TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez joins Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow for the launch of their new book, Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back. This event was hosted by The Peale Museum in Baltimore.
Rebecca Giblin is an ARC Future Fellow and Professor at Melbourne Law School. She is director of the Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia (IPRIA) and heads up the Author’s Interest and eLending projects, as well as Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project. Chokepoint Capitalism is her latest book.
Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist and journalist. He is the author of many books. Chokepoint Capitalism is his most recent non-fiction work. In 2020, he was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Nancy Proctor: My name’s Nancy Proctor. I just want to welcome you all to The Peale. And for those of you who may not have been to The Peale before, you can be forgiven. We were actually shuttered for 20 years starting in 1997, and we just recently reopened after five years of renovations. So we have reinvented ourselves as Baltimore’s community museum. But I did want to tell you a little bit about our past. We’re the site of many, many firsts, if you will, for the city and for the country. This is the oldest museum building in the Western Hemisphere, actually. It was opened in 1814 by Rembrandt Peale back in a time when there were very few museums anywhere in the world, and certainly very few that had been purpose-built to be museums. This museum was very eclectic, for our times, anyway. It exhibited everything from fine art to natural history.
The first prehistoric animal in the world was exhibited in a museum here, and a companion in the family’s Philadelphia museum. And it ran very well. But unfortunately, despite the founder having also been dabbling in new technologies; he introduced gaslight technology to the city by using it to illuminate his galleries at night. Eventually was invited to create the first gas streetlight network in the country and thereby founded BGE, now known as Baltimore Gas and Electric, but then Baltimore Gas and Light Company. Unfortunately none of that, let alone the museum business, was enough to pay back the investors who had paid for the building of this building. So in 1829, Rembrandt and his brother Rubens Peale – You can recognize the pattern in the family naming here. There was no question what their father wanted them to grow up to be – They were forced to sell the museum in a fire sale, and the city of Baltimore bought it in 1829 and made it the city’s first City Hall.
When the new City Hall was built across the street here, catty-corner to us, the building was repurposed to be male and female colored school number one. Now we’re now in the Reconstruction era, and the first public schools are being built for Blacks in this city school. Public schools had been available to white citizens for more than 50 years at this point, and when the first schools were opened, they were really only allowed to have elementary school curriculum. It was considered neither necessary nor desirable, and that’s almost a direct quote, for there to be a secondary school education available to people of color in this state. Thanks, however, to the activism of Isaac Myers and the Brotherhood of Liberty and others, the city was pressured into adding a secondary school curriculum.
And this was the school that had that first high school class, that first high school education available to people of color in the city. The school that was founded here quickly outgrew the building. It got a new purpose-built school called The Colored High School by 1894. That school now is called the Frederick Douglas High School, which is one of the most historic high schools in the country. So the very first Black teachers who had been public school educated came through this building, because of course you couldn’t become a teacher until you had a high school degree. So up until that point, even all of the instructors in the Black schools were white. So it’s a place that had many transformative moments.
When the school left this building, it started being used for manufacturing of all sorts, and it almost destroyed the building. And they were going to in fact tear it down until some citizens and journalists came together and said, no, actually this is too important a part of our history. And so they agreed to renovate the building and convert it into Baltimore’s first municipal museum. So it opened as that in 1930, and it ran until 1997 when, due to another financial crisis, the city shut this museum and several other city owned museums down and basically abandoned the building for 20 years.
So the collection at that time was transferred to what was called the Maryland Historical Society. You can still see it at the Maryland Center for History and Culture. But this building is really the only physical artifact we have left. We are a collection such as it is, Born Digital. It is recorded Baltimore stories of the people and the people who come to the city and use this building. And we’re also a platform and a stage for the city’s creators and storytellers in all media. So that might be artists creating exhibitions, historians doing workshops, or community groups organizing and having their own events.
So this is your museum and I really hope you will use it. Everything that we do here comes from the community. It’s driven grassroots up. So if there’s anything that you’d like to do here at The Peale, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. My name’s Nancy, my contact info is out there, and my colleagues will be happy to help you as well. One thing that you might want to come back for is on Dec. 3 we’re having a festive fundraiser. It’ll be a great party at The Peale, so you can pick up one of these and take them away.
All right, so enough about the history of The Peale. I appreciate your letting me give you all of that. I know in 208 years you amass a lot of stories. It’s hard to compress them into a sound bite.
So I also want to now very quickly introduce our wonderful speakers here today. Immediately here on my left is Maximilian Alvarez, whom you might know well as the editor-in-chief of the Real News Network, just two doors down. They’ve been fabulous partners and neighbors for The Peale and have done a number of events here with us. So we were thrilled when Max said he would be available to interview our other great friends, Cory Doctorow and Professor Rebecca Giblin, who are visiting here from LA and Australia respectively. You probably don’t need much more of an introduction than that. So I’m going to shut up and hand this over to Max.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you, Nancy.
Nancy Proctor: Thank you for being here.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right, well geez, thank you all so much for coming out in the cold. Thank you to Nancy and to everyone here at The Peale for hosting this incredible event and for doing all the great work that they do. Please do support them. Please, as Nancy said, make this your own space, because we need spaces like this. And of course, thank you to my amazing interlocutors, Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin, A for writing such an important book, and B, for schlepping across the world, spreading the good word, and for putting us on your schedule. We really, really appreciate y’all making it out here.
