Interview: Cory Doctorow pt. 1 (of 3)

Categories:  Interviews

Cory Doctorow 
[Image courtesy of Flickr.] 

Whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a good chance that you, dear Internet frequenter, are a reader of Cory Doctorow’s work. As a primary contributor to Boing Boing, perhaps the Web’s foremost aggregator of wonderful miscellany, Doctorow has established himself as one of the most influential bloggers around.

Doctorow has also distinguished himself as a successful science fiction writer—his first love—through several short stories and three novels, including 2003’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a quasi-utopian work set in a 22nd Century Disney World, which earned the first-time author a Nebula Award nomination for best novel.

More recently (and, incidentally, more relevantly to the concerns of The Hatch), Doctorow struck a deal with San Diego-based comics publisher, IDW, which will see six of the author’s short stories adapted into works of sequential art, beginning Anda’s Game, a work concerned with the MMORPG phenomenon of gold farming.

After a few failed attempts to connect with Doctorow at his new home base in the UK (which, for the record, concerned the unfortunate purchase of a faulty phone card by our broke, Skypeless asses), we finally managed to speak with the author about comics, Creative Commons, and that chick on the school bus who totally digs Neil Gaiman, too.

How did the project with IDW come about?

They wrote to me. I literally got an e-mail out of the blue one day, saying, ‘we’re IDW, we make comics, we like your stories, and would like to make some comics out of them.’ I checked out some IDW comics, and they looked like good stuff. The only question in my mind was the whole Creative Commons thing. I kind of assumed that, comics being a quasi-traditional medium, relative to book publishing, that I’d have some trouble selling them on that. Turns out I didn’t.

My agent said, “Creative Commons—you guys okay with that?” expecting to get a, ‘go away, hippie, and never darken our door again.’ Instead, they said, “oh yeah, we’re totally cool with it, but we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to sell that to comic book store owners, so how would you feel if we just did that with the trade, at the end of the run?” And that sounded great. That was the entire thing. It’s like the world’s least interesting story, in that it was just kind of an agreement.

So, what does that mean once the trade is out, and it’s licensed under Creative Commons? People will be free to publish the work online, the art, the story, and everything?

Yeah. In fact, it goes a little beyond that. When the trade comes out, we’re going to put the whole thing online, in hi-res PDFs. Then we’re going to license it in a way that allows people to make non-commercial, derivative work. So you can copy it as much as you’d like, as long you’re not charging for those copies. You can make 100 million-billion copies, and e-mail them to all of your friends. You can put it online, you can link to it on your blog, you can paste it into your IM session, you can attach it to a message and send it to a mailing list with 50,000 people on it.

Any of that stuff is fair game. And then, in addition to that, you can make anything you want from it, even stuff that I think sucks or offends me, provided that you don’t make any money from it. So you can cut up the comics and put them back together again with Photoshop and InDesign, or whatever, and turn them into a parody of the comics, or be mean to me with them, or make fan art, or continue the stories, or tell an entirely new story, using bits and pieces of it. That’s what the CC license means.

Forgive the totally ignorant question, but in terms of publishing something under Creative Commons, does that license not apply to the creator? You’re allowed to make money from your own work, right?

Of course. And this hasn’t happened yet with me, but has happened with other CC users—it doesn’t preclude the possibility of my producing something non-commercial and then going, “holy camolly, that’s the most awesome thing, ever, let’s go into business together.”

You have three novels under the license now.

Three novels, two short story collections, and two more novels comings—as well as lots of short articles.

Have you ever been tempted to not license one of them under Creative Commons?

Not really. On the one hand, it may turn out that no one wants to copy the stuff. That’s kind of the worst case scenario, that you write the kind of stuff that people don’t really care enough about to steal. And if it turns out that that’s the case, I don’t really care [ laughs]. Creative Commons license or no, it doesn’t really matter if no one really wants a copy. And then there’s the other possibility, which is that it turns out to be really successful.

As it turns out, the more successful your free downloads are, the more money you make. It turns out that downloads displace fewer sales than they generate. So I’ve never been tempted. Imagine if it were really popular and I didn’t CC license it, so people were not allowed to copy it. Chances are that people would copy it, anyway. There’s no popular thing that isn’t being copied for free on the Internet, right now.

When you hand someone a book, and say, “hey, take this book home where your scanner is, and all your stuff, and your computer, and your friend, and you have unlimited time–but don’t do stuff with it that I disallow,” you’re gonna be disappointed. So, off they go, and what happens is, the victory of this thing being popular turns into a defeat, because now it’s popular and it’s not CC licensed, and now I have to go an wag my finger at, shout at, and possibly criminalize people who have done what fans have always done with things that they love, which is share it.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager, I was copying all of my favorite music for my friends. My first summer job, I went out and bought a dubbing deck, so I could go out and copy my cassettes. In fact, I could copy my LPs to cassette and then copy the cassettes. My courtship ritual for many years was to make mixtapes. I probably never would have gotten laid, if it weren’t for the mixtape. This is like an age-old practice.

The new thing is not the copying and the sharing. The new thing is the objecting to it. It’s actually pretty conservative to share stuff. It’s pretty much the way that fandom has always worked, handing books around, reading them to each other, doing dramatic readings at conventions, writing fanfiction in elementary school, sitting down and writing your own Star Wars sequel, when you’re six-years-old.

All of that stuff is as old as culture itself. In fact, when we say ‘culture,’ that’s more or less what we mean. ‘Art’ is the stuff that the artist makes and ‘culture’ is what we do with the stuff that the artist makes. It’s pretty radical to say, ‘culture must stop.’ I think it’s pretty conservative to say that you can just go on making copies the way that you spritual ancestors did, forever. I would hate to be the guy who says, “you guys are all jerks for loving my work too much, I hate you so much, please stop copying my stuff.” That would be just a terrible outcome. Creative Commons works, if it’s unpopular, and it works ever more, if it’s popular.

So the ultimate goal here is to have one off your works become part of a courting ritual, like the mixtapes that got you laid.

Oh yeah, totally. And you know, I used to work at a science fiction bookstore, and science fiction, at least as much as any other genre—and probably more than most—is, in fact, a courting ritual and a social ritual. The classic science fiction conversation on the bus begins, “I see you’re reading a science fiction novel. I read science fiction too.” I met friends this way, when I was 12- or 14-years-old, riding public transportation, back and forth to school. It was how you know that you were part of the same tribe as other people. So, yeah, absolutely. That cute girl, who’s also into that Neil Gaiman novel—hot! It would be quite an honor if my work became part of someone’s courtship ritual.

[Continued in Part Two.] 

–Brian Heater

4 Comments to “Interview: Cory Doctorow pt. 1 (of 3)”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Nov. 20, 2007: An iTunes for comics, as requested
  2. Blog@Newsarama » Creator Q&A: Cory Doctorow
  3. Quillblog » Doctorow to publishers: learn to share, dummies!
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