Reading Notes: Cory Doctorow's "Information Doesn't Want to be Free"

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Information Doesn't Want to be Free by Cory Doctorow is the News Nerd Book Club pick for our March 2016 meetup at NICAR. Here's a Cliff's Notes version of the book, with annotations and questions for discussion.

Your feedback is very welcome! Tweet it to me @benlkeith or send an email to

Wil Wheaton's forward

I don't want to copy and paste this introduction wholesale, and there's no link to the source that Wheaton talks about: Ralph Williams' "Business as Usual, During Alterations" from Astounding Science Fiction, 1958. It's about a machine that makes copies.

Sounds like the Internet, neh?

Amanda Palmer's forward

Palmer, who you may remember for her million-dollar Kickstarter and her music, talks about her four-year tenure as a street performer, and draws similarities between passers-by occasionally donating to street performers and Internet readers giving money.

Once they come, if you make it easy for them, they will pay.

How much does the following sentiment apply to the news industry?

The musicians I see trying to keep content locked up are generally the ones who aren't creating any new content​—​and who aren't hanging out on the Internet very much, where they could see the enthusiasm and goodwill of their fans firsthand. They don't see the open windows, only the closed doors. They're trying to keep things as they are because they don't know any other system. They've been getting their royalty checks from labels for CD and vinyl sales for years, and the numbers are dropping. They face an uncertain future if they can't count on those checks.

So they argue and they fight and try to make it 1990 again. But 1990 isn't going to come back. And most of the younger musicians I know nowadays don't even realize there's anything to argue about.

Journalism is Dooméd! Dooméd I say!

Okay. On to the stuff written by the book's author.

Thoughts on sections of the book

The book's Table of Contents is included at the end of this page. The numbers here reference the numbering in the table of contents.

1.2 Is this Copyright Protection? Social media platforms are a lot like digital locks. The equivalent of DRM in journalism is platform-specific content: Facebook Instant Articles, Periscope streams, Snapchat. If it only works in one context, then according to this book it's not user-friendly. And not likely to improve your reader's lives as if the same content were available in a platform-agnostic way:

Digital locks are much like roach motels: copyrighted works check in, but they don't check out. Creators and investors lose control of their business,​—​they become commodity suppliers for a distribution channel that calls all the shots. Anti-circumvention isn't copyright protection; it's middleman protection.

1.4 Digital Locks Always Break: There's an excellent aside in this chapter about how books share the same copyright rules as other media, but are treated with a peculiar reverence as a store of knowledge. They're sacred in a way, and nothing else gets this status, according to Doctorow. Do newspapers experience a similar cultural significance?

1.4: "Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is cash-poor and time-rich."

1.4: The Streisand Effect for the secret keys used in copy protection. When has something been removed from the media, and then been widely republished?

1.5: Understanding General-Purpose Computers. This chapter deals a lot with general-purpose computers: what they are, why they're amazing, and why the entertainment industry hates them. But the ad industry likely hates them for much the same reason. We know how to build computers that run any program, including web browsers. But we don't know how to build a computer that can't be used to run everything except a web browser with adblockers. So publishers build websites that won't work if ads don't load.

The next step is anti-anti-adblockers. Just as there is an XKCD for every computer problem, there is a Schlock Mercenary strip for every war analogy.

"Battlefields in space are curiously crowded places, for as empty as they look. Missiles, Anti-missile missiles, anti-anti-missile missiles, anti-anti-anti-missile missiles... Counter-measures, counter-counter-measures... Munitions, sub-munitions, sub-sub-munitions... For every weapon deployed there is an escalating hierarchy of responses, and the net result is that an entire volumne of space becomes unsafe regardless of whose side you're on." Schlock Mercenary, March 16, 2005. Book 6: Resident Mad Scientist -- Part IV: Old Habits Die Hard.

1.7 Appliances: Do websites fit Doctorow's definition of an appliance? By doing things not intended by website owners, users can develop good things like News for Betty, but they're probably against the terms of service of the sites used.