And I do mean it when I say this is a vital book. And the examples for what Cory and Rebecca talk about in Chokepoint Capitalism are everywhere. We just got a hilariously and awfully poignant example this week, and now it looks like the Department of Justice is going to be investigating the parent company of Ticketmaster on antitrust grounds after hashtag Swift Gate.
So the name of the book is Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back. And I’m going to read a passage from it in a second, but to frame this for us. Competition, we’re told, is the lifeblood of capitalism. It is the foundation undergirding the entire system upon which capitalism depends. It is the basis, supposedly, for the entire social contract that we enter into in capitalist society. And yet, as Cory and Rebecca brilliantly detail in this book, as they term them, pathologies endemic to capitalism and to the entire capitalist system, naturally and inevitably tend towards concentration. Towards anti-competition, monopoly, monopsony, exploitation, rent-seeking, so on and so forth. This is where it all heads. And again, I think we can all feel that on a day-to-day level.
Corporate concentration is on steroids right now. Record profits are across the board in different industries, all while workers’ wages have remained stagnant for decades, all while suppliers are being squeezed. So there seems to be one clear group that is making out bandits in all of this while the rest of us collectively suffer in innumerable ways. And I think that the work that Cory and Rebecca have done in this book not only helps us better diagnose this problem, but I think in a truly remarkable accomplishment of the book, they spend a great deal of time talking about how we get ourselves out of this mess. And as I mentioned in the subtitle to the book, they do focus intently on creative labor markets, as we’re going to talk about in a minute, as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. And as go the creative workers, so will go the rest of us, I think, is really one of the taglines here, and we’re going to understand why.
So here’s something that Cory and Rebecca write in the final chapter of their book. “Knowledge and culture are vital to human thriving. Art gives expression to new ideas and movements and cultures, making an experience that can be an act of solidarity or protest. It can sucker our traumas and heightened moments of joy. Music, poetry, fiction, memoir, sculpture, painting, and dance are all necessary to making sense of and bearing being human. We need people to be able to dedicate their professional lives to these crafts. Creative workers and producers deserve a better deal, one that delivers them a dignified and fair share of the wealth generated by their work. We’ve shown some of the key actions that can get them there like enshrining…” Let me skip ahead actually, I didn’t want to mark up Nancy’s book.
So ,”In the ongoing war of capital versus labor, between oligarchy and democracy, capital is clearly ascendant. Wages in most developed nations have stagnated over the last 40 years, though productivity has risen steeply. At the same time, profit margins in concentrated industries are rising. Anti-competitive flywheels are everywhere, locking in users and suppliers, making markets hostile to new entrants and leveraging that power to force suppliers and workers to accept ever lower prices. We are sharing less in the returns of our work because choke points are sapping our ability to bargain for improved conditions and pay.
“Monopolies and monopsonies have become endemic, squeezing the life out of customers and suppliers. And then there are the uncountable corporations who don’t quite meet the extraordinarily high standards required by US antitrust law to earn that label, but which also use their control over choke points to siphon away a disproportionate share of value, particularly from other people’s labor.”
Now, Cory, Rebecca, I don’t want to ask you all to rehash the analytical breakdown that you give of what chokepoint capitalism is, how it came to be, what it looks like. I was hoping, in fact, that we could start by demonstrating what chokepoint capitalism is to people by looking at different people in this system and how this system affects them. So sticking with some of the examples that we’ve already mentioned, let’s talk about your average Joe Schmo Amazon Prime subscriber who orders a lot of stuff on Amazon Prime.
Who here orders from Amazon Prime? It’s okay, you can admit it. All right. So let’s talk about, from the average Amazon customer side, Amazon small vendor who has to use Amazon’s marketplace to sell whatever it is that they’re producing, and even an Amazon worker at a fulfillment center like the one that we have down the road. And then on the other side, you all do an incredible job talking about services like Spotify and what they mean for musicians. And so I was wondering if we could also weave in like, if I’m an independent musician trying to get my music out there, or if I’m someone who listens to Spotify to find new music, in those sorts of subject positions. What does chokepoint capitalism look like?
Cory Doctorow: Do you want to start or shall I?
Rebecca Giblin: You start, I’m still writing down a whole of the, before I forget, all of the ones that we’re going to talk about.
Cory Doctorow: Well, so Amazon’s an interesting example. And it’s interesting in part because the DC Attorney General brought a landmark antitrust case against Amazon. So antitrust law, you should understand, doesn’t do much. It’s been a dead letter for about 40 years. But the one thing that it’s supposed to protect us against is high prices. Basically the posture of antitrust regulators these days is so long as you’re not making prices go up, you can form a monopoly that does anything at once to everybody except for the consumer. And if prices go up, then the regulator will step. In practice, they rarely do. And it is this very narrow eye of the needle that people keep trying to thread their antitrust cases through with varying degrees of success. Lots of people are arguing that we should have a more expansive view. But in the DC case, they actually just try to thread this one little needle.
