On November 13, Cory Doctorow spoke to a crowd of about a hundred librarians, educators, publishers, authors, and students on “How to Destroy the Book,” as part of the
National Reading Summit held at the ROM.

Doctorow has a pretty impressive bio: co-editor of Boing Boing, former Director of European Affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fulbright Chair at the Annenberg Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, visiting Senior Lecturer at Open University, and New York Times bestselling author. He has been called (okay, admittedly by Entertainment Weekly) “The William Gibson of his generation.”

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What I don’t like about such bios is how they leave you without much sense for how the accolades were earned in the first place. Not to give the impression that it’s his best work, but for evidence of Doctorow’s refreshing attitude, look no further than his email signature. Whereas a typical email from Maclean’s might conclude:

This e-mail (and attachment(s)) is confidential, proprietary, may be subject to copyright and legal privilege and no related rights are waived. If you are not the intended recipient or its agent, any review, dissemination, distribution or copying of this e-mail or any of its content is strictly prohibited and may be unlawful. All messages may be monitored as permitted by applicable law…

and so on for another couple of lines, and then in French, Cory Doctorow’s emails end thusly:

READ CAREFULLY. By reading this email, you agree, on behalf of your employer, to release me from all obligations and waivers arising from any and all NON-NEGOTIATED agreements, licenses, terms-of-service, shrinkwrap, clickwrap, browsewrap, confidentiality, non-disclosure, non-compete and acceptable use policies (“BOGUS AGREEMENTS”) that I have entered into with your employer, its partners, licensors, agents and assigns, in perpetuity, without prejudice to my ongoing rights and privileges. You further represent that you have the authority to release me from any BOGUS AGREEMENTS on behalf of your employer.

For this alone the man deserves a medal.

In October, Doctorow’s latest, Makers, hit real, physical bookshelves to generally happy thoughts from Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, and The Globe and Mail. Makers is also available as a free download, as are all of Doctorow’s books, from his website.

Here is Part One to his talk.

An elegy for the book

I’d like to start my talk today with an elegy for the book. The first part of the elegy is called “Pirates.”


There is a group of powerful anti-copyright activists out there who are trying to destroy the book. These pirates would destroy copyright, and they have no respect for our property. They dress up their thievery in high-minded rhetoric about how they are the true defenders and inheritors of creativity, and they have sold this claim around the world to regulators and lawmakers alike. There are members of Parliament and Congress-people who are unduly influenced by them. They say they’re only trying to preserve the way it’s always been. They claim that their radical agenda is somehow conservative. But what they really see is a future in which the electronic culture market grows by leaps and bounds and they get to be at the centre of it. They claim that this is about ethics, but anyone who thinks about it for a minute can see that it’s about profit.

Part two of this elegy is called “The people of the book.”

The people of the book

We are the people of the book. We love our books. We fill our houses with books. We treasure books we inherit from our parents, and we cherish the idea of passing those books on to our children. Indeed, how many of us started reading with a beloved book that belonged to one of our parents? We force worthy books on our friends, and we insist that they read them. We even feel a weird kinship for the people we see on buses or airplanes reading our books, the books that we claim. If anyone tries to take away our books—some oppressive government, some censor gone off the rails—we would defend them with everything that we have. We know our tribespeople when we visit their homes because every wall is lined with books. There are teetering piles of books beside the bed and on the floor; there are masses of swollen paperbacks in the bathroom. Our books are us. They are our outboard memory banks and they contain the moral, intellectual, and imaginative influences that make us the people we are today.

Copyright recognizes this. It says that when you buy a book, you own the book. It’s yours to give away, yours to keep, yours to license or to borrow, to inherit or to be included in your safe for your children. For centuries, copyright has acknowledged that sacred connection between readers and their books. We think of copyright as something that regulates things within a bunch of buckets—DVDs, video games, records—but books are more than all of these things. Books are older than copyright. Books are older than publishing. Books are older than printing!

The anti-copyright activists have no respect for our copyright and our books. They say that when you buy an ebook or an audiobook that’s delivered digitally, you are demoted from an owner to a licensor. From a reader to a mere user. These thieves deliver our digital books and our audiobooks wrapped in license agreements and technologies that might as well be designed to destroy the emotional connection that readers have with their books.

These licenses of course can run up to thousands of words. If you have an iPhone and buy an audiobook from Audible using the iTunes store with it, you agree to an estimated 26,000 words of license agreement. The Canadian Copyright Act itself only runs to 33,000 words. The premise of these licenses is forget copyright. Forget the law in the public realm that gave you the rights to your books. From now on, we write the law.

These licenses are of course built with unenforceable clauses. You can tell, because they’re liberally peppered with language like “If any part of this license is found to be unenforceable, the rest of it will remain in effect.” This is of course the lawyers’ way of saying, “We didn’t limit this to the things we thought a judge would smile upon. We put everything in here. It’s a kind of possible wish list and the only way that you’ll find out which parts are real and which parts are imaginary is to sue us over every point.”

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It’s basically a way of saying that copyright is nonsense, and that readers should stop paying attention to it, and only agree to these crazy, abusive licenses.

And on top of those licenses, they add digital rights management technology. Digital rights management technology, of course, has never stopped the book from escaping onto the Internet. To those publishers here today who believe that you can buy DRM that will stop your books from appearing on the Internet without restriction, I say to you, “Behold, the typist.”

So if DRM doesn’t stop people from copying books, what does it do? What it does is makes it illegal for someone to create a reader that can display a book or play an audiobook. Imagine if a giant book chain did a deal with Ikea so that Ikea would be the exclusive supplier of reading chairs and shelves and light bulbs for its books, and actually got a law passed that made it illegal to sell chairs and bookcases and light bulbs that were compatible with their books. This would not be in the interests of readers nor of publishers nor of writers. It would very much be in the interest of Ikea, because they would then have a lock in over our readers that would allow them to exercise undue power in the marketplace.

We’ve heard publishers and writers and other people involved in various creative industries bemoaning for years the undue influence exerted by chains like Wal-Mart, because they control a critical distribution channel. But imagine if that control continued beyond the grave, after the sale, so that any after-market use of your collection required you have an ongoing relationship with a mere retailer or distributor. Imagine how bad that would be for publishing.

So part three of this elegy is called “Saving the book.”

Saving the book

After years of writing and talking and thinking about books, I’ve come to a simple but important realization: I love books. Not just reading them or owning them—I have a deeply sentimental attachment to the very idea of the book.

And it’s not just me. It’s social. It’s across our entire society. If you’re making a short film, and you want to illustrate a society that’s falling into tyranny, you can just cut away to a scene of a pile of books burning, and everyone will know exactly what you meant. If you want to indicate that a character in a book is very sympathetic, and you mention how much she loves reading and going to the library, then your readers will immediately show sympathy for her. Books have this penumbra of virtues, they ooze virtue, and it’s long beyond anything rational or reasonable, because all of you who are people of the book know that there are many books that are absolutely unworthy of that virtue, and yet—and yet—when I worked in a bookstore and had to strip paperbacks to send them back, it was painful to tear the covers off of books. I can barely bring myself to recycle the phone book every year.

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And yes, it’s a wonderful place to be for publishing, because they get a free ride on this sentimental attachment that people have to books. People go on buying books because they love the idea of books. Publishers are going out today and paying high-priced marketing consultants to help them understand “the electronic experience” of a digital book. The experience of how a book could be consumed.

Which brings me to the second half of that important realization: the most important part of the experience of a book is knowing that it can be owned. That it can be inherited by your children, that it can come from your parents. That libraries can archive it, they can lend it, that patrons can borrow it. That the magazines that you subscribe to can remain in a mouldering pile of National Geographics in someone’s attic so you can discover it on a rainy day—and that they don’t disappear the minute you stop subscribing to it. It’s a very odd kind of subscription that takes your magazines away when you’re done [as is the case with most institutional subscriptions with Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of medical and scientific journals].

Having your books there like an old friend, following you from house to house for all the days and long nights of your life: this is the invaluable asset that is in publishing’s hands today. But for some reason publishing has set out to convince readers that they have no business reading their books as property—that they shouldn’t get attached to them. The worst part of this is that they may in fact succeed.

Part four is called “Respect copyright.”

Respect copyright

People keep showing me ebook readers that try to recreate the book experience with cute animations showing the turning of pages. But if you want to recreate the important part of the book experience, the part that keeps people buying books for their whole lives, filling their homes with treasured friends that they would not part with for love nor money, then we need to restore and safeguard ownership of books. When I buy a book, it’s mine. There’s no mechanism, not even in the face of a court order, whereby a retailer can take a book away from me, and yet Amazon—there’s the most extraordinary thing that they had to do in the United States—you’ve heard of course that someone put a copy of Orwell’s 1984 in the Kindle Store, and it wasn’t licensed for distribution in the U.S.—of course, Orwell is in the public domain outside the U.S., in copyright in the U.S.—and Amazon responded to this intelligence by revoking the book 1984 from its customers’ ebook readers. After they’d bought it, they woke up one morning to discover their book had gone. But Amazon was actually pretty good. After thinking about it for a day, and confronting the media storm, they decided to restore the books—they gave them back to the people, and they made a promise: “We will never ever ever ever ever [take] your books away again. Unless we have to.”

Now I worked as a bookseller for a number of years in this city, and I never had to make that promise to any of my customers when they bought books. Designing a book reader so that books can be removed from it without the reader’s knowledge or consent violates Chekhov’s first law of narrative: any gun on the mantelpiece in Act One is bound to go off by Act Three.

When I buy an audiobook on CD, it’s mine. The license agreement, such as it is, is “don’t violate copyright law,” and I can rip that CD to mp3, I can load it to my iPod or any number of devises—it’s mine; I can give it away, I can sell it; it’s mine. But when you buy an audiobook through Audible, which now controls 90 per cent of the [downloadable] audiobook market, you get a license agreement, not a property interest. The things that you can do with it are limited by DRM; the players you can play it on are limited by the license agreements with Audible. Audible doesn’t do this because the publishers ask them to. Audible and iTunes, because Audible is the sole supplier to iTunes, do this because it’s in their own interest.

To explain to you how I know this: my last book was a Random House audiobook. We went to Audible and said, “Will you do this book in your store without DRM,” and they said, “No.” When we asked them with this one, Makers, which just came out this week—again, a Random House audiobook—Random House is of course the largest publisher in the world, a major customer—we went to Audible and said “Will you do this?” And Audible said, “Why, yes, we will. But iTunes won’t carry it.”

Anyone who claims that readers can’t and won’t and shouldn’t own their books are bent on the destruction of the book, the destruction of publishing, and the destruction of authorship itself. We must stop them from being allowed to do it. The library of tomorrow should be better than the library of today. The ability to loan our books to more than one person at once is a feature, not a bug. We all know this. It’s time we stop pretending that the pirates of copyright are right. These people were readers before they were publishers before they were writers before they worked in the legal department before they were agents before they were salespeople and marketers. We are the people of the book, and we need to start acting like it.

So that’s the end of the elegy.

Click here to read the second half of Doctorow’s speech.