to them. The worst part of this is
that they may in fact succeed.
Part four is called “Respect copyright.”
People keep showing me ebook readers that try to recreate the book experience with cute
animations showing the turning of pages. But if you want to recreate the important part of the
book experience, the part that keeps people buying books for their whole lives, filling their
homes with treasured friends that they would not part with for love nor money, then we need
to restore and safeguard ownership of books. When I buy a book, it’s mine. There’s no
mechanism, not even in the face of a court order, whereby a retailer can take a book away
from me, and yet Amazon—there’s the most extraordinary thing that they had to do in the
United States—you’ve heard of course that someone put a copy of Orwell’s 1984 in the
Kindle Store, and it wasn’t licensed for distribution in the U.S.—of course, Orwell is in the
public domain outside the U.S., in copyright in the U.S.—and Amazon responded to this
intelligence by revoking the book 1984 from its customers’ ebook readers. After they’d
bought it, they woke up one morning to discover their book had gone. But Amazon was
actually pretty good. After thinking about it for a day, and confronting the media storm, they
decided to restore the books—they gave them back to the people, and they made a promise:
“We will never ever ever ever ever give your books away again. Unless we have to.”
Now I worked as a bookseller for a number of years in this city, and I never had to make that
promise to any of my customers when they bought books. Designing a book reader so that
books can be removed from it without the reader’s knowledge or consent violates Chekhov’s
first law of narrative: any gun on the mantelpiece in Act One is bound to go off by Act Three.
When I buy an audiobook on CD, it’s mine. The license agreement, such as it is, is “don’t
violate copyright law,” and I can rip that CD to mp3, I can load it to my iPod or any number
of devises—it’s mine; I can give it away, I can sell it; it’s mine. But when you buy an
audiobook through Audible, which now controls 90 per cent of the [downloadable] audiobook
market, you get a license agreement, not a property interest. The things that you can do with it
are limited by DRM; the players you can play it on are limited by the license agreements with
Audible. Audible doesn’t do this because the publishers ask them to. Audible and iTunes,
because Audible is the sole supplier to iTunes, do this because it’s in their own interest.
To explain to you how I know this: my last book was a Random House audiobook. We went
to Audible and said, “Will you do this book in your store without DRM,” and they said, “No.”
When we asked them with this one, Makers, which just came out this week—again, a
Random House audiobook—Random House is of course the largest publisher in the world, a
major customer—we went to Audible and said “Will you do this?” And Audible said, “Why,
yes, we will. But iTunes won’t carry it.”
Anyone who claims that readers can’t and won’t and shouldn’t own their books are bent on
the destruction of the book, the destruction of publishing, and the destruction of authorship
itself. We must stop them from being allowed to do it. The library of tomorrow should be
better than the library of today. The ability to loan our books to more than one person at once
is a feature, not a bug. We all know this. It’s time we stop pretending that the pirates of
copyright are right. These people were readers before they were publishers before they were
writers before they worked in the legal department before they were agents before they were
salespeople and marketers. We are the people of the book, and we need to start acting like it.
So that’s the end of the elegy.
How to Destroy the Book, by Cory
Doctorow (part two)
This article was published on Dec 14, 2009
This is the second half of a speech that Cory Doctorow gave to a crowd of about a hundred
librarians, educators, publishers, authors, and students on “How to Destroy the Book,” as
part of the National Reading Summit held at the ROM. Read the first half here.
Copying is life.
Three or four billion years ago, the first self-replicating molecules occurred due to some
cosmic accident of chemistry and radiation. And three or four billion years later, they
emerged as us. Copying is what we do. Copying is the difference between inert matter and
life. Copying is built into our DNA.
I have a 21-month-old daughter, and when she was two weeks old, my mother, who holds a
PhD in early childhood education, came to visit us in London, where I live, and she said,
“Have you stuck your tongue out at her yet?” And I said “Why, no.” And she said, “Stick
your tongue out at her and watch.” And she started sticking her tongue out at Poesy, and
Poesy started trying to do the same—she copied her. Poesy had never seen a mirror by this
point. She didn’t even know she had a tongue. That’s how deeply ingrained in us copying is.