So if you want to sell goods, you have to sell on Amazon because they’ve got Prime. Once you get Prime, you’re almost certain not to look anywhere except Amazon if you’re trying to buy goods. You’ve already spent your $150, so you’re definitely going to shop Amazon first if you can get there. So that’s all the users being corralled, all the customers being corralled into Amazon’s little walled garden there.
So the sellers want to be there, but it’s not enough to merely sell through Amazon, because if you’re not a Prime seller on Amazon, then you’re not going to show up in the search results. So to be Prime, you have to do things like fulfillment by Amazon, which means that you’ve got to send your stuff to Amazon’s warehouse to be shipped and so on. And then if you want to show up in the first couple of pages of results, you probably have to pay what they call advertising fees.
It’s just payola to be on those front pages. They have a $31 billion a year advertising market. Almost all of that advertising is just people who sell on Amazon bidding against each other to be at the top of those listings. So it’s very hard to make money on Amazon. North of 50% of what the consumer pays for goods on Amazon from these independent sellers is just gobbled up by Amazon’s fees. And so what they do is they raise the prices. But they don’t just raise the prices on Amazon. Because Amazon has something called most favored nation status, which you’ll hear about, I think Rebecca might talk about Spotify.
Rebecca Giblin: Yeah, you talk about Amazon and I’ll talk [inaudible] –
Cory Doctorow: And we’ll talk about how most favored nation status shows up in all of these scams. So most favored nation status means you can’t sell more cheaply anywhere than you sell on Amazon. And so that means that if you take the same goods and you want to sell them at Target or at the local hardware store or the local bodega, you can’t charge less than you charge on Amazon. So even if you never shop on Amazon, you pay higher prices because of how Amazon works.
So let’s look at how this plays out for the people who want to write books and sell them on Amazon. Amazon has a subsidiary called Audible. Audible is the world’s most successful audiobook marketplace. Depending on what genre you’re talking about, they control 90% or more of the marketplace. Audible has a condition that if you want to sell your books on Audible, you have to agree that they can wrap your audiobook in an encryption technology called Digital Rights Management. And under a law from the Clinton era, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it’s illegal to remove digital rights management even if you have permission from the copyright holder.
So if you buy my audiobook on Audible and I say, you know what? You can remove the DRM, you can move that audiobook to a player that Audible doesn’t control, I can’t authorize you to do it. And if I give you a tool to do that, I commit a felony which is punishable by a five-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine. So there’s a stick that locks in all of those listeners for audiobooks, but there’s also a carrot. And the carrot is that if you are an Audible subscriber and you get that one credit every month until very recently, until labor organizing, Audible had this incredibly generous deal where if you were done listening to your audiobook, they would say at the end of it, hey, just in case, if you didn’t like that audiobook, you can return it for your credit back.
You can get a second audiobook with your one audiobook a month subscription. In fact, you can return it months after you’ve listened to it. You can return it after you’ve listened to it several times. And they would bombard their listeners with these enticements to return the book because if you return the book, they would claw back the royalty from the author whose book they had sold on the platform. Now, if you’re an independent author and you wanted to sell on Audible’s platform, you use something called ACX. And again, until a recent spate of labor organizing, if you put your book on ACX, the book that you personally finance out of your own pocket, you couldn’t sell it anywhere else for seven years. So you’re stuck in this platform where you can only sell there for seven years, and Audible gets to give back the credit to the listeners and take it out of your pocket, which means that the subscription is worth more.
So they’ve wrapped the listener in bonds of iron, they’ve said you may not remove the DMR from the books you’ve bought and go somewhere else, and in silk ribbons: we will give you back your credit. All you have to do is say, I didn’t like that book as much as I thought I would, even though I listened to it three times and I’ve had it for a year. And they’ll give you back that credit. So this was called Audible Gate. The authors who discovered it did some more digging. One of the authors involved is a forensic accountant who now writes mystery novels. Wrong person –
Rebecca Giblin: Forensic fraud thrillers.
Cory Doctorow: …Forensic fraud thrillers. She estimates hundreds of millions of dollars in wage theft. So you can see how this lock-in, this choke point allows the firms to sometimes screw their buyers, the customers, as it is the case with all the hard goods you buy from Amazon whether you’re buying them on Amazon or not, but also screw the producers. So these independent authors are getting the shitty end of the stick from Audible and having their pockets picked at every turn. And that’s how these monopsonistic markets work. A monopsony is like a monopoly except the buyer has power instead of the seller. The only place you can sell your audiobooks is Audible, and so Audible is the buyer for your creative labor. They have all the power, they can set the terms and they can treat you in extraordinarily bad ways. That’s a pattern that we see throughout the creative industries.
Rebecca Giblin: So let me talk a little bit about the music markets, but for recorded music. And these markets, we spend a lot of time on music markets in the book, but they are rigged in just about every way that you can imagine. And then the compounding effect on this, particularly for independent musicians, is really extraordinary. So let me unpack at least some of them, not all of them, because then we’ll be here for many hours and I will miss my flight.
All right, so let’s start with, first of all, record contracts. Record contracts have been traditionally extraordinarily abusive because record labels were previously the only way that if you were a recording artist, really the only way that you could get your music out to audiences. And particularly the majors which controlled the physical distribution into stores. That allowed them to gain a lot of control.
