Cory Doctorow: Copying is the source of creativity

Cory Doctorow is a great writer with a fascinating mind. He writes around the edges of the science fiction genre about themes like intellectual property,  information economies, informatics, censorship, and internet connectivity. If you think he sounds like a nerd, you’d be right. He’s a nerd’s nerd. I say that with great admiration.

Doctorow spent several years at the Electronic Frontier Foundation working on information policy issues related to copyright and intellectual property. Doctorow has become a powerful voice in the movement against Digital Rights Management software. DRM is the stuff that makes eBooks impossible to share or use the way you use paper-based books. DRM is the stuff that makes “owning” eBooks a fundamentally different experience than owning a paper-based book. He writes a lot about the concept of ownership and how we try to manage ideas as property.

You should read his books and essays to learn more about that.

Doctorow generally opposes the idea that piracy is an author’s worst enemy. In fact, Doctorow gives electronic copies of his books away for free in the belief that free copies increases his reading audience which, in turn, drives more sales. It seems to be working for him.

I admire Doctorow for his ability to reduce complex, abstract ideas to their essential core. He makes big ideas small enough for me to carry around with me and share with other people.

This recent interview in the Bizarre Assemblage is a great example. This is how he describes the role of copying in creative works:

 I knew even before I went to work for EFF that there really wasn’t any way that you could prevent people from copying things that they wanted to copy. And I also understood that copying was not in and of itself evil. In fact, copying is kind of the basis of humanity. You know, four billion years ago some molecules used some process that we don’t understand to figure out how to copy themselves and we are their descendants  We have a name for things that don’t copy themselves: we call them dead. So it’s pretty hard to condemn copying as wrong when everybody biologically copies all the time. And I felt like, as an artist, there was something profoundly intellectually dishonest in proclaiming what I did to be original. Obviously I do a lot of verbatim copying as an artist and my life is filled with mixed tapes and with things that I copied as part of my journey, as it were, to becoming the person I am today. But also every time I write a novel, I copy Cervantes who invented the Western novel. And every time anyone writes a detective novel, you copy Edgar Allen Poe who invented the detective novel. And it’s very tempting to say well, what I’m doing is a creative input of what those people did. But I think that’s intellectually dishonest. And I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that everything we do is creative and everything we do becomes plumbing for the next creative act.

He goes on to offer great advice to young writers: Write a lot. Write everyday. Great advice from a writer who has made a creative career that matters. Read his stuff. Study it. Copy it and make it your own. By making it your own, I mean add value. If you can add value to someone else’s ideas, you are making the world better for all of us. You are making “plumbing for the next creative act”.

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