We copy like we nuzzle for the breast. It’s right in there at our most fundamental level.
Copying has been part of our narrative tradition for as long as we’ve had a narrative tradition.
If you pick up a pop copy of the Babylonian version of the creation myth, you’ll find that the
people who wrote Genesis copied from it. Copying is part of how we do all the stuff that
makes our society run. No one ever succeeded by making up their own railway gauge. HTML
does not function because everyone gets to make up their own tags. You don’t get to make up
your own system for calling people on the phone. If you hire an accountant and he said, “I’ll
be right over, as soon as I’ve invented an alternative to double-entry bookkeeping," you’d fire
him. Copying is progress.
Copying is creativity.
I started writing when I was six years old. I went to go see Star Wars just down the street at
the old University Theatre with my dad in 1977. When we got home, my brain was fizzing
with ideas and I got a stack of paper and I cut it and stapled it and turned it into approximately
the size of a massmarket paperback, and I wrote down stories. I thought that I was going to be
a writer. I kept on writing my fanfic for months, just trying to write down what that story had
done to me so that I could understand it.
When I was 12, I wrote my first novel. It was a terrible Conan pastiche. I’d grown up on
Conan. My dad was a Trotskyist but he was a Conan fan before he was a Trotskyist. So when
I was a kid on long car trips across Canada, I’d be in the camper in the back, and he would tell
me these Conan stories, but he retold them without Conan in them, so they had Harry, Larry,
and Mary in them—they were gender balanced, racially balanced.
I discovered Conan when I was about nine, I went down to Bakka, the science fiction
bookstore, and Tanya Huff, who was working there, a wonderful Canadian writer, gave me a
Conan novel to take home, and the scales fell from my eyes. By the time I was 12, I’d read the
whole Conan canon, and I set out to write my own Conan book. By the time I was 16, I was
sending out stories; by the time I was 17, I was selling them. I was 30 when my first novel
came out—it was a long slog. And here I am today. I quit my job in 2006, and all I do today is
write, and I started by copying. And that’s how the kids in your class start writing: by
And yet, we produce materials in the name of authorship that say to kids that they are not
supposed to copy. We reify the kind of ridiculous, mythical originality that has never existed.
Cervantes invented the novel and we pour our wine into his bottle every day without having
to invent a new literary form. We build on the works of others. To tell kids that they can’t
create, they must take nothing from those that preceded them, is to tell them a terrible,
corrosive lie about creativity, about authorship, about reading and writing.
Copying is meaningless.
We make a million copies before breakfast. Every time you click the mouse, the number of
copies that are made between you and some remote server beggars the imagination. Think
about it for a minute: first there’s the mouse click that’s converted to the USB buffer, that’s
sent off to a network buffer, that’s sent off to your router’s buffer, that’s sent off to several
other buffers, then sent to a remote server. The remote server makes a copy of the file on a
drive buffer and a network buffer, and then its router’s network buffer, and then possibly a
caching proxy, and then 10 or 15 routers between you and it, and then it gets to your modem’s
buffer, and then your network buffer, and then your graphics buffer and then your hard drive
buffer, and so on and so on. A hundred copies just by clicking the mouse. The number of
copies you make every day beggars the imagination, because after all, that’s what computers
do. They’re the world’s most perfect copying machine. To be a good computer is to be an
accurate copying machine. To be a bad computer is to copy less. That is the technical
definition of good computing: to copy well, and faithfully, and quickly, with as little friction
as possible. So copying is meaningless, but yet, copying is reified.
We have a copyright statute that intends to do something quite credible: to regulate the supply
chain of the creative industries. To ensure that the deal that’s struck between the agent and the
publisher, and the publisher and the distributor, and the distributor and the bookseller, and the
agent and the filmmaker, the filmmaker and the theatrical distributor—all those relationships
are set out in a set of good, well-crafted industry rules.