2.0 Fame won't make you rich, but you can't get paid without it: This is the sad truth of the Internet age. If you're not willing to spend money, you won't make money. And even if you spend $1 billion to start a project, there's no guarantee that you will get eyeballs on your product.

2.0: Doctorow says that fame isn't money. If you're familiar with Doctorow, you've probably read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, his first novel. The key premise of the novel's fictional economy is Whuffie, a reputation-based currency. The more famous you are, the richer you are. If you think this sounds like a meritocratic dystopia, Doctorow agrees with you.

2.2 An Audience Machine: This chapter has an excellent aside on how music royalties have been destroyed by record-label deals with iTunes. It's not relevant to news, yet.

2.2: Another aside in this section talks about how revenue from sales and licensing in the music industry has been captured by the labels, and the performers get no money while the songwriters and musical composers get some money, and the labels get pretty much all the money. Is this a situation that happens in web publishing, with advertising middlemen? It's a business-side question.

2.3 Getting people to care about your work: Random thought: Most readers' introduction yo your website will be through a link shared on social media. Every page is as important as your homepage.

2.5 How do I get people to pay me? Doctorow suggests that there are six main ways to get paid: selling physical copies, selling ads, selling swag, selling commissions, selling tickets, and asking for donations. If you don't do any of the above, you make no money. Selling the physical copy is the 'legacy' print model of newspapers and magazines. There's the all-ads model, which sustains free papers as well as trade magazines. NPR sells swag, the Texas Tribune holds events, and pretty much every news nonprofit asks for donations. But who sells commissions?

Can commissions journalism expand beyond the lone investigative reporter-detective?

2.6 Does this mean you should ditch your investor and go indie? Doctorow says no, asterisk, and qualifies that no with a long list of economies of scale that startups don't have.

Just remember that the mere fact that entertainment giants are giant, slow-moving, and remorseless does not mean that they aren't also the way to make the most money while reaching the largest audience with your work.

2.12 More intermediary liability, fewer checks and balances: After the court case titled Google v. Spain, search engines like Google must remove personal information and links to it. Even if those links are to news stories about felonious conduct.

2.13 Disorganized channels are good for creators: This is the state of the news industry. Printing presses are no longer the gatekeeper to distributing news; anyone with a website and a story can get clicks. If a publisher really likes a journalist's output, they'll try to hire them.

3.0 Information doesn't want to be free; people do: This section title is a quote from Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog: There was never a whole transcript of this conversation, but John Brockman recorded Stewart Brand's response in Edge 338. The phrase has its own Wikipedia article.

On the one hand, information wants to be expensive because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Journalism is a enterprise that supposedly aims to benefit the public and the public's interests, and surely it would benefit the public if the fruits of journalism were available for free.

3.2 Two kinds of regulation: Doctorow talks about how copyright laws written for the age when the only large-scale copying was industrial and for-profit are now affecting the decidedly not-for-profit large-scale copying afforded by computers and the Internet. In the same way, I think we have laws governing acts of journalism that were previously only able to be performed by members of the media, which are now being performed by anyone with a cellphone.

3.3 Anti-tank mines and land mines is an excellent explanation of the relationship between copyright laws and 'cultural' uses of copyrighted works. The asides are also pretty good.

3.6 The problem with cutting off access: This book is about a year old now. It was written before the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement was signed. The intellectual property chapter (PDF 750KB) of the final text of the agreement provides in Article 18.82.3.a that ISPs must disable access to copyright-infringing material. 18.82.4 provides that if there's a counter-notice provision in a country's laws, then the ISP needs to reenable access, but there's no protection against repeated malicious notices against non-infringing content. The agreement was signed on February 4, 2016, and the practice of abusing DMCA takedowns has been enshrined in an international agreement. Let's weep for the inevitable use of this provision to censor acts of journalism.

3.9 Renewability: Digital locks' sinister future: The nice thing about newspapers is that they don't require software updates. A change to a news app or a digital paper or anything else can reduce (or improve!) its utility.

3.8 A world made of computers: The Internet of Things is here, and its software isn't updated. And it's probably illegal for you to update it. On the other hand, sensor journalism is opening up to whole new worlds of information! (I placed 3.8 after 3.9 because reasons.)