And then they had the resources to buy up lots of other catalogs of recorded music after file sharing began. And there was blood on the walls and a lot of these companies were going under. So they came to control, these big three record labels came to control almost 70% of the world’s global recorded music market. And they owned the three music publishers. They control the song rights as distinct to the sound recordings that control almost 60% of global song rights. And so even though we don’t need them in the same way today for artists to get their music out to audiences, the fact that they control those copyrights which can last close to a century has allowed them to not only shake down artists in their contracts but also to shape the future of recorded music markets, which they’ve done with streaming.
And so it might be, you’ve heard a lot about how streaming royalties are really low and not many artists make much money from that. But you might have less awareness that the reason they work the way that they do is because the big three designed them that way. And certainly they work a lot better for the major labels than they do for any other form of label. And so there’s a whole bunch of reasons for that, but we probably don’t have much time for me to get into it. But one of the really critical ones is that the major labels, in order to let Spotify get off the ground, they were acting as if they’re doing Spotify a huge favor to let it try and create a market to replace the revenue that was lost to peer-to-peer file sharing. When, of course we know now that, and I think a lot of us knew at the time, but we know now from the empirical research the reason why people were infringing so much is because they were really interested in having access to the entirety of the history of the world’s music at their fingertips. The convenience of that and the range of it instead of being limited to what you could get in a tiny record store was what was really the killer app for that.
And so as soon as people had a reasonable, legitimate alternative like they do with music streaming, they came to pay. The same we see with movies and TV shows. But the major labels said, okay, well if you want to have a go at doing this, you’re going to have to give us a whole bunch of equity in your company, and then we’ll give you permission to do this. So the biggest labels had this huge equity stake in Spotify which gave it a massive conflict of interest. Because when they were negotiating for the royalty rates, they were also thinking about, hm, what kinds of royalties are going to maximize the amount of money that we are going to make through our equity?
Now the thing with that equity share is that when they negotiated it, they had this really neat little thing that they had put in their contracts and they’d had that for decades, that any money that they brought in that was from use of music but was not attributable to any particular song, they didn’t have to share with artists at all. And the equity stakes were like that.
And so when they came… And look, that’s subsequently been reformed again because we got a bit of transparency. There was a Sony contract with Spotify that was leaked, and all of the musicians who had suspected that these deals were being structured to cut them out saw for sure that these deals were being structured to cut them out. And there was a big hullabaloo, and they did, through a big public shaming campaign, managed to get some reform to that. But at the time, this is exactly what was going on. So what happened, if we fast forward to when we get to Spotify’s IPO, it was time to renegotiate the royalty rates that the artists were going to get. Now you might think that’s a time when the labels have really got leverage to do the best that they can for their artists. That’s not actually what happened.
The major labels, even though they had Spotify over a barrel because Spotify needed those catalogs in order to be able to do its IPO, they negotiated for lower royalty rates for their artists because as shareholders, they knew that was the thing that was going to give them the biggest bump in their shareholding. And so what this means for independent artists is that when those independent labels came back to the negotiating table because it was their turn to renegotiate their contracts, all those major labels had something called a most favored nation clause, which is what Corey alluded to, which sets the ceiling, the most that anybody can get. And so those independent labels who didn’t have the benefit of that potential upside from the equity, they came back to the negotiating table to find the ceiling was actually lower than before, not higher. And so their artists were getting less than what they were getting in order to subsidize the huge windfall payday that the majors were going to get.
And so what we are seeing here is exactly the same playbook across all of the creative industries that we look at. And Amazon actually made a picture for it, we’ve put it in the book, they call it this Virtuous Flywheel. They talk about how this is the secret to their success, that they’ve got all of these efficiencies, they’ve got this lower cost structure, which means lower prices that attracts more customers that brings more traffic and so then we’ve got more sellers. It’s all delightful. It’s a beautiful cycle and it all continues.
But we hired an amazing illustrator called Lauren Canard to draw our idea of what was really going on instead. So this is not a virtuous cycle, it’s an anti-competitive one. What we are seeing here is that these companies are locking in their customers so that they can then lock in their suppliers, the artists, the people who actually make the stuff that we care about. And then once they’ve got their customers and their suppliers locked in, they use the revenue that they make from that to eliminate their competitors so that those people have less and less choice about somewhere else to go.
This is why so many people raise their hands with the question, who’s a Prime Member? Because what are the alternatives in so many places? How many hours would it take you to replicate the convenience of getting that? Because local shops and commerce have been hollowed out by Amazon’s dominance as a result of it using these price structures to force out those competitors. And then once they’ve done that, that’s when they really put the squeeze on. The final part of this flower that’s really going around is that they’re forcing their workers, their suppliers, these creative laborers to accept an unsustainable and unfair low share of value. So that’s really what’s going on, what we try to show in the first half of the book.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and to really emphasize the visual of the Chokepoint, Corey and Rebecca frequently invoke the image of the hourglass. So imagine that type of shape. And you’ve got sellers, producers on one side, and then you’ve got buyers, consumers on the other side, and you’ve got this vice grip on the neck of the middle point. That’s what Amazon’s doing. That’s what Spotify’s doing. Frankly, that’s what all of these massive corporations are doing because of what y’all detail in the book. And one thing I wanted to also emphasize, picking up the role of the Amazon worker, this impacts all of us.