But what we do is we trigger copyright with copying on the presumption that the act of
copying will require some great piece of industrial apparatus that will necessarily imply a big
firm with lawyers and agents and other professional people who are well-situated to interpret
and act well on the copyright statutes. Copyright is a kind of tank mine: it’s designed to blow
up only if you run over it with a record-pressing plant.
But copyright has become a kind of mine that attacks civilians, because civilians copy all day
long now, without a printing press, without a corporation, without a record-pressing plant. It’s
not that civilians are doing anything they didn’t do before, it’s just that they’re doing it
through steps that involve making copies. The fanfic that I loved and shared with my
classmates when I was six years old, and 12 years old, and on and on, now it’s shared by
blogs, by web, by email, and so it involves making copies instead of passing copies from hand
to hand. That is why copyright has become metastatic.
Copyright now encompasses every aspect of your life that you do with computers, because
computers incorporate themselves into every aspect of your life. I’m an expatriate. The way
that I stay in touch with my family? By copying. Through Skype, through networks. The way
that I get my health information? Through networks. The way that I do my books? Through
networks. The way that I publish: through networks. The way that I get an education and
teach—I teach at the University of Waterloo, and at Open University—through the network.
All of that suddenly comes under the jurisdiction of copyright. Not because copyright was
intended to regulate all those things, but because all of those things involve copying. And
when a copy is made, copyright is triggered. And therein lies the disaster.
Copyright law, as good as it may be for regulating the relationships between writers and
publishers, or publishers and film companies, is a very poor regulator of all these other things
that constitute the bulk of our daily lives.
For an example of just how bad it can be, we’ve had multiple incentives in this country to
write a new copyright statute and they’ve been very fought, not least because multiple
governments have refused to ask Canadians what they want from copyright. [Sarmite] Bulte
and Jim Prentice refused with Bill C-60 and Bill C-61 to ask Canadians what their copyright
statute should look like. They met instead only with lobbyists from copyright industries, and
primarily lobbyists from American copyright industries, shooing, for example, the Canadian
Creators’ Alliance and other Canadian groups that wanted to meet with them.
Finally though, after years of pestering and hundreds of thousands of Canadians putting their
names to a Facebook group that called for consultation on what Canadian copyright should
look like, Minister Clement created a public consultation, and what we saw from that public
consultation is that Canadians overwhelmingly want fair and balanced copyright that moves
and maintains copyright as solely a regulator for the interaction of industrial entities, and
doesn’t make copyright the regulator of their entire lives.
But while Minister Clement was soliciting opinions from Canadians, he was participating in a
series of secret treaty negotiations called the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement, the most
recent round of which concluded in Seoul, Korea. I’d like to think that I had something to do
with these meetings, in particular, why they’re secret.
Traditionally, copyright has been made, on the international scale, through the World
Intellectual Property Organization, which is a UN specialist agency that has the same
relationship to copyright law as Mordor has to evil. A lot of us from various public interest
groups started showing up and writing down what was being said, and publishing it so that
people in countries could find out what their governments were doing. And people woke up
around the world, and the treaty that they were making, a broadcasting treaty that would have
banned a number of existing Canadian practices, including the way we do cable television,
collapsed on the back of transparency about what they were up to.
So they moved this treaty-making process out of the UN and into a members-only club of rich
countries. Poor countries were instrumental in toppling these treaties because when they
started to find out what these treaties would actually mean for them—remember that if you’re
a sub-Saharan African nation, you don’t send copyright experts to Geneva, you send experts
on children’s health, you send experts on water, and maybe these days you send experts on
climate change, but those people serve as reps on every UN body, and they rely on advice
from expert consultants there who, up until they got there, were from the entertainment
industry. And when they found out that what was actually being proposed were rules that no
one in the developed world actually had to follow, that would have just increased the burden
that they had to the developed world, they rose up against it, too, so they’re not invited to the
ACTA meetings either—it’s just the rich countries. Subsequent to the ratification of this
agreement, it’s understood that ratification of ACTA will be a key piece of participating in
other trade agreements.
What is it that Minister Clement has been negotiating on your behalf while you thought you
were telling him what copyright law should look like?
