Cory Doctorow On Glee Copyright Issues, Aaron Swartz, And Digital Rights Battles

Ross Reynolds interviewed Boing Boing blogger, journalist, science fiction author, and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow. Below are highlights from his interview on The Conversation

Why write science fiction?

One of the most powerful features of science fiction is in its power to flush out abstract policy issues. As an example, the question of state security and surveillance may be difficult to conceptualize. But when George Orwell creates a surveillance state in "1984" that makes us feel creeped out, we are able to react and form opinions about what rights the state has over its citizens. We even get an adjective we can use to describe the discomfort: Orwellian. We can then import the whole narrative of "1984."

Cory Doctorow and Aaron Swartz
Cory Doctorow and Aaron Swartz at a conference in 2003.
Credit Flickr photo/Doc Searls

What is the impact of Aaron Swartz's death?

Aaron Swartz, a well-known digital rights pioneer and programmer, committed suicide in early January, and it caused a lot of introspection in the community. Aaron definitely had depression, but it's also safe to say that his depression was situationally induced. If he was depressed, it was in part due to representatives of an incredibly powerful state were proposing to put him in jail for decades for checking too many books out of the library. (Aaron was about to be sentenced in a federal case over illegally downloading documents from MIT when he committed suicide.)

A lot of people suffer from depression, but we don't really talk about it. We should be talking about feelings with each other more, especially if we can intervene. We also need to reform Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). It is supposed to be anti-hacking, but it defines hacking as exceeding authorization on a computer that you don't own. It has been interpreted by courts and prosecutors as any violation of a terms of service is a felony offense. And more broadly, Aaron's death ought to bring up the question about how federal prosecution and sentencing work in this country.

(Read Cory's moving obituary to Aaron on Boing Boing.)

What is on the horizon for digital legislation?

The CFAA is about to get a preamble by Representative Zoe Lofgren called Aaron's Law that says violating a terms of service isn't a felony. Aaron was also part of the movement to defeat SOPA and PIPA last year. SOPA was a looney copyright  proposal that gave governments power to arbitrarily censor websites without a court order. When eight million people call and write to their lawmakers in the space of a couple of weeks, lawmakers take notice.

Cory Doctorow at KUOW
Cory Doctorow and Ira Glass' photograph share a moment in a KUOW hallway.
Credit KUOW photo/David Hyde

SOPA was defeated, but there are new iterations. For example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is a multi-lateral trade agreement that the US is negotiating  behind closed doors, so no one really knows what is happening. A few details are available, including mandatory laptop searches checks at borders and a three-strike rule that if anyone in a household is caught downloading three or more copyrighted works, the household loses Internet access for one year.

Tell us about the copyright issue involving Jonathon Coulton, Sir Mix-A-Lot and Glee.

There is an interesting copyright topic centered around Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back," FOX's Glee and independent musician Jonathon Coulton. Glee released an "original cover" of Sir Mix-A-Lot's song, and Jonathon Coulton noticed that it sounded a lot like his arrangement. And then we get to examine the use of a sample in Sir Mix-A-Lot's original release.

First, case law in sampling is really bad, and it basically comes down to fair use vs. de minimous cases. Fair use is a big, complicated set of regulations of using copyright-protected material. De minimous basically says that the legal issue is too small to bother a court with. So now we are in an age where an album like "Paul's Boutique" by Beastie Boys or "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back" by Public Enemy wouldn't be made. It's fair to assume that Sir Mix-A-Lot cleared his sample because he was on a record label.

Then, Jonathon Coulton legally covered Sir Mix-A-Lot's song by taking advantage of something called the mechanical license. This mechanical license is compulsory and it allows other parties to cover material with a set fee. His cover is totally legal and cleared. And then Glee comes along with a cover of "Baby Got Back" using Coulton's arrangement. But what they did was plagiarism.

Glee characterized their almost note-for-note reissue of Jonathon Coulton's distinctive released arrangement as original. It's not illegal in the same way that saying you wrote Shakespeare isn't illegal, but we get students and professors and newspaper columnists in trouble for plagiarism because it's fraud; it's a lie. Glee sells their song to iTunes as an original arrangement, and this is a fraudulent description. They should have described this as a slavish reproduction of Jonathon Coulton's arrangement. This is a form of unsavory corporate behavior.