Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Comments on Information Doesn't Want to be Free by Cory Doctorow

Despite it’s lively style, this book is oppressive.  It has several threads, but it mainly explores the dismal consequences of the entertainment industry trying to impose copyright on the World Wide Web and on the world of digital communication generally.

Doctorow favors copyright in principle and supports strategies that would allow creators and the entertainment industry to make a reasonable amount of money but he is hostile to strategies that make information flow more difficult, more expensive, or more vulnerable to malware.

Along the way he offers advice for creators (musicians, movie makers, freelance writers, graphic artists, and the like) about how to prosper on the World Wide Web.  His basic advice is: Become well known. 

He is widely informed in relevant knowledge: about both the theory of computer operation and practical programming, about the ongoing development of the World Wide Web, about copyright law, about the policies and threatened policies of important nations and international agencies and treaties, and about the changing economics of the entertainment industry (which, of course, now includes Amazon and Apple and Google as well as Disney and, Warner Brothers, Bollywood, Nollywood, and Hachette).

Ironically this little book is a beautifully designed and printed example of a paper, hardcover book.  The writing is brisk, clear, but glib at times.  It is divided in to small sections and sometimes has the feel of threaded-together, short-form blogs, but it has an overall arch of argument.  He’s a bit exhibitionistic and frequently talks about his personal experience as a writer and entrepreneur and good deeds he has done.

I urge anyone who wants to become informed in this area to read this book.

He explains various political censorship efforts as those in China, Iran, and North Korea.  He discusses briefly their techniques, success and failures, and points out their similarity to censorship aimed a preserving copyright.  All this he does without citing more than illustrative snippets of computer code. 

The basic problem is that scattering copies is essential to digital communication.  When you log into a web site and, say, look at a picture, something like this happens: You send a request, which is a sort of text, to a server somewhere where the image resides.  In response, software peels off a copy of that image, which is reproduced and handed off in steps on its home server, and then passed to a node of the internet where one or more copies are made, and scattered to other nodes, where other copies are made and passed intricately toward you, until one arrives at your ISP, where a copy is made, or several in several steps, and transmitted to your computer, where one or more copies are made till one appears on your screen.  The same process applies to a movie, a song, a computer game, and the text of this little essay.  That’s what “Downloading “ means.

The entertainment industry marshals an army of engineers, expensive lawyers, and equally expensive lobbyists in a leaky effort to control copying and to make each of the entities that handles copies responsible for not leaking them. Of course ultimately we pay for this army.

But that is not the worst of the problem.  Of course, the title is false, (It is an allusion to a famous dictum by the futurist guru Stewart Brand).  Information lacks volition and doesn’t want anything.  But by the nature of how computers work it is unfettered.  In order to fetter it’s free flow, engineers and their bosses have to cripple the files, the programs that read them, and the machines that handle and display them.

They do this, on the level of glib generalization, by embedding in the image or in the machine bits of code invisible to you but visible to one another that make it impossible to handle the image freely. Generally, these are bits of code, that look to the human eye like, say, $sys$, though they may be much longer. They are called keys. 

Of course, cleaver engineers and hackers locate the keys and remove them to create files everyone can read or machines that can read any files, and the engineers working for the entertainment industry make new and cleverer keys, and hackers removed them in an endless escalation, but that is not the worst problem.

Worst of all the crippled software and hardware is vulnerable to spyware and malware. Doctorow gives this example:

In 2005 Sony shipped 6 million audio CD's loaded with a secret rootkit that covertly installed itself when you inserted one of these CD's into your computer.  Once your computer had been compromised, any file or process that began with "$sys$" was invisible.  The Sony toolkit was used to cloak a program that watched for, and then killed, attempts to copy music off audio CD's ... it looked like you computer had suddenly developed a mysterious bug that stopped CD ripping software from running.... But it didn't stop there.  Once there were millions of computers in the wild that couldn't see files that started with "$sys$," virus writers started to add "$sys$" to the names of their programs..."

Doctorow does not quite say, but implies strongly that the massive efforts to cripple copying are responsible for a substantial part of the vulnerability of software to viruses.

Nor does he hold back from scathing agencies like NSA.  Here is another example:

NIST (The National Institute for Standards) was forced to recall one of its cryptographic standards after it became apparent that the NSA had infiltrated its process and deliberately weakened the standard - an act akin to deliberately ensuring that the standard for electrical wiring was faulty so that you could start house fires in the homes of people you wanted to smoke out during an armed standoff.

Doctorow accepts the principle of copyright and proposes a compromise based on something called a blanket license, or similar arrangements.  Essentially it is a method for paying money into a collective pool of copyrights and statistically allocating it to the copyright holders. DJ's are allowed to play songs on the radio (Remember radio?) because of such an arrangement. There are many technical and legal difficulties, which he discusses.

From a time before this technology arose, I myself never accepted the principle of copyright. It seems to me, as has often been said, copyright is theft.  It is theft from the commons as sure as is The Lord of the Manor fencing off the common pasture of the village to run his sheep only.  It is theft for the simple reason that if I sell you an apple or a painting or a manufacturing device, at then end of the transaction you have and apple or machine tool or whatever and I do not.  If I tell you a story or tell you how to do something, at the end of the transaction we both have it.  In this way information differs from property as named by Proudhon in his original phrase, "property is theft."

Doctorow does not explain temp files, but perhaps that’s a red herring. He omits mention of 3-D printing, but the issues seem to me essentially the same except for the initial step of making an image of an object.

Be my perspective what it may, I believe that by its nature digital communication has killed copyright.  It is meaningless in the world of computer communication. But the entertainment industry is making a massive and destructive effort to give it zombie life, and it is eating our brains.

You may say that the entertainment industry could not exist as we know it without copyright.  Tough shit.

You may ask how creators are to earn their bread.  Creators have been surviving and occasionally prospering since long before the entertainment industry, since long before copyright.  Shakespeare did not have copyright (He did have a faint precursor called the Stationers Register, but he became modestly wealthy mostly by owning stock in his acting company). Dante did not have copyright. Archimedes did not have copyright.  Galileo did not have copyright. The authors of the Bible did not have copyright.  In the long view of recorded history creators have mostly earned their bread through patrons. The patronage system had serious problems and opportunities for abuse of creators, but it seems to me no worse than what is going down now. Furthermore, as Doctorow explains, the World Wide Web provides once unimagined ways for creators to reach audiences.