And again, there’s one clear group, a small group that’s making out bandits here while everyone else is pissed off at what’s going on, but no one really feels like they have any power to do anything about it. Almost two years ago for The Real News, I drove down to Alabama and spoke with workers at the Bessemer Fulfillment Center that was attempting to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union down there. And they got two shots at an election because Amazon was found to have cheated and broke the law during the first election, because they can. And when I say that this impacts everyone, and something that Corey and Rebecca write, they talk about this paradigmatic shift that occurred in the last half century where the calculus by which we determine whether or not there’s an antitrust problem is focused on consumer prices.
If prices are low, there’s essentially no problem. There’s no smoke, no fire. That’s what Amazon is able to do with this system. And one of the ways it is able to do that is by grinding its workers into dust. And a lot of these workers are also, purportedly, the consumers who are going to buy the stuff on Amazon. And so when I spoke to workers down in Bessemer, a de-industrialized town, majority Black, twice the national poverty rate, yes, the wages at Amazon were higher than the average low wage worker in Bessemer. But as the union and the organizers pointed out, if you look at the greater Birmingham area, Amazon is paying at least $2 less than unionized warehouses in that area. So you are grinding workers down, Amazon’s fulfillment centers have a turnover rate of 150%. Amazon itself, by its own internal studies, has said, we’re going to run out of human beings to churn through our warehouses by 2024 at this rate.
That also has an impact, because you can artificially keep costs low, but it comes at the expense of the human beings who are making that process happen. We all know the horror stories, and I heard them firsthand: Workers work to the bone walking multiple football field lengths to retrieve something to fulfill an order, their knees breaking down, so on and so forth. And so that is a part of this too. So if you have lower wages, you’re being taken advantage of, you’re being exploited, you’re being run into the ground. That is the cost of these artificially low prices.
And one thing that I wanted to ask y’all about is this notion that creative workers are, as I said before, the proverbial canaries in the coal mine because you write in the book, “Today’s creative labor markets give us a glimpse of what a geographically unbound labor market might look like.” So there’s something very telling in what chokepoint capitalism is doing to creative labor markets that we should all be worried about because it’s not just creatives who are experiencing this, but this feels like the trend towards which all other labor markets are going. I was wondering if y’all could talk a bit more about that.
Cory Doctorow: Well, yeah. Do you want to talk about the location independent stuff and then…
Rebecca Giblin: Well, I guess we all found that with COVID, that we have been told for a long time that, for blue collar workers, robots are going to take their jobs. Have you ever seen a robot try and open a door, or those hilarious videos where you try and get a robot to do a really basic task and it’s just laughably bad at it? So we’re actually surprisingly far from that for a lot of things that humans can just do without even thinking about it. But do you know what we are not far away from? As we discovered when COVID put us all at home and suddenly, within a matter of days in some cases, our employers discovered that we didn’t really need offices anymore and that the job could be done very, very well from home. But if the job can be done very, very well from home, it can be done very, very well from home anywhere in the world.
And do you know what’s much easier than getting robots to learn how to open doors? It’s just to give a couple decades of socializations and skills acquisition to people in lower income countries and then the jobs, white collar jobs, are geographically unbound from the places that they’re in many, many cases. And so this is really sobering, these companies that are extracting… It’s an extraction mindset. And we’re actually starting to see some of the wealthiest people on the planet coming around to the idea of a universal basic income because they’re realizing that they’re pretty close, in many cases, to taking everything that there is to take. And if they want to take more, they’re going to have to arrange for more to be given to those people so that they can extract it. So it’s like a strip mining kind of mindset.
And so I think that that’s a danger that we’ve got to be thinking about. It’s not that those of us who are still in secure, well paying jobs have that because the corporations that employ us do so out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s because they haven’t figured out a way of taking that away from us yet. But they’re working on it.
Cory Doctorow: And creative workers are among the more vulnerable kinds of workers, because creators work for reasons that aren’t entirely economic. There’s that joke about the kid who runs away and joins the circus and his dad finds him shoveling elephant shit and he says, son, come home. And the kid says, what, and quit show business? Creative work is one of those kinds of work where even if there’s no good expectation that you’ll be able to get a fair wage from it, you just keep doing it. And there are other trades like this. What was the term that came up in yesterday’s seminar? It was something like mission valorization or something. Do you remember?
Rebecca Giblin: Yeah. Vocational awe.
Cory Doctorow: Vocational awe, yes there’s a paper about this.
Rebecca Giblin: If it looks like a [inaudible] are very familiar with.
Cory Doctorow: Where you feel like you owe something to your job because it’s a mission. Maybe you run a community museum, maybe you work at a library, teachers, care workers, nurses, and so on, they’re often in a position where even if their wages are cut, even if they don’t know that they can get paid, they still show up for work because the job matters.
Rebecca Giblin: Yeah.