Well, one of the things is called a three-strikes rule, and this is something that our business
secretary of the United Kingdom, Peter Mandelson, has drawn fire about because he spent the
weekend in Corfu with David Geffen and came back decided to revise British copyright law
—that’s not my account of it, that’s his account of it.
Three strikes works like this: if anyone you live with is accused of three acts of copyright
infringement, without any proof, without any evidence, without a judge, without a jury,
without a lawyer, without due process, your Internet connection is taken away and your name
is added to a register of people for whom it is illegal to provide Internet access for a period of
time. In France, where this law was just passed, it’s a year.
Now think of what this means for your participation in the information society. Think of what
this means for your children. How many kids could do their homework without the Internet?
How many kids could stay in touch with their grandparents without the Internet? How many
people could do their jobs without the Internet? How many parents could stay abreast of their
children’s health issues without the Internet? How much will you lose if we take away your
Well, it’s easy to tell, you just have to look at the corollary. What if we had the reverse
implemented? And we know from the takedown business that preceded this proposal, where
anyone who makes up a webpage on the Internet, you could accuse them of infringing
copyright without any penalties if you get it wrong. We know from that that there’s very
sloppy takedown procedures. Universal, for example, argued that a mother who had uploaded
a clip of her adorable toddler dancing in the kitchen infringed on their copyright because in
the background faintly for a few seconds you could hear Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”
So what would happen if we said that these people were sloppy in their takedown notices
which they carry over to these copyright accusations for three strikes? If we said, “If you
make three incorrect copyright accusations, we take away your company’s Internet access.”
We’ll go around to every Universal and NBC office in the world—we’ll leave GE, the parent
company, they can keep their Internet access—the whole Universal-NBC axis: go into their
offices, into their wire closet with a set of bolt cutters, and we’ll cut off their Internet access,
and you can be the company that does business by fax from now on.
It is a corporate death penalty, because to be a corporate entity in this world is to be a
participant in the information society, just as to be a fully-fledged citizen in this world is to be
a participant in the information society.
And there Minister Clement has been, negotiating away your due process rights to being a
full-fledged citizen of the information society, even as he was asking you for what you
thought those rules should be. And that’s just for starters. Included in this is an obligation for
anyone who provides hosting on the web—so that’s YouTube or the people hosting this video
stream that’s being recorded now, it’s Blogger, it’s Yahoo groups, it’s anyone who hosts your
user content—to first ensure that material doesn’t infringe on copyright. Let’s give YouTube
as an example to see what that means.
YouTube gets 16 hours of video uploaded to it every 60 seconds. Simply put, there are not
enough lawyer hours between now and the heat-death of the universe to vet 16 hours of video
per minute on YouTube. How will YouTube stop infringing material from showing up on the
site at all? Well, they do it by becoming like a cable television station, and we know what
cable television looks like. We show up as a supplicant to one of a few companies, the
lawyers go through your errors and omissions, they make you take out anything you can’t get
permission for, even if it’s fair dealing or fair use. Ask any documentarian what it’s like
producing a video with, say, a mob scene in the streets of Bhutan where someone happens to
be wearing a Pepsi logo on their shirt, because Pepsi has not given permission, and the insurer
is not going to allow you to exhibit it theatrically until they have it from Pepsi. So that’s what
it looks like. It looks like an enormous burden on free speech and on participation in culture.
It means that your students’ abilities to both access and produce material that they share with
other students will be fatally wounded. So that’s the second thing that ACTA does.
The third thing ACTA does is it imposes a burden on ISPs to surveil their networks, and to
pass surveillance information on to rights holders so that rights holders would now be charged
with examining in fine detail without a warrant, without due process, and without
particularized suspicion—the hallmarks of liberal democracy—they would be required to
surveil everything you did: your communications with your family, your communications
with your doctor, your communications with your lawyer, your kids’ schoolwork.
