Doctorow VS DRM: Who You Got?

I was surprised when I saw Cory Doctorow speak about Digital Rights Management at Ad Astra. He's a man with a lot of passion, humour and smarts. The smarts and humour, I knew about. It was the passion that surprised me.

When he was introduced as someone who wanted to "keep an eye on the DRM" he said it was more like he wanted to destroy it. And through his speech and the panel he was on, he did just that. It was a four-pronged approach. He attacked the philosophy of intellectual property, the economics of it, the legal ramifications and the technical issues.

He claimed the philosophy of Canada's proposed Bill C-60, which mirrors American copyright laws, represents a turn away from enlightenment values and a return to the dark ages as it prevents people from sharing information. "Alchemists worked in secret" he said, "so they all had to learn for themselves that drinking mercury is bad."

But it's unlikely that the DRM cares much about fundamental western values such as the social contract and he rapidly moved on to what they do care about: Money and the law. Doctorow avoided the hackneyed old "information wants to be free" and instead proposed that "piracy is a business model". Downloading has become a norm and "norms are more powerful than laws because they self enforce and are cheap".

He spoke about the anti-customer practises of Sony, who infected their CDs with malware to prevent copying. But if you illegally downloaded the same music, you avoided the malware altogether. To much laughter, Doctorow said: "You can compete with free -- You can make your product worse than the free one".

The technical issues of encryption were basically over my head. But, I will say this for Doctorow, when the discussion got out of hand, as will happen when the front row is full of hackers, and people started speaking in acronyms, he expertly reeled the panel back in and described computer security as "an iron door on a cardboard box". That's an analogy. I can understand those. Security features, it turns out, are very difficult to break if you only deal with them. But, in the real world, they can often be ignored.

Doctorow constructed a logically cohesive and passionate argument that started with the Book of Genesis, moved through in the dark ages, into the enlightenment, and ended in the future. It's a future that he thinks we can change. He encourages computer users, music lovers and everyone who has a stake in our culture to fight Bill C-60 and to look into, then take part in, the Access to Knowledge Treaty.

Right now we have the information and we can make a difference. Let's try to make sure that those who come after us can say the same.

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