Cory Doctorow: There’s a –
Rebecca Giblin: Yeah. That’s a phrase that we use in the book is we point at all of the situations where people’s passion is being weaponized to facilitate their exploitation.
Cory Doctorow: There’s a great book by David Graeber, RIP, called Bullshit Jobs. And in that book he identifies this weird premium we assign to labor that means something. Where we say to people who have a meaningful job, why do you want to get a fair wage for it? Isn’t the satisfaction of the job enough? Surely a fair wage should be reserved for people who have to do the soul-deadening work of representing a box and a dotted line in an org chart for a princeling at a Fortune 100 company and know that their work doesn’t matter at all and whether they live or die will make no difference. Those people need a real reason to show up for work. But if you get the intrinsic satisfaction of helping toddlers, you should be okay with going to the food bank twice a week. So creative workers are vulnerable, not in exactly the same way, but they’re part and parcel of that kind of vulnerable workforce.
But creative workers have another area in which they’re vulnerable, which is that we have a labor protection regime that is not well suited for purpose, which is copyright. So copyright has some efficacy for creators in extracting revenue from the intermediaries, the publishers, labels, and the studios that represent them. But only when there’s some bargaining leverage. Only when you can go to the label, the studio, the publisher and say, in exchange for my copyright, if you want my copyright, you and I are going to have to dicker, and I’m going to get a better deal out of you.
And when there’s only a small number of firms and the only way to reach your audience is to go through them when they have the choke point, more copyright for creators is like more lunch money for bullied kids. Doesn’t matter how much lunch money you give that bullied kid, the bullies are going to take the lunch money. And the fact that the bullies are out there using some of that lunch money to run a campaign arguing for more lunch money for the hungry kids of America doesn’t mean that they’re ever going to feed your kid, no matter how much lunch money your kid gets.
And so from the two examples we gave, Spotify and Audible, the only role that copyright plays in that is to the detriment of creators. The three big labels were able to structure the future of Spotify because they had these extraordinary long, live, century-long copyright portfolios. The only reason that Audible listeners can’t take their collections with them somewhere else is because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which gives more power to corporations that wrap a file with an encryption wrapper than it does to the workers who produce the creative work that is in that file.
This isn’t to say that copyright is never the answer, but if all we have in our toolbox is copyright we will never solve this problem. And so that’s why the book emphasizes all kinds of solutions that are not just about copyright law. A lot of them are about labor law, some of them are about contract law, some of them are about technology law, and they’re about how you can actually intervene in these markets to do things that make a material difference in creators’ lives. At this point, giving a creator more copyright is just giving them the right to be angry at their audience. It’s not going to give them more groceries, it’s not going to help them pay the rent.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I want us to end the panel portion talking about some of those solutions. And again, I think it’s a real testament to the work that Cory and Rebecca have done that so much of the book does focus on potential solutions. None of them is a silver bullet, but all of them are essential tools in the toolkit. Mixed metaphor but you get what I’m saying. But by way of getting there, I want to address something in what you both just said, because I think there is the potential for us to see this problem and to think, oh, maybe something happened in the digital age that threw off the balance. That these corporations had access to types of technologies that allowed them to cheat what was before an okay system, a system that was working fine. But I think this is not going to shock anyone who knows anything about me or, I imagine, any of us, but I’m all for ripping apart the problematic and, I think, unsustainable foundations of capitalism as such, not just as an end in itself.
But I think one thing that really speaks clearly in Rebecca and Cory’s book is how there are pathologies endemic to capitalism that make it so that capitalists literally cannot stop themselves from doing this shit. They cannot stop themselves. We have enough history, we have 200 years of history showing that it is always going to trend in this direction, towards anti-competition, towards rent-seeking, towards monopoly, monopsony, market control, and so on and so forth. And so I wanted to ask you both if you could say a little more about that inherent pathological nature that shows that the solution to this problem is not fine-tuning, twisting some knobs and adjusting things at the margins, but that this is a systemic problem that leads to the systemic issues that we’ve been talking about.
Rebecca Giblin: Yeah, these richest people on the planet, Peter Thiel says, “Competition is for losers.” Warren Buffett salivates over businesses that have wide sustainable modes. This is the orthodoxy being taught in business schools now. It’s that you don’t compete, it’s that you find ways to prevent competition. You find ways to take that vice grip, that was a really beautiful way of putting it. You find ways of getting that vice grip in the hourglass so that you can take away the value of other people’s labor without actually having to do it. And that’s why when you look around at the richest people on the planet, they didn’t get that way from making things or providing services themselves, but just from finding ways of extracting the value of the people that actually did. That’s bananas to me. It’s completely backwards. And we’ve reached the stage now where rich people are not even contemplating making. It’s just like…
Douglas Rushkoff has this great new book out as well called Survival of the Richest, where he also talks about this, the idea of the mindset and going meta, and that this is the only way that people are thinking about making wealth. So we are so far down this track now. But if we want to think about, well, what does this mean for us? What actually does trickle down when we have this kind of mindset in society? Because we’re always told it’s going to trickle down. What does trickle down? What I think trickles down is emptiness and disconnection from these economic systems and these conditions. And it’s actually a feature, not a bug. We’re supposed to feel disconnected and empty because then we will fill that with evermore consumption and evermore production. But we are more than ambulatory wallets. We’re much more than that.