In fact, we already see this in microcosm. You know, there’s these spyware creeps who will
sell you software for your library, your school, or home, that spies on what your kid does and
is supposed to monitor what your kid does and keep them from looking at naughty things? On
the grounds that somewhere there’s a boiler room big enough where they looked at every page
on the Internet, and mark the bad ones bad and the good ones good? You know what these
companies make most of their money doing? They make most of their money selling their
software to Syria, to Iran, to China—that’s their primary business. And then they have
secondary revenue streams. It’s just come out that one of them is taking everything your kids
do on the Internet, including their IM sessions and their emails, and selling it to market
research companies so they can figure out better ways to sell things to your kids. So that’s
what it looks like in microcosm.
What will it look like when it’s not just kids who labour under that regime? What will it look
like when copyright mission creep expands to create a burden of surveillance on everything
everybody does on the network?
And finally, there’s this business of what happens at the border. They argued that border
guards should have the obligation to check all incoming media to ensure that it doesn’t
contain anything that infringes copyright. Laptop searches at the border. It means all that stuff
on your laptop—pictures of your kid having a bath, love letters to your wife or husband—all
that material to be stickily pawed through by some customs guy at the border.
When this first emerged, those of us who were critics of this that said, well, this looks like
they’re going to have to search your iPod. The people in charge said, “Oh, no, it won’t be
iPods, it will only be things that have the potential to make a substantial infringement.” I
don’t know what iPods these people are using, but you can buy an iPod that carries $100,000
worth of music on it. So I don’t know what these people are thinking. It’s not as though
storage capacity is going down. From now on, hard drives just get cheaper, smaller, and more
capacious, and nothing is so small it won’t be capable of Internet copyright infringement.
Anyway, the entertainment industry argued against a diminutive secession to this. They said,
“We can’t allow anything. Anything is too much. We can’t give people the message that
there’s an acceptable level of piracy. You need to search it all.”
We’ve seen what this treaty looks like, and it’s bad.
Maximal, abusive, mindless copyright expansion isn’t just a disaster for the public, though.
It’s also a disaster for creators. There’s this myth that those of us who write do something
different from those of us who read, that there’s a fine line between writers and readers, but
I’ve never known anyone to use more information than those who create information. The
most aggressive copyists, the most aggressive owners of books and acquirers of books and all
other media that I can think of are writers. The most aggressive users of the network to
research and market, to reach out to their colleagues, to communicate with their publishers,
are writers. So even though some writers might think that they might need this, even thought
they might apply some Stockholm Syndrome that’s caused them to align themselves with the
copyright maximalists that run giant industrial entities that figure that this would be a good
idea—it doesn’t actually follow that this is actually good for writers, or for other creative
Copying creates new opportunities for writers and other creative people that have not existed
When I had my daughter, I realized that mammalian reproduction is something that we take
very seriously. We care about where every copy we’ve made of ourselves goes. We care a lot
about this division. But mammals have to invest a lot of energy into their copies. There’s a lot
of organisms that don’t. Think about the dandelion. The dandelion doesn’t care where its
seeds go, it just cares that every single opportunity for germination is taken, that every crack
in every sidewalk has a dandelion seed growing out of it.
And that’s what the creators who embrace copying—who say “It’s the 21st century, copying
happens, pretending it doesn’t is lovely and historical, like being a blacksmith at Pioneer
Village, but it’s not contemporary”—writers that have embraced copying have found that
being like a dandelion pays off. It gives you a fecundity to your work that allows it to find its
way into places that you never thought it would be found before.
The most heartbreaking stories I’ve heard about where my books have gone—my books are
copyable from the day that they’re published, they’re published jointly in the U.K., Canada,
and on audio by Holtzbrink-Macmillan-Tor, Random House, and HarperCollins, so, you
know, three of the four or five big publishing entities. These are available as free downloads,
but I get the most amazing letters from people who found these free downloads. Now, they
also go out buy the book afterward—that’s lovely, too—but in terms of a reading strategy,
what we’re here to talk about today, one of the most moving things I ever heard is from a
sailor on a ship in the Persian Gulf, saying “I’ve never really read, but here I am confronted
by incredibly long hours of boredom, and we were able to download and pass around copies
of your book on the ship. We’ve all read it. We all talk about it. It’s become part of how we
think about the world.”
