Cory Doctorow’s inaugural Cambridge Business Lectures talk

“Pirate Riley. Aaarrhh Me Hearties!”
by Paul Sapiano

Ken and I have been thinking a lot about Digital Rights Management (DRM) recently. When we did the zCast project about IP datacasting over digital broadcast networks we were forever being asked about DRM, and we’d reply that it wasn’t our area of expertise. Eventually though we heard the message, and we’ve started to think how one might contrast the various models people have of digital rights: technical models, commercial models, economic models, legal models, and (most lacking) models of user’s expectations. So I was excited to find that Cory Doctorow was speaking locally on “Life in the Information Economy”. The first two sentences of the abstract were particularly intriguing: “We made a bet, some decades ago, that the information economy would be based on buying and selling (and hence restricting copying of) information. We were totally, 100 percent wrong, and now the world’s in turmoil because of it.”

So off I went to here the first lecture in the Cambridge Business Lectures series.

Cory’s Preamble

We got a great taste of Cory’s style from the first two sections of the talk, the preamble. He started by reading a paragraph of boilerplate legalese that relinquished all his rights over the talk into the public domain. Then he recited another piece of legalese starting: “By listening to these words, 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, …”. Very funny.


Cory started the body of the talk by pointing out that PCs and the internet combined are the perfect copying machines. He went on to point out three approaches used by the commercial content industry to ameliorate (or subvert, or ignore) this fact.

Firstly Cory trashed DRM. Again this was a very humorous dismissal. Cory gave a very brief history of cryptography starting with a simple model enumerating the three parties involved: the sender, the receiver, and the attacker. Before the war the sender and the receiver shared a cipher which the attacker didn’t know, and as long as the attacker couldn’t work it out then encrypted messages stayed secret. But experiences at Bletchley during the war taught us that you can only protect a cipher if you are cleverer than the attacker, and that’s hard to guarantee. So instead we now do our cryptography out in the open. We enlist the minds of the cleverest security experts we can find to publicly discuss (and hence fix) our encryption systems and then use public keys systems. But (claimed Cory) DRM turns this all on its head. In the model we become the attackers, and the key is secret, though it is stored with the content in our living room. Put like that it does sound a bit daft! Cory went on to tell the tale of the young hacker who having broken one industry standard was asked to overcome BluRay encryption. He didn’t have a player and so asked for a dump of the bytes at a moment of playing. Then by simply going through the bytes and looking for the correct length key he eventually (i.e. in a few hours) broke the encryption. This story is almost too simple to be true but it served Cory’s purpose – if BluRay can be broken by a smart youngster called Muesli64, what hope has any DRM system ever?

Secondly Cory rubbished filtering. This was dispatched swiftly. If we cannot filter email for SPAM, a commercially important problem perplexing armies of brainy people, how on earth could content sites filter their content for illegal breaches of copyright?

Thirdly Cory got quite cross about takedown notices. This ‘idea’ crops up repeatedly but involves persistent offenders having their internet connection severed. Cory felt this was just mad – akin to trying to remove a few drops of food colouring from a swimming pool. Luckily his anger did lead to another humorous suggestion. How about making the current three strikes rule (three notifications of copyright breaches and your internet connection is cut) symmetric? I.e. if a content company make three false accusations then we turn up at their head office with huge wire cutters and cut through their internet connection.

Social Potential

This last point – Cory’s incredulity about the proposal of takedown notices – turned out to be the centrepiece of the whole talk. Cory’s real conclusion was that connection to the internet is much much more important than content consumption. He made the point (as so many of us have made so many times before) that the internet is about people not content. Some of this put me strongly in mind of Clay Shirky’s recent book. Cory felt that the real power of the internet was “nuking the cost of getting people together to do stuff”.

Cory and Clay have a real gift for distilling the wisdom many of us have gleaned about internet use into a wonderfully insightful and thought provoking aphorisms. Cory quoted a few in his talk (for example Tim O’Reily’s “the problem isn’t piracy it’s obscurity”) and finished this part with one of my favourites asides when he joked “if you make people choose between the internet and re-runs of Police Academy they will”.

Copy Native

Cory did touch on what it might be like to build a living as a copy native artist. He gave a brief history of the recorded music industry starting with performers who were reluctant to give over their direct relationship with their audience by moving into the studio through to the industry formed primadonnas who are reluctant to go on stage at all. Cory actually saw Madonna as an example of someone who gets it. The importance she places in her touring contract reflects the realisation that every time a song of hers is pirated the value associated with seeing her live increases.


Cory was a brilliant speaker and I’d go out of my way to hear him again. Don’t read these notes as a high fidelity synopsis of his talk; they are the distillation from my notes. The talk is available online – both as a video and a transcript. I haven’t covered what he said about the distribution of internet use across the world (“the internet doesn’t disappear, the latency just gets bigger”) or about tagging (“a collaborative game without rules”) but I’d like to finish with my favourite analogy of the whole evening. While reflecting on the movie industry view that piracy could kill the blockbuster movie Cory asked a question. The reformation killed the European programme of cathedral building, but did it kill religion?


One Response to “Cory Doctorow’s inaugural Cambridge Business Lectures talk”

  1. On the nightmare that was mind-mapping Cory’s talk « Tim’s Zen Blog of Sparseness Says:

    […] Tim’s Zen Blog of Sparseness Tim Regan’s (dumbledad’s) blog about work, play, home, hobbies, etc. etc « Cory Doctorow’s inaugural Cambridge Business Lectures talk […]

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