Cory Doctorow

Image by Bryan Mathers CC BY-SA

The twenty-four case studies in Made with CC were chosen from hundreds of nominations received from Kickstarter backers, Creative Commons staff, and the global Creative Commons community.

We did background research and conducted interviews for each case study, based on the same set of basic questions about the endeavor. The idea for each case study is to tell the story about the endeavor and the role sharing plays within it, largely the way in which it was told to us by those we interviewed.

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Cory Doctorow is a science fiction writer, activist, blogger, and journalist. Based in the U.S. and

Revenue model: charging for physical copies (book sales), pay-what-you-want, selling translation rights to books

Interview date: January 12, 2016

Profile written by Sarah Hinchliff Pearson

Cory Doctorow hates the term “business model,” and he is adamant that he is not a brand. “To me, branding is the idea that you can take a thing that has certain qualities, remove the qualities, and go on selling it,” he said. “I’m not out there trying to figure out how to be a brand. I’m doing this thing that animates me to work crazy insane hours because it’s the most important thing I know how to do.”

Cory calls himself an entrepreneur. He likes to say his success came from making stuff people happened to like and then getting out of the way of them sharing it.

He is a science fiction writer, activist, blogger, and journalist. Beginning with his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, in 2003, his work has been published under a Creative Commons license. Cory is coeditor of the popular CC-licensed site Boing Boing, where he writes about technology, politics, and intellectual property. He has also written several nonfiction books, including the most recent Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, about the ways in which creators can make a living in the Internet age.

Cory primarily makes money by selling physical books, but he also takes on paid speaking gigs and is experimenting with pay-what-you-want models for his work.

While Cory’s extensive body of fiction work has a large following, he is just as well known for his activism. He is an outspoken opponent of restrictive copyright and digital-rights-management (DRM) technology used to lock up content because he thinks both undermine creators and the public interest. He is currently a special adviser at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where he is involved in a lawsuit challenging the U.S. law that protects DRM. Cory says his political work doesn’t directly make him money, but if he gave it up, he thinks he would lose credibility and, more importantly, lose the drive that propels him to create. “My political work is a different expression of the same artistic-political urge,” he said. “I have this suspicion that if I gave up the things that didn’t make me money, the genuineness would leach out of what I do, and the quality that causes people to like what I do would be gone.”

Cory has been financially successful, but money is not his primary motivation. At the start of his book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, he stresses how important it is not to become an artist if your goal is to get rich. “Entering the arts because you want to get rich is like buying lottery tickets because you want to get rich,” he wrote. “It might work, but it almost certainly won’t. Though, of course, someone always wins the lottery.” He acknowledges that he is one of the lucky few to “make it,” but he says he would be writing no matter what. “I am compelled to write,” he wrote. “Long before I wrote to keep myself fed and sheltered, I was writing to keep myself sane.”

Just as money is not his primary motivation to create, money is not his primary motivation to share. For Cory, sharing his work with Creative Commons is a moral imperative. “It felt morally right,” he said of his decision to adopt Creative Commons licenses. “I felt like I wasn’t contributing to the culture of surveillance and censorship that has been created to try to stop copying.” In other words, using CC licenses symbolizes his worldview.

He also feels like there is a solid commercial basis for licensing his work with Creative Commons. While he acknowledges he hasn’t been able to do a controlled experiment to compare the commercial benefits of licensing with CC against reserving all rights, he thinks he has sold more books using a CC license than he would have without it. Cory says his goal is to convince people they should pay him for his work. “I started by not calling them thieves,” he said.

Cory started using CC licenses soon after they were first created. At the time his first novel came out, he says the science fiction genre was overrun with people scanning and downloading books without permission. When he and his publisher took a closer look at who was doing that sort of thing online, they realized it looked a lot like book promotion. “I knew there was a relationship between having enthusiastic readers and having a successful career as a writer,” he said. “At the time, it took eighty hours to OCR a book, which is a big effort. I decided to spare them the time and energy, and give them the book for free in a format destined to spread.”

