There is no such thing as a stupid question. As a journalist, one of the most important skills I learnt was asking very basic questions — indeed, ones that might seem stupid. It is often these that force people to reveal what more complex questions allow them to hide.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Glyn Moody.
Glyn Moody has been writing about copyright, digital rights, and the Internet for 30 years. He is the author of the new book Walled Culture: How Big Content Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Keep Creators Poor. It may be downloaded free of charge as an ebook from the site walledculture.org, or bought as a traditional book from online bookstores.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Mathematics dominated my childhood. I first had an inkling of how mathematics worked when I was about seven years old. I realised that mathematics is a kind of inverted pyramid, building on previous knowledge as it widened in its applicability. Provided you fully understand it at each stage, you can move forward to the next level. My mathematical education proceeded on this basis, until the end of my PhD in Quantum Mechanics, when I decided to move on to words, and became a journalist.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
My favourite book as a child was the Pears Cyclopedia, which I dipped into constantly. It was an all-in-one volume that had an atlas, a gazetteer, a list of historical events, a list of prominent people, a miniature encyclopaedia of general information, and sections on topics such as cinema, classical mythology, current events, wine, astronomy, ideas, gardening, and medicine. In retrospect, I see that it was a kind of paper-based Internet before the Internet existed. My delight in reading it prefigured my current role as an Internet journalist who spends far too much time online.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I started out as a journalist I often reviewed the latest computer hardware. One such machine was the Hewlett-Packard 150, an early touchscreen computer. I wrote my review on the machine itself, but just as I finished it, I carelessly moved a finger over the on-screen button to delete the entire document. It was not possible to undo the deletion. Unfortunately, I had not made a backup copy of my review — I never bothered back then. After that experience, I make a backup of everything. I have not lost a document or file since.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
The central message of the book is that copyright has failed. It does not do what it is supposed to do: enable the vast majority of creators to earn a decent living. A little of the considerable profits of the creative industries may go to a few superstars, but most ends up with the intermediary companies — publishers, recording companies, film studios. We need to find a better way to finance creativity, one that sees the majority of money going to the artists, not the corporates. Walled Culture explains in detail why copyright has failed, and how we might do better.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
One of the most interesting, and certainly the most moving, story concerns the digital rights activist Aaron Swartz. He believed strongly that knowledge should be freely available to all, and that the current system of academic publishing was an obstacle to that. In late 2010 and early 2011, Swartz downloaded a large number of academic papers using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network. Since the vast majority of these were funded by the public, they should arguably be freely available anyway, not locked away behind paywalls. His was caught doing so, and Swartz was indicted by a federal grand jury in the US. While waiting for trial, where he risked being sentenced to over 35 years of federal imprisonment, Swartz took his own life, in 2013. He was just 26.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
The book grew out of an earlier defeat. From 2017 to 2019 I wrote a blog called CopyBuzz, which was about proposed copyright legislation in the EU. The blog sought to explain why some of the proposed measures would be terrible for the Internet and its users. Although many of the world’s leading technology and digital rights experts said the same, the law was passed as the EU Copyright Directive, which is now being rolled out across the European Union.
My new book is an attempt to understand why the new law had such manifestly harmful measures, and why efforts to explain this to lawmakers failed. Walled Culture details the 30-year history of bad laws being passed simply because the copyright industry lobbied hard for them, and because lawmakers seemed to believe that more copyright was good. My hope is that understanding how exactly the EU Copyright Directive was passed in the face of overwhelming evidence that it would harm creators, digital companies and ordinary Internet users will help in future such battles.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Since the book is only launching now, it has not had a chance to impact anyone yet. However, one of the central aims of writing the book is to help most creators earn a decent wage — something that is definitely not the case at present, because of the way that copyright channels money to a few powerful corporations.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The most important thing is to begin a discussion about finding better ways to support creators. Under copyright, the vast majority of them are struggling to earn a decent level of income. One possible alternative is the “true fans” approach, first outlined by Kevin Kelly in 2008. The idea is that fans support an artist directly, and in advance, rather than indirectly through buying books or music, after they are created. It builds on the strong bond between creators and their fans, and it does not require copyright to work. Ultimately, the aim should be to abolish copyright completely. It has not only failed, but is an active threat to the functioning of the most important invention of recent times — the Internet — as Walled Culture explores in detail.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A true leader is someone who is able to implement a plan against overwhelming odds. A good example is Richard Stallman, who came up with the idea of free software, also known as open source. When he started his free software movement in 1983, he was alone. For years, his idea of giving away software for free was derided as unworkable. Today his approach is used by the vast majority of software developers around the world. That’s leadership.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- There is no such thing as a stupid question. As a journalist, one of the most important skills I learnt was asking very basic questions — indeed, ones that might seem stupid. It is often these that force people to reveal what more complex questions allow them to hide.
- Punch upwards, never downwards. If you take on opponents who are clearly stronger than you, you look brave. If you attack those who are weaker, you look cowardly.
- Count on Dunbar’s number. Defined by Wikipedia as “a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships — relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person”. It’s a useful benchmark when deciding how many people to follow on social media services: it’s hard to have meaningful online relationships with more than a few multiples of Dunbar’s number.
- Make a backup of all your files. See my previous story about why I make backups.
- Make another backup. Just one backup is never enough — it could become corrupted without you realising it. Make multiple backups of all your files — and if possible, keep them in physically distinct locations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A gentleman only supports lost causes”
My book “Rebel Code”, which appeared 20 years ago, was about the then-unknown world of free software and open source — Richard Stallman’s idea that software could be written collaboratively by coders around the world, and then given away for free. At the time it was regarded by many as a crazy idea, of marginal interest. Today, open source runs the entire software world, with the exception of the desktop. Although I wrote about open source for some years, once it was clear it would succeed, I decided to move on to other important areas that needed more attention.
As part of that shift, I have been writing about the harms of copyright, and the idea that we need to find something better. Like open source 20 years ago, getting rid of copyright is currently regarded as a crazy idea, something that will never happen. Open source did happen, despite the early doubts, and so may this.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Dragon King of Bhutan, rules over one of the least-known but most fascinating countries in the world, and in an extremely enlightened fashion. He would be fascinating to talk to for many reasons.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I am @glynmoody on Twitter, and I have two main blogs. One, Walled Culture, is based around the themes of my new book of the same name, while the other, Open…, is more general, and has links to other sites with my work.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Glyn Moody Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.