Now, this particular book is about how futile the War on Terror is and how problematic it is
that we put troops in the Persian Gulf. So it’s quite amazing that this book has made it there
and has become part of that dialogue, a dialogue that I don’t think I’ve ever participated in.
But even more interesting are the letters I get from readers who found in my books the
capability to do all that social stuff that kids do with books.
Neil Gaiman, who I’m sure you’re all familiar with, is a wonderful and inspiring writer, has a
lovely schtick that I’m going to do for you today. How many people here have a favourite
writer? Put your hands up if you have a favourite writer. Keep your hand up if you paid for
the first book you got by your favourite writer, put your hand down if you got it for free.
About half of you got your first book by your favourite writer for free.
You got it from the library, you got it from your friend, someone gave it to you for nothing,
because that’s one of the most important ways that we discover reading: our friends tell us
how important it is to them and it becomes part of our social conversation. That’s the thing
about copying on the Internet: it’s not like counterfeit, it’s not like that guy on a blanket on
Yonge Street selling bootleg DVDs. Copying on the Internet is most often a hand-to-hand act,
it’s a thing that happens between people: I buy this, you should, too. Here, take this, it means
something to me. It’s part of that continuing conversation of literature that predates
publishing, that predates printing, that predates copyright, that is really at the core of what it
means to have a culture.
As the elegy reminds us, publishers have set out to sever this emotional connection by getting
this licensing fever, by saying that ownership is something that can’t exist in the 21st century,
that readers have no business owning their book. So I want you to do something. Maybe if
you work in the industry, if you’re publishers or writers, I’d like you to, essentially, cut it out.
I’d like you to have better license agreements on your works. Here’s a great license agreement
for an ebook, because everyone’s asking me, “What’s a good license agreement for an
Don’t violate copyright law.
It’s four words long! And it’s everything you need to do to uphold copyright law in your
books. Anything else is purely confiscatory of your readers. Your readers know what that
license means. They don’t know what the 26,000 words [in total, for an iPhone user to buy an
audiobook through the iTunes store] mean. And none of you would really ever agree to those
licenses either for your own purposes. So don’t do that.
If you’re a librarian or an archivist, don’t buy the media that has the abusive license terms
associated with it, and especially don’t buy media with DRM, and especially especially, don’t
buy media with DRM that tracks your patrons’ reading habits. Librarians have fought for
centuries for the intellectual freedom of their readers.
Now I have to take my jumper off because I have this great T-shirt. Librarians had these when
the Patriot Act passed. It says, “We’re the radical guild of librarians. We know what you’re
reading, but we’re not saying.”
Licenses that requires that librarians turn over their patrons’ reading habits? No librarian is
going to do it, because we know that your behaviour changes when what you do is surveilled.
We know that intellectual freedom requires a private space. So you guys that work in
libraries, your collection acquisition people are really the suckers that every ebook publisher
has square in their crosshairs, they really think that they can milk you for it, and that’s
because many of you have bought these ridiculous subscriptions that disappear when you stop
subscribing. They’ve got you marked for suckers. It’s time to stop being suckers. It’s time to
start doing right by your collections and by your patrons.
The people who manage the Bodleian Library in the U.K., which I’m sure you’re all familiar
with, I had a meeting with them recently and they said, “You know, our job isn’t to safeguard
literature for scholars. Our job is to safeguard our culture for the next civilization.” That’s
what archiving and librarianship are about.
You people are the safeguards of our culture itself. You are the continuity between
civilizations, and the only way we can maintain that is if we ensure that licensor technologies
do not prohibit those elements of archiving and circulation that are lured by printing or
So the final thing that I want you to do is get involved in further consultations, and to demand
from your members of parliament further consultation on ACTA—transparency into ACTA.
We need to see what that treaty says, we need to get the public into that treaty, and Minister
Clement should stop going to those meetings until we’ve told him that that’s what we want
him to do. Because we had consultation on copyright in this country. We know what we want
on copyright, and it’s not secrets in smoke-filled rooms, it’s transparency and public-
consultation, multilateral participation.
So thank you very much, I’ll take some questions now.