Going the Full Doctorow: What Not to Expect From Your Creative Commons Licensed Work

Eleven years ago Cory Doctorow released a book called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. What was unique for the time was that not only was it published under a traditional publisher (Tor), but it was also published under a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives license directly on his website, allowing people to stop by his site and download it for free. What did it mean? It meant that anyone could download the book and redistribute it for free, as long as they didn’t alter it in any way, and didn’t try to make money off that distribution. This created a firestorm of controversy in some circles, controversy that included some authors calling him all kinds of nasty names,1 and grand predictions of piracy dooming the book to commercial failure.2

In 2004, Doctorow upped the ante: he changed the license to a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike license, which meant that it was now legal to create derivative works—in other words, someone could:

  • Take the text, upload it to a print on demand shop, and create a physical version of the book (as long as it wasn’t done for profit)
  • Take the text and post it serially, chapter by chapter, on their own site, while inserting their own notes and commentary in the text (as long as it wasn’t done for profit)
  • Alter the text of the story and distribute that copy as an “alternate version” (as long as it wasn’t done for profit)
  • Legally write fan-fiction using the characters, setting, and world the story took place in (again, as long as it wasn’t done for profit)

This was unheard of, and once again there was an uproar from parts of the writing community.3 But only parts—other writers sat around and thought to themselves “hmmm. Interesting.” And they waited to see what happened next.

What happened next was the book did well. It was nominated for a Nebula in 2004. More important, Doctorow has stated that the accessibility of the book introduced it to markets that never would have known about it otherwise, and that as a result his sales increased. That’s right—it seems that some people who have access to something for free are also willing to buy a copy.

He has, as far as I know, released every work under a CC-A-NC-SA license ever since… and he’s inspired a number of other authors to do the same.

Not every author is willing to go the “Full Doctorow”—distribute their work in a way that allows someone to make copies and distribute it without paying them, or even change it however they like, as long as attribution is given and it’s not done for commercial purposes. Some authors might be interested, but their publishers flat-out refuse. But the number of artists across all the spectrums of the artistic community who are willing to use the CC or some other kind of open content license has increased dramatically since then. I switched to a CC-A-NC-SA license for my webcomic as soon as I left Keenspot,4 and decided to use it universally for everything I do on Eviscerati.Org, including my fiction. Because I self-publish,5 I even have the luxury of using the Creative Commons license in my eBooks, and will include it in the POD version of my physical books if I can ever manage to get that sorted out. And there are other artists—authors, webcomic artists, musicians, photographers, and more—who have done the same, for a variety of reasons.

There are a lot of good reasons to use a CC license. There is, however, one very bad reason, and that’s the one I want to talk about today:

Don’t use CC because you think it’s the perfect marketing gimmick. You’re going to wind up very disappointed if you do.

At first blush it seems brilliant: Doctorow has stated that the accessibility of his books made it easier for new markets to find it. At one point in time, a lot of noise was made among the open licensing community for that very reason, used as a counter-argument against people who predicted financial doom for the entire affair.6 It would get uploaded to places like Scribd and people would find it, read it, and some of them—people who would never have been paying customers before—would become paying customers. It could be emailed between friends, shared with new communities. After 2004, it would even be possible for people to create unofficial translations of the book into other languages, opening up entirely new markets! It sounds great, it sounds plausible, and most of all, it sounds easy.

“Easy” is a very seductive word to writers,7 because there’s so much of this process that just isn’t easy. Not at all.

“So,” a potential CC-licensee says to himself, “I just distribute this under the same license, and I’ll reach the same levels of success Cory Doctorow did! I’ll be rich!” And then he laughs and evil laugh, because all his plans and machinations are falling into place, and he considers buying a white, long-haired cat.8

Well, no. He really won’t. In fact, nine times out of ten the license probably won’t affect his sales at all, because nine times out of ten people don’t pay attention to the copyright notice in a book.9 And because he’ll be adopting a license that is still rather peculiar, it’s going to be difficult for traditional publishers to get on board with his work (if he wants to go that route)10 and get traditional reviewers to look past the apparent novelty and focus on his work (if he wants to go that route)11 and for the most part he’ll find himself in the same boat as every other struggling, self-publishing author.12

There are a number of reasons it worked for Cory Doctorow in 2003. The biggest one was nobody had ever tried it before,13 and the sheer novelty and apparent audacity of the idea got a lot of people to pay attention to it, which led to people downloading it, and at that point Doctorow’s skill as a writer took over—they liked it. It was the novelty that attracted so much attention from the “unknown markets.”14

That novelty is gone now. It’s still not a traditional way of doing things, but it’s not something that’s going to be trumpeted on blogs and news sites all over the web, and into the physical world. Or, to rephrase, “the problem with justifying this by saying ‘Cory Doctorow did it’ is you are not Cory Doctorow.”15

