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A conversation with Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow is something of an online legend. He's famous for a number of things: for being a great Sci-Fi writer, for his work as a copyright activist, and for being co-editor of what Technorati has suggested is the Most Linked-to Blog in the World, Boing Boing. Now resident in London, we took a trip down to the capital to talk to Cory about his blogs, his writing and his opinions on the world of content and DRM.

A conversation with Cory Doctorow On DRM
Yes, Cory has TWO PowerBooks (the second is under the open one), sync'd together in case one dies.

On content and DRM

Cory is a well known activist on the state of technology and original art. He has previously been the European ambassador for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and is an outspoken advocate of releasing art onto the net simultaneously with traditional media. His first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, has been downloaded (for free) around 750,000 times, and has also sold well in paperback and hardback forms.

One of the theme's of Cory's copyright writing is that "Bits are never going to get harder to copy". As cracking technology easily keeps pace with encryption, any business plan which relies on 'better' encryption to succeed is destined to fail. The reason why can be summed up in this excerpt from his 2004 address to Microsoft:
    DRM systems are usually broken in minutes, sometimes days. Rarely months. It's not because the people who think them up are stupid. It's not because the people who break them are smart. It's not because there's a flaw in the algorithms. At the end of the day, all DRM systems share a common vulnerability: they provide their attackers with ciphertext, the cipher and the key. At this point, the secret isn't a secret any more.

Given the way that technology has moved on over the last couple of years, we wanted to chase down his opinions on DRM as it stands.

bit-tech: Cory, you've given a well-publicised speech concerning the inherent pitfalls of DRM and encryption technology. Do you worry that the protection on content is going to evolve to a point where we really can't do with it what we want?

Cory Doctorow: Well no, because the incontrovertible fact is, regardless of the way that the system is working (and how much of it is offline and online and etc), if you're going to sell me something encrypted, you need to provide me with a mechanism for decrypting it. I mean, otherwise, if you sell me a DVD and no mechanism for decrypting it, it's a drinks coaster.

Now, maybe that's Star Wars One, and that's a mercy, but it still unassailably reduces the commercial worth of the content to zero. Once you give the attacker the mechanism to decrypt it, the game is over.

I mean, the plan that the industry has is basically to come up with a world where all digital devices have to be approved, all analogue devices have to recognise watermarks, and the internet as we know it is torn down and replaced with a place where you can be disconnected from the internet in 5 minutes flat by merely having an accusation of copyright infringement levelled against you. That's the proposal underlay at WIPO. That's a terrible world to live in.

Even if you leave aside all the copyright issues, the outcome of the scenario that's really bad is that it breaks the most important communication tool we've ever devised in order to protect the tiny, unimportant, cushy racketeering business model of the content industry.

You know, screw them, if it's a choice between putting everyone in Hollywood out of work - not that this would do that, but if that was in fact the outcome, which the industry says it would be - and if it's a choice between that and eliminating all freedom of information, due process and privacy rights in electronic communication, then 'Goodbye Hollywood', it's a no-brainer.