3.10 A war of control and surveillance reminds me of "Mr. Fart's Favorite Colors," a post about how FBI v. Apple is not about privacy versus security, but instead about security versus security. The anti-circumvention efforts that are included in TPP and the DMCA and other laws that protect copyright are about security: security of revenue for rights-holders. Circumvention tools are about security of the rights of the consumer.

3.15 What Works? In which Doctorow makes a compelling case for a blanket license for music licensing.

3.17 It's different this time: Does journalism have an "It's us or the Internet" regulatory question, where lawmaking in one direction would kill most publishers, but lawmaking in the other direction would kill the Internet as we know it?

3.20 Three-hundred-million-dollar movies: We don't have to choose between Pulitzer-winning print stories that took a dozen reporters six months to create and content-grabbing clickbaity aggregation journalism. We can have both, and more!

4.1 What does the future hold? Scifi writers are bad at predicting the future of {technology|culture|the world|space}. Are journalists bad at predicting their industry's future?

4.1: "Computers and networks make it easier for us to work as groups," Doctorow writes. We're already seeing this in collaborations between different journalism groups, both in reporting and in the code that backs the reporting. Good job, teams.

4.1: Doctorow provides a toolkit for evaluating offers to turn your content into money. It's focused on copyright, and I'm curious how we might rearrange or rewrite the rules for the journalistic industry.

Here's one proposed rewrite, slightly tongue-in-cheek:

  1. If you're a publisher, don't let your advertisers usurp your relationship with your customers by using popovers.

  2. If you're an author, don't let your publishers use the cost of the CMS as an excuse to not be creative with multimedia storytelling.

  3. Remember that journalism is bigger than clicks or pageviews or likes. It's the Fourth Estate. Speak truth to power.

And that's the end of my highlights reel of Cory Doctorow's Information Doesn't Want to be Free. I hope you'll join us on Thursday at 2:15 p.m. in the Colorado A.

Supplemental reading:

The Book's Table of Contents

This is to give you an idea of the structure of the book, and its arguments. You won't learn much of what Doctorow has to say by reading it, because so much of the book is contained in its excellent footnotes.

  1. Introduction.
    1. What makes money?
    2. Don't quit your day job​—​really
  2. Doctorow's First Law:
    Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won't give you the key, that lock isn't there for your benefit.
    1. Anti-circumvention explained
    2. Is this copyright protection?
    3. So is this copy protection?
    4. Digital locks always break
    5. Understanding general-purpose computers
    6. Rootkits everywhere
    7. Appliances
    8. Proto-appliances: the inkjet wars
    9. Worse than nothing
  3. Doctorow's Second Law:
    Fame won't make you rich, but you can't get paid without it.
    1. Good at spreading copies, good at spreading fame
    2. An audience machine
    3. Getting people to care about your work
    4. Content isn't king
    5. How do I get people to pay me?
    6. Does this mean you should ditch your investor and go indie?
    7. Love
    8. The new intermediaries
    9. Intermediary liability
    10. Notice and takedown
    11. So what's next?
    12. More intermediary liability, fewer checks and balances
    13. Disorganized channels are good for creators
    14. Freedom can be expensive, but censorship costs us the world
  4. Doctorow's Third Law:
    Information doesn't want to be free, people do.
    1. What the Copyfight is about
    2. Two kinds of regulation
    3. Anti-tank mines and land mines
    4. Who's talking?
    5. Censorship doesn't solve problems.
    6. The problem with cutting off access
    7. Copyright and human rights
    8. A world made of computers
    9. Renewability: digital locks' sinister future
    10. A world of control and surveillance
    11. What copyright means in the information age
    12. Copyright: fit for purpose
    13. Term extension versus samplers
    14. What works?
    15. Copyright's not dead
    16. Every pirate wants to be an admiral
    17. It's different this time
    18. All revolutions are bloody
    19. Cathedrals versus the Protestant Reformation
    20. Three-hundred-million-dollar movies
    21. What is copyright for?
  5. Epilogue
    1. What does the future hold?
  6. Afterword