This is important, and it needs to be remembered. People get excited when famous and successful people do something that helps them become famous and successful, because they decide it was the process that made them famous or successful, and that the process can be scientifically recreated and reproduced on demand. So if Cory Doctorow finds an influx of readers using a CC license, people decide (incorrectly) that using a CC license will give them an influx of readers. If Amanda Hocking makes a million dollars self-publishing her Kindle books on Amazon.com, people decide (incorrectly) that selling Kindle books on Amazon.com will make them a million dollars. And the actual things that went into those events, including making the right decisions, while being in the right place, at just the right time, are overlooked in favor of the distorted gloss of the “easy thing you have to do in order to succeed.”

There are lots of good reasons to use a Creative Commons license for your work. The most important one (in this supervillain’s not-so-humble-opinion) is that Copyright Law as it currently exists is batshit insane,16 and CC licenses add a small but welcome dose of sanity while still absolutely recognizing your rights as the creator of the work. Creative Commons allows me to make it absolutely clear that readers have pretty much the same rights with all versions of my work—electronic included—that they would have with, for example, a paperback. And it also allows people to play with my ideas, if they want to, by adapting my story and creating fan fiction. Not that I expect people to write fan fiction about the Foldspace Universe, but it’s nice to be able to take a pro-fan fiction stance.17

And, ultimately, CC licensing can still be worked into your marketing strategy… it shouldn’t be the reason you do it, but it’s still possible to do. But it isn’t easy: you have to do all the work.18 You have to put your book on sites like Scribd, you have to make it available to groups that otherwise never would have heard of you, you have to be the one to proactively let people know, every day, what rights they have when they read (and if they choose to redistribute or modify) your work. CC will no longer give you momentum, but it can still give you access… but you need to realize that adopting it isn’t a magic wand that suddenly makes you an overnight success.

None of this is to say you shouldn’t use a Creative Commons license. I do, and I do it with everything I create… and I suspect, barring unforseen circumstances far beyond my control,19 that I will continue to do so for as long as I continue to publish. By all means go the Full Doctorow,20 but know why you’re doing it, and do it for reasons that make sense. “It’s going to make me filthy rich” isn’t one of them.


  1. For example, he was accused of being a traitor to professional writers everywhere. I saw that first hand. It was interesting
  2. This is a prediction that is made about anything that is released without DRM, though, so it’s not unique to him.
  3. The fact that it specifically permitted fan fiction seemed to be a particular sticking point for some. The presence of fan fiction seems to provoke a binary reaction from authors—they either love it and do it themselves, or they despise it and anyone who dares utter its name.
  4. I wanted to do it sooner, but my agreement with Keenspot didn’t allow it.
  5. Or, if you prefer, “because I am a no-talent hack who couldn’t score a book deal.” Hey, I’m a flexible guy.
  6. For the record, I think this was a very shortsighted argument for the open licensing community to make, because it took one experience and turned it into a general statement of wealth generation.
  7. “Free” is also very seductive, unless someone adds “I want you to do all your work for” at the beginning of it.
  8. And a) grows a goatee, b) shaves his head, and c) acquires a menacing facial scar. He’s probably already wearing black.
  9. And that tenth guy is a lawyer hoping you screwed something up so he can sue you.
  10. “So you’re a pirate?”
  11. “So you’re a pirate?”
  12. “So you’re a no-talent hack who couldn’t score a book deal?”
  13. This may not actually be true. However, it is true that from the perspective of most of the people who heard about it in 2003, no one had ever tried it before.
  14. But let’s be clear on this. It ultimately worked because he wrote things people wanted to read.
  15. If you think you are Cory Doctorow, then you may have some medical issues that might conceivably lead to a compelling novel. If you actually ARE Cory Doctorow… um… hi.
  16. I’m not talking “Loki’s mind is a bag full of cats” insane. I’m talking “has a tendency to randomly lash out at passers-by and beat them senseless with a large iron pipe until its handlers can sedate it” insane. And since its handlers are apparently allowing it to keep the large iron pipe, that tells you something about the kind of care it’s getting.
  17. Also, I don’t ever want to know about Ktk slashfic. EVER.
  18. If “easy” is seductive to writers, “work” is Jabba the Hut in a skimpy negligee giving them a “come hither” look.
  19. “We, the Amalagamated Publishing Company International, would like to dump ridiculous amounts of money in your lap for the rest of your life just to make sure you never say anything again to anyone about anything.” Actually if those were the terms I still probably couldn’t do it. But I might be tempted to try…
  20. And by all means, please start calling it the “Full Doctorow” every chance you get, because I think the phrase is hilarious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *