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Say Copyright, Say Creative Commons

rmeyers's picture

February 21, 2010

You Say Copyright, I Say Creative Commons: Cory Doctorow

Let’s introduce Cory Doctorow: a self proclaimed author, blogger, and activist; his work is available for free on the Internet. Downloadable with one click, just the way he wants it—you own his work and can remix or reshape it within his Creative Commons license. And while this means that technically you owe him nothing for his work, Doctorow is still making money (arguably even more than if his books were only available in bookstores). He is a minority because most authors still deal only with publishers, and do not provide their work free of charge. There are two realms of historical precedent at work here: publishing and marketing, and copyright, with its messy legal definitions. These are not the only factors, but they have the largest impact on the world of authors and readers. The Internet is changing, and the near-future decisions of authors and readers in respect to this medium will change what publishing and copyright will become.

Right now almost every story, novel, or other ‘book’ is printed and distributed through a publisher. Hence the term ‘published’, meaning that an author’s work has been contracted with a publishing company. Help sites like this one provided by Cader Books give advice to wannabe-authors and concisely explain the publishing process. Simply put, an author signs a contract with the publisher, agreeing to royalties on their book or a large lump sum as payment. Author Susan Pfeffer explains her royalties scheme here, a fairly common example, where the author receives about ten percent or less of the profit from each book sold—on a $17.95 hardcover book, that is about $1.70 per book. Scholar Tim Burke explains another facet of publishing, this time for academic journals, here at his blog. Authors get paid for their work through a publisher, who holds the author’s copyright for the book and markets the product. What makes this process slightly more complicated are the copyright restrictions, and the fact that publishers desperately want to make sure the work they publish for you is copyrighted—without that guarantee of rights, they do not stand to make a profit.

Copyright itself protects the rights of an author or owner of a work, often until fifty years after their death, guaranteeing complicated and specific “distribution and reproduction” rights (Copyright Basics, Copyright Office). Copyright in the United States is not only about profit, but also about credit. Authors and other creators want credit for their work—even (or especially) authors like Cory Doctorow who put it up on the Internet for free. But copyright also restricts use and the rights of reader, which limits readership and can keep an author in obscurity. Authors are already paid very little, but copyright laws do not guarantee adequate payment—only a contract with a publishing company can do that. So while copyright guarantees credit, the system is inefficient and unwieldy.

What changes the effect of copyright, or at least puts it in the spotlight, is the platform the work is displayed on and the uses that platform can be put to. The Internet makes copying very easy, and there are many debates regarding remixing vs. plagiarism, credit vs. profit, and Internet copyright. The systems in place to keep these forces in balance do not have to be as complicated as they are, but these are complicated debates. If these laws and standards stay in place, how will the Internet and publishing grow and change? Will the necessary growth occur at all?

One man knows exactly how he wants to see the Internet shaped (or maybe unshaped): rather than use a basic copyright for his work, Cory Doctorow chooses to use a Creative Commons license when he puts it on the Internet for downloading. Creative Commons was created as a nonprofit organization to provide a new kind of copyright (or ‘guarantee of credit’). The author has the ability to choose from multiple licenses according to the kind of credit and use they want to see attributed to their work (Licenses Creative Commons). The use of a Creative Commons license means that readers and viewers can have the right to “distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work… as long as they credit you for the original creation” (Licenses Creative Commons). Instead of guaranteeing the right of ownership to the owner of a copyright, a Creative Commons license guarantees the author credit, and allows for more open readership and usage.

Open usage is one of Cory Doctorow’s main reasons for using Creative Commons for all of his work published online, but if you look closely you will notice that his physical books are still published with a United States copyright under the publisher Tor, while the same work online is with Creative Commons. Even though they are the same works, the reader-owner of the downloadable copy can do more with that copy than with a physical book. Does this make much sense? Rather than question Doctorow’s commitment to his cause, it might be prudent to ask whether this dichotomy helpfully highlights the absurdity of a flawed system. As new projects and ideologies are tested on the Internet, flaws will become apparent in both the new and old systems, which can then be repaired.