But I’m not convinced that humans are great at figuring out what are the conditions of a good life. And part of the reason for that, I think, is often we’re so burnt out and exhausted from having to deal with the lives that we are living, which again is deliberate so that we don’t have the energy to be able to challenge the status quo. And so I think what we have to do about that is we have to start making the first steps towards changing this system.
As we sometimes say, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. You’re going to make those first steps and then start maybe freeing up some resources and some energy, getting some hope and motivation to be able to do more. Because all of the people, I’m sure there’s lots of people in this room who do activist work and organizing work and know how much burnout accompanies that, it’s just exhausting. But finding ways that we can share the load and take those first bites is really what we’re trying to urge with this book, and join the calls for other people who are trying to create a movement to understand that this is all part of the same fight.
Cory Doctorow: Yeah, I think that this idea that our markets have become very concentrated because of some technological factor, it doesn’t bear up to scrutiny. I think the tech giants would like us to think so. I think they would like us to think that they’re evil geniuses because if they’re going to be evil, at least we can call them geniuses. And there’s no point in fighting back because they’re so much smarter than the rest of us. When you look closely at what they’ve done, it doesn’t require genius. It just requires no regulation on unlimited access to the capital markets.
Google did not become this giant dominant company by inventing the greatest products in the world. They did invent one great product. They had a really good search engine, a pretty good Hotmail clone, a browser that’s okay if it isn’t a little creepily surveillant, but what they do have is a lot of money. Everything that they’ve done that’s successful that isn’t those three things is something they bought from someone else: Their whole ad-tech stack, their whole video stack and display advertising platform, their mobile stack, their server management tools, their customer management tools, their HR tools. They bought all of that stuff from someone else. When they tried to make their own versions of it, it crashed and burned because they’re not an idea factory, they’re a buying things company. That was conduct that we historically prohibited firms from doing. We didn’t let them buy their rivals.
The great forces of history did not create a moment in which monopolies occurred because of things that were beyond our power. We got monopolies because we stopped enforcing monopoly laws. It’s like, how did the paint on your house get so faded? Well you stopped repainting your house. It wasn’t because the sun changed. It was because you stopped doing the thing that you used to do to maintain the system that you had, and when you stopped, it broke down. I think we’re about to see a version of this at Twitter. Twitter is not going to fail because the great forces of history bore down on the moment, Twitter’s going to fail because they fired the engineers that kept the systems running.
When we address ourselves to solutions in the book, we don’t address ourselves to individual solutions that are about how we drag Jeff Bezos out of his mansion to a guillotine or something. We talk about systemic solutions because if it wasn’t Jeff Bezos it would be someone else. It’s the system we have to fix, not these individuals, as colorful as they are, and as rent-free as they live in our heads, they’re not the problem. The problem is the system that lets them be there.
For example, at one point in the book, we have a chapter on contracting terms. Contract is a matter of state law. State law is relatively easy to change compared to federal law. All entertainment contracts are signed, to a first approximation anyway, in California and New York, Washington State because of Amazon and the games companies, and Tennessee because of Nashville.
If you have a royalty basis in your contract, your contract probably gives you the right to audit the basis on which your royalty is calculated. When you go and you do those audits, you’ll often find that money is owed to you. We cite one company in the book that does record industry audits. They’ve done tens of thousands of them over decades, and this is going to shock you and surprise you, but in all but one instance where they found an error, it was in the favor of the label and not the artist. We have no explanation for this. Some kind of horrible localized probability storm. Must be very hard to be an accountant in a world in which every time you roll the dice it lands on its corner just hovering and never flips onto a face.
It is terrible stuff, and when you find those errors, we have a source in our book who had a six figure error in their favor, and you say to the label, I’d like the money you stole from me now, they’ll say, you are adorable, but artists can’t do math and you’ve just misunderstood the royalty statements. But I tell you what, no hard feelings, we’re good natured slobs. We will cut you a deal, like 50 cents on the dollar. You don’t have to sue us because you can’t afford to. But if you want that settlement, you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and your auditor has to promise that they won’t audit us again. This is like the murderer being able to say to the forensics crew, welcome gentlemen, dig anywhere in my garden you’d like for those missing bodies, but not in that back corner on the left. I’m very sentimental about it.
Again, contract is a matter of state law. We could amend our state contract law in four states, we could do it in any one of those states and make a difference, and we could just amend it to say, as a matter of public policy, non-disclosure cannot be enforced where pertains to material omissions or errors that were down to the detriment of people who are owed a royalty for creative work. In that one short bill, you put more money into the pockets of more creators than all the copyright term extensions of the last 40 years combined. There’s a crack in the machine, and if we stick a crowbar in it, we wiggle it around, money will pour out of the machine and into the pockets of artists.
This is a thing that we’re starting to see in some state laws, that the state law on eBooks for libraries that is proposed in Delaware, as I understand it, has a prohibition on non-disclosure on libraries so that they can tell other library systems the deal they’re getting from the publishers on this.