Cory admits the stakes were pretty low for him when he first adopted Creative Commons licenses. He only had to sell two thousand copies of his book to break even. People often said he was only able to use CC licenses successfully at that time because he was just starting out. Now they say he can only do it because he is an established author.

The bottom line, Cory says, is that no one has found a way to prevent people from copying the stuff they like. Rather than fighting the tide, Cory makes his work intrinsically shareable. “Getting the hell out of the way for people who want to share their love of you with other people sounds obvious, but it’s remarkable how many people don’t do it,” he said.

Making his work available under Creative Commons licenses enables him to view his biggest fans as his ambassadors. “Being open to fan activity makes you part of the conversation about what fans do with your work and how they interact with it,” he said. Cory’s own website routinely highlights cool things his audience has done with his work. Unlike corporations like Disney that tend to have a hands-off relationship with their fan activity, he has a symbiotic relationship with his audience. “Engaging with your audience can’t guarantee you success,” he said. “And Disney is an example of being able to remain aloof and still being the most successful company in the creative industry in history. But I figure my likelihood of being Disney is pretty slim, so I should take all the help I can get.”

His first book was published under the most restrictive Creative Commons license, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND). It allows only verbatim copying for noncommercial purposes. His later work is published under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (CC BY-NC-SA), which gives people the right to adapt his work for noncommercial purposes but only if they share it back under the same license terms. Before releasing his work under a CC license that allows adaptations, he always sells the right to translate the book to other languages to a commercial publisher first. He wants to reach new potential buyers in other parts of the world, and he thinks it is more difficult to get people to pay for translations if there are fan translations already available for free.

In his book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, Cory likens his philosophy to thinking like a dandelion. Dandelions produce thousands of seeds each spring, and they are blown into the air going in every direction. The strategy is to maximize the number of blind chances the dandelion has for continuing its genetic line. Similarly, he says there are lots of people out there who may want to buy creative work or compensate authors for it in some other way. “The more places your work can find itself, the greater the likelihood that it will find one of those would-be customers in some unsuspected crack in the metaphorical pavement,” he wrote. “The copies that others make of my work cost me nothing, and present the possibility that I’ll get something.”

Applying a CC license to his work increases the chances it will be shared more widely around the Web. He avoids DRM — and openly opposes the practice — for similar reasons. DRM has the effect of tying a work to a particular platform. This digital lock, in turn, strips the authors of control over their own work and hands that control over to the platform. He calls it Cory’s First Law: “Anytime someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, that lock isn’t there for your benefit.”

Cory operates under the premise that artists benefit when there are more, rather than fewer, places where people can access their work. The Internet has opened up those avenues, but DRM is designed to limit them. “On the one hand, we can credibly make our work available to a widely dispersed audience,” he said. “On the other hand, the intermediaries we historically sold to are making it harder to go around them.” Cory continually looks for ways to reach his audience without relying upon major platforms that will try to take control over his work.

Cory says his e-book sales have been lower than those of his competitors, and he attributes some of that to the CC license making the work available for free. But he believes people are willing to pay for content they like, even when it is available for free, as long as it is easy to do. He was extremely successful using Humble Bundle, a platform that allows people to pay what they want for DRM-free versions of a bundle of a particular creator’s work. He is planning to try his own pay-what-you-want experiment soon.

Fans are particularly willing to pay when they feel personally connected to the artist. Cory works hard to create that personal connection. One way he does this is by personally answering every single email he gets. “If you look at the history of artists, most die in penury,” he said. “That reality means that for artists, we have to find ways to support ourselves when public tastes shift, when copyright stops producing. Future-proofing your artistic career in many ways means figuring out how to stay connected to those people who have been touched by your work.”

Cory’s realism about the difficulty of making a living in the arts does not reflect pessimism about the Internet age. Instead, he says the fact that it is hard to make a living as an artist is nothing new. What is new, he writes in his book, “is how many ways there are to make things, and to get them into other people’s hands and minds.”

It has never been easier to think like a dandelion.