Book Review: Information Doesn’t Want to be Free

Information cover final web

I realize the irony here, that I paid top dollar for Cory Doctorow’s book — Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age — when I probably could, with just a bit of searching and tinkering, find a free and pirated version of the book somewhere and be reading Doctorow’s engaging missive about copyright law and information flow in mere minutes of a search.

I could of done that, but I didn’t.

Here’s why:

  • First off, I want to support McSweeney’s, Dave Egger’s publishing arm that also supports youth writing programs around the country with its 826 Valencia network.
  • Second, I want to support Doctorow as a writer, although I suspect he is doing just fine without my meager money … this is a principle thing about supporting artists at work.
  • Third, I like the tangible feel of a book in my hands (and this one traveled with me from my sons’ baseball games, as its short chapters were perfectly tuned into the breaks between innings.)

And it turns out that my move to avoid the free, pirated copy of the book is right in line with Doctorow’s ideas around the Information Age, and how artists can still find and reach an audience that is willing to pay for art, even if it is freely available elsewhere. This is part of his point: in the age of the Copy, how do musicians and writers and artists still make art that is meaningful and make a living at it, too?

Amanda Palmer’s foreword (coupled with her husband, Neil Gaiman’s companion forward) continues to resonate with me in context to Doctorow’s ideas around copyright and publishing, and how innovation is always bound to upend the status quo, and the status quo is always going to fight that change with lawyers and money and political influence.

Palmer writes about her time as a street performer in Boston (she was one of those lovely painted statue people that we gawk at) and her observations of passersby, and how while many would ignore her, the few that observed and appreciated her art, and put some money into her collection bin, was more than enough to sustain her with a regular income.

“Like clockwork, people were generous. Nobody asked them to be. I just stood there, literally silent, waiting for them to tip me out for the weird, loving act of randomness I was making to humankind …. People actually like supporting the artists whose work they like. It makes them feel happy. You don’t have to force them. And if you force them, they don’t feel as good.” (Palmer, page xiii)

Doctorow not only shows how the current system of stifling customers from access on their own terms to the art they love is stifling art creation itself, he also shows how a revamping of copyright law might be one of the fixes. He also freely and open admits that not every artist will find a niche and that there is no real “fix it” for all of the disruption. But a closed system of art, he argues, is bound to fail on many levels and leave media industries crumbling.

Instead, he argues for the idea of “blanket licenses” (such as are used in bars and music establishments for the use of playing copyrighted music by cover bands and the jukebox and karaoke machines) that would compensate artists and publishers for media on the Internet while broadening reach to different audiences. He notes that while the publishing industry has traditionally taken advantage of the complex analytics to pad their own pockets, this age of information is also the age of data analysis, and that there should be a way to determine fair use of media, set up a payment system with ISP providers and provide compensation for the creators of art.

Will this work? I have no idea. It sounds good on paper, if I understand it right. Reality might be different. Remember hwo has the money and power right now. It’s not you and I, alas. But Doctorow has a phrase of words that has stuck with me since finishing the book.

“Think like a Dandelion.” (Doctorow, page 142)

What he means that since there is no turning back the clock on copying — and in fact, copying movies and music and more will only get easier as time moves on — an artist needs to find a new way to think about distribution. Instead, he suggests, think of art as the dandelion, which produces thousands of seeds that it lets loose into the world, in hopes one or two or a few will find a nurturing bit of soil on which to plant itself.

“There are lots of people out there who might want to buy your work or compensate you in some other way — the more places your work finds itself, the greater the likelihood that it will find one of those would-be customers in some unsuspected crack in the metaphorical pavement.” (Doctorow, page 143).

Of course, the publishing companies would see the dandelion in another way: as a weed that needs to be eradicated or controlled, right? Such is the world right now. Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free (title reference is to the idea that information doesn’t want to be free — it’s data — but people want to be free to make their own choices about technology and art) is another way forward.

Peace (taking root),
Kevin

4 Comments
  1. Like the Doctorow dandelion quote. Inspires me to write a couple of reviews (SuperBetter and The Speed of Light Garage come to mind). I also am reminded of a long graduated student of mine who is director of the Free Music Archive, Cheyenne Hohman. She does a fabulous podcast called “Radio Free Culture” that is topnotch and addresses much of what Doctorow says, except she and the Archive are doing it. Fer realz. http://freemusicarchive.org/

    Anti-spam: carp beat , as in “Drummer man, lay down that deep dark carp beat, my man.” Foot pedal starts thumping.

  2. I’ve applied this “Think like a Dandelion” mentality for as long as I’ve been on the Internet, thinking of the world as a huge haystack with a few hidden “needles” who would support my own efforts.

    To some extent this has been successful, but as I changed from a non profit structure in 2011 to an LLC structure it’s been much more difficult for people to drop a dime in my cup.

    My networking in MOOC and social media as well as face-to-face events in Chicago is my on-going effort to put wind behind my seeds.

    Thanks for sharing your review, and your inspiration.

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