Doctorow’s website helpfully explains his views on Creative Commons and copyright:

- On the front page of his download site for Makers, one of his novels, he writes:

You bought it [or in this case, download it for free], you own it. I believe in copyright law’s guarantee of ownership in your books. So you own this ebook. The license agreement (see below), is from Creative Commons and it gives you even more rights than you get to a regular book. Every word of it is a gift, not a confiscation. Enjoy… Why am I doing this? … Because I can’t stop you from sharing it (zeroes and ones aren’t ever going to get harder to copy); and because readers have shared the books they loved forever; so I might as well enlist you to the cause. (Makers, Craphound)

- On his page for remixes of his novel Little Brother he notes:

The Creative Commons license for this book allows you to remix it to make new and exciting stuff –videos, audios, new stories, anything else you can think of (games? toys?), and redistribute them on a noncommercial basis. If you’ve done a cool remix and want to see it featured here, email me and I’ll take a look. (Remixes, Craphound)

In essence, Doctorow is asking his readers to think and use his work in their own ways, asking them to be inspired by him—which the Creative Commons license allows them to do.

In fact, as Doctorow loves to quote @timoreilly, an artist’s problem “isn’t piracy, its obscurity” (Craphound). In a fascinating article on for the School Library Journal, John Green, another Young Adult author, tackles the issue of obscurity and ebooks in a similar fashion, asking librarians and readers to “imagine the world of books is like YouTube: millions of books get a few readers, and a few books get a million readers” (SLJ). Green sees librarians as the gatekeepers of the digital or ebook world, guiding and searching through the piles of mediocre self-published writing for true gems. Green, however, does not want to see the entire world of books appear online, self-published, even as he notes Doctorow’s actions in his article. For their differences, both Green and Doctorow recognize the importance of recommendations and guidance, the fear of obscurity felt by authors, and new uses for the Internet.

From the world of publishing, through the laws of copyright and the new Creative Commons, authors are using the Internet (and not using the Internet) in ways that will shape publishing and copyright in years to come. The most important question to ask authors and readers right now, as new technologies plunge ahead and challenge previously held conceptions of ownership and publishing, is how do you want to see the Internet form? Green and Doctorow bring up an interesting debate: imagine a world where every artist or author sold their own work through the internet, held under the Creative Commons (or some similar organization’s) license of their choosing. Would this open the world to discussion, or would the influx of ideas bottleneck any progress? How could this new conglomeration of Internet, copyright, and publishing form?


Works Consulted

AAP. “The Association of American Publishers.” The AAP. Web. 21 Feb. 2010. “An Aside: hosts new Cory Doctorow novel.” A Dribble of Ink. 6 July, 2009. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

AuthorHouse. “Is copyrighting a book necessary before I self-publish my book with AuthorHouse?” Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Backes, Laura. “How Authors Get Paid.” (2001) Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Burke, Tim. “Fun With Intellectual Property Issues, No. 340 in a Series: Aluka.” Easily Distracted: Culture, Politics, Academia and Other Shiny Objects. Swarthmore, 24 April, 2007. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Burke, Tim. “Customer Dissatisfaction.” Easily Distracted: Culture, Politics, Academia and Other Shiny Objects. Swarthmore, 27 Jan. 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Cader Books. “Free Advice.” Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Copyright Office. “Circular 1 – Copyright Basics.” Library of Congress. (2008) CoOL. Web. 21 Feb. 2010. <>

Creative Commons. “Creative Commons.” Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Creative Commons. “Licenses.” Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Doctorow, Cory. Word Press, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2010. Note: You can find his works here for free.

Doctorow, Cory. “About Cory Doctorow.” Cory Doctorow’s Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Doctorow, Cory. “Little Brother: Send me your remixes!” Cory Doctorow Little Brother. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Doctorow, Cory. “Makers: Download for Free.” Cory Doctorow Makers. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Doctorow, Cory. “Content: Download for Free.” Cory Doctorow Content. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Green, John. “The Future of Reading: Don’t worry. It might be better than you think.” School Library Journal, 1 Jan. 2010. n. pag. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Jassin, Lloyd J. “New Rules for Using Public Domain Materials.” (2003) Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Pfeffer, Susan Beth. “Advances and Royalties: The Business End of Writing.” Meteors, Moons, and Me. 23 June, 2009. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

RiP! A Remix Manifesto. Dir. Brett Gaylor. Prod. Sodec Quebec. Web. Film. 21 Feb. 2010.

Tor. “” Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

“TimOReilly.” Web. 21 Feb. 2010.



