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Cory Doctorow at Harvard

The Harvard Computer Society together with Harvard Free Culture and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society hosted guest lecturer Cory Doctorow last night at an event that was open to the public. Doctorow, who is a blogger (BoingBoing), author (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, among others), activist (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and podcaster gave a talk entitled, Set Top Cop: Hollywood's Secret War on Your LIving Room.

Doctorowflierweb_2The t-shirt clad Doctorow, with dark rimmed glasses on his face and iPod earbuds dangling casually over each shoulder, looked like any other techy in the audience. Armed with just a microphone and a laptop (for prompts; no typical PowerPoint slide projections in this lecture), he spoke nearly non-stop for one hour on a topic that he's clearly passionate about: Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the threat it poses to creativity. His casual dress and speaking style set the stage for the theme of the night: times are changing and the stuffy, buttoned-up business models of yore won't work any longer.

While conditional access creates a small speed bump to getting what you want (e.g., you must pay Apple 99 cents before you can download a song from iTunes), DRM proves a bigger challenge - it controls how you use the product after you "own" it. It prevents you from recording, backing up, manipulating, criticizing and remixing the media. According to Doctorow, this practice threatens innovation and competition, and flies in the face of the open source culture that is growing all around us. Doctorow argues that artists don't need DRM, and goes so far as to say that they suffer at its hands.

He spoke at length about big business' failure to develop Internet-ready business models and understand & support recent seismic shifts in the way content is created and shared. In effect, DRM treats the owner of the device/product (consumers) as a criminal, rather than an audience which should be wooed. He cited numerous cases of those who've "failed"

  • Sony Music and the rootkit fiasco that gained notoriety late last year
  • The arrest of ElcomSoft employee Dmitry Sklyarov during the Las Vegas Defcon hackers conference after giving a speech about his company's software, which is designed to crack protections on Adobe Systems' eBooks
  • Suggestions that the Recording Industry of America has effectively made a business model out of DRM, filing 700 lawsuits per month against those that violate their policies; at this volume, the settlements amply cover their legal costs. To Doctorow and others who are fighting for free flow of information and services, this is not a business model, but a "denial of service attack on the American legal system." (LOL)
  • TiVO recently pushed out a new update: if a show is tagged with restrictions (e.g., it can only be recorded at certain times, a certain number of times, or not at all), TiVO will honor those restrictions
  • The copy protection on coming HD DVDs is expected to be even more draconian

Doctorow argues that "there's no security in obscurity"; those who make their information readily available - and editable - will win in the long run, because they'll benefit from the collective knowledge of the community and their products will be stronger (and more relevant) because of it. In essence, tell everyone how it works so they can help expose any weakness or add-ons, and you can make a better product. True Internet-ready business models let product-centered communities form and create. He cites Creative Commons as an organization devoted to expanding the range of creative work available for others legally to build upon and share; they advocate "some rights reserved" rather than "all rights reserved."

In all, it was an interesting talk, raising a lot of ideas and opinions on a highly-contested topic that will surely remain in the spotlight for months (years?) to come.

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