Anne Dalke's picture

Gift culture

Corey Doctorow

Formatting first: you certainly make full use of the "linkiness" of the web in your paper (a couple of the links are no good, though: check out (Licenses Creative Commons) and @timoreilly.

As your many links attest, you've also done quite a power of useful research to highlight the current complicated practices of copyright, the ways in which it intends to both to provide credit and protect profits--and (most relevant for our current conversations) the ways in which the internet is putting pressure on the unwieldiness of the system.

I'm finding myself in agreement with Shayna here: that Creative Commons operates as something of "a compromise manifesto" between the "Copyright Right and the Anti-Copyright Left," a means of crediting/valuing the creators of cultural product without evoking the extensive policing necessitated by intellectual property law.

What is particulalry inspiring to me in the work of Creative Commons is their intention to "increase the amount of creativity," by paying more attention (as you point out) to the threat of "obscurity" than to that of "piracy."  Doctorow is exemplary here, and his saying that "every word" of his book, offered freely on the internet, "is a gift, not a confiscation," puts me in mind of a longstanding discussion about gift culture.  

In his essay on "Given Time: 'Counterfeit Money,'" Jacques Derrida says, quite provocatively, that "the gift is impossible": from the moment the transaction is recognized, it becomes weighted with obligation, and so no longer qualifies as [a] pure present...." But some contemporary cultural theorists think differently. One in particular whose work  you might be interested in learning more about is Lewis Hyde, who studies "gift-giving" as an alternative to commodity-based culture, a vision of open exchange that isn't commercial, he says, but "erotic," that keeps the gift in play (sounds like the internet to me!).

The Gifts of Lewis Hyde

You end by asking your readers "how they want to see the internet form." I find myself wanting to ask back, what do you think? What's your vision, and your sense of the detailed work necessary to actualize it? (For example: just what can be done with a downloadable copy that's "not possible with a physical book"? Is the reverse also true? What advantages might there be to limiting ourselves to conventional bound books?)

rmeyers's picture

as many copies in as many platforms

I've gone back and fixed the links, they should work now. Thank you for pointing that out!

As for answering my own questions, the Internet is vast, and hopefully will form in multiple ways. Perhaps I am too neat for my own good, but part of me wishes to see a more precise and simple system form for publishing online (authors sell their own books, publishing houses only print on demand through orders, you can find all of an author's work in one place). But with the Internet the way it is, it seems far more likely that each publisher and author will forge a different system, cross-pollinating and tangled. I can either start my own system (requiring a few more years education), or support to the best of my ability the systems I want to see flourish (which requires semi-constant research and attention). However, what is happening now, even with Cory Doctorow, does not change the form of publishing itself. Pushing for print-publishers to use Creative Commons would seem like a logical step, if somewhat daring at the moment. Otherwise, all that will change is the internet, while the print books system remains the same --this ties into an answer to your question about conventionally bound books and their advantages, mainly that if we can get publishing companies to change their policies for physical objects (maybe more than just their copyright policies?) we can then get music and film production companies (right now these are more in the spotlight) to change as well. (Besides, physical books are far more fun to read, even if limited to 2-D pictures and print --a platform like the blog, but much older.) As for limiting ourselves, that is never a good idea. As many copies, as many platforms, as many copies in as many platforms... to preserve information and creativity. We should never limit ourselves to one source of fuel, one platform for reading, or one choice for a political party.

Shayna S's picture

Creative Commons, a Compromise Manifesto

 After looking at the Creative Commons website, I immediately went to the slogan "Share, Remix, Reuse-Legally". It is a very appealing idea for creating an authorship in a society that values legitimacy. In the Remix Manifesto, the narrator said there where two sides. The Copyright Right and the Anti-Copyright Left (feel free to correct me if these generalizations are not representative of what is in the movie). So, where does CC fit within this description? One might argue that it is Anti-copyright, as it advocates for sharing of material. Yet I believe CC represents the majority of people who are between these two extremes. We want to give credit where credit is due, and make sure an author/artist is properly valued, but we can't agree with the strict copyright laws that turn the consumers into the criminals and have put companies into difficult legal positions. CC calls for a redefinition of copyright laws that fit into a new decade and a new millennium. I see CC as the intermediate stage of the new form of copyright you state it could be.