Because when you’re not allowed to talk to other people about the deal you’re getting, it lets the firms play us off against each other, it lets these monopolists play us off against each other. The book is full of these systemic solutions, none of them are individual solutions. You’re not going to recycle your way out of climate change and you’re not going to shop your way out of monopoly capitalism. That can be dispiriting to think that there’s nothing you as an individual can do. But there is one thing you can do as an individual, which is to join a movement. As part of a movement, you can demand these big systemic changes.
Maximillian Alvarez: I thought that was a great spot to end on. We can carry the conversation over to Q and A, but that was beautiful. Can we give another round of applause [applause]? Anyone got a question on their minds? Yes sir.
Michael: You spoke about laws related to eBooks and states and in Maryland, we were the only state that didn’t –
Cory Doctorow: Maryland. I said Delaware, I met Maryland.
Rebecca Giblin: Actually, could we give Michael a mic? Because I think this would be really good to have on the recording, actually. Michael is a real expert on this and has been leading the fight.
Michael: I wanted to go somewhere slightly different than the law, just to say, but what happened when we had that was that Senator Tillis from North Carolina attacked the State and set the copyright office against us. We ultimately didn’t prevail in that. But the law was found to be unconstitutional at the federal level, so we’re going to have to tweak it. But my question to you is, even at a state level, although we had unanimous passing in Maryland, we know that there were states where this law came forward, where the legislators came forward to kill it.
At a federal level, we actually tried an ebook law, and in Rhode Island, and when the CEO of Disney calls up the legislator and says, uh-uh (negative), and the legislator listens, how are we going to be able to affect change when there’s powerful forces at work in legislation to keep things exactly the way they are and there’s billions of dollars against us?
Rebecca Giblin: This is what I was talking about, about how we eat the elephant. Another analogy is you are a mountain climber and you’ve got a whole mountain ahead of you, and that’s where we are right now. I love it when Corey says, well, if you wanted to get there, you wouldn’t start from here. This is a really tricky spot to be starting to climb the mountain from because we have allowed these companies to grow so strong and to have so many resources and to drain the rest of us of ours.
When you are a mountain climber in those circumstances, you can’t map out the whole path from the beginning, but you can start to see the first few holds. Really, that’s what we are trying to map out in this book. What are all the ways in which we can sap this excessive corporate power?
Now, we’ve used the word monopsony before, we had it a lot more in this book on the first draft, and all of our readers begged us to take it out because it’s a horrible, horrible word. We think we can make it sexy.
The thing about monopsony that’s really, really important, these powerful buyers, like the way that Amazon’s a powerful buyer when it comes to publishers and authors, the way that the big three record labels are powerful buyers when it comes to recording artists and so on, it arises at way lower market concentrations than monopoly does. That’s one thing that makes it way more dangerous. Another thing that makes it way more dangerous is traditional antitrust remedies, conduct remedies, which is where you get companies to pinky swear they won’t abuse their power like we did with Live Nation as a condition of it being allowed to swallow up TicketMaster. How well did that work out? Really not so well. And then the structural remedies as well. That means things like breaking companies up. These remedies don’t work particularly well. It can take, how long was it with IBM?
Cory Doctorow: With the AT&T? It took 69 years from the first antitrust action until they were broken up in 1982.
Rebecca Giblin: So that’s not awesome, and really, really expensive as well. But do you know what? These remedies we know are even less effective when it comes to monopsony than it does for monopoly. But we do know what does work, and there are three things: Directly regulating excessive buyer power, encouraging new market entrants, and supporting the building of countervailing power in workers and suppliers.
In the context of libraries, for example, initiatives like the one that we were talking about earlier, to ban NDAs so that libraries are allowed to talk to each other about the contractual terms that they’ve managed to negotiate so that they’re able to get a little bit of extra power in their negotiations with these behemoth companies.
That kind of intervention is the kind of thing that we can do to start taking those first little steps up the mountain. I think that rather than… And that’s what Max was talking about, that we didn’t have silver bullets here, because there is no silver bullet. If there was a silver bullet, we would’ve found it already.
What we have to do is these many, many, many interventions and keep the pressure, on and keep talking to Congress people, our representatives, to be demanding that they don’t just do things like give more support bills for more copyright, but they actually support targeted interventions that are going to achieve the things that they say they want to achieve. That’s what I would say. Cory, do you want to add anything to that?
Cory Doctorow: Yeah, I mean I think that as beloved as libraries are, and as important as creative work is, and as large as the megaphone as some creative workers have, we are not a force to be reckoned with. But if you add to us everyone else who’s on the wrong side of one of those hourglass shaped markets, if you understand that we’re all actually fighting different facets of the same fight, then we become a coalition that I think will be unstoppable. I think that’s what we’re going to need as well.
James Boyle, who runs the Center for the Public Domain with Jennifer Jenkins at Duke University, wonderful law professor, he tells a story about how before the term ecology was in widespread use, people didn’t know they were fighting the same fight. You care about owls, I care about the ozone layer. What do your nocturnal avians have to do with the gaseous composition of the atmosphere? It’s the terminology that turns a thousand issues into a movement. The number of people who struggle under monopoly and monopsony, it’s really just nearly everyone, with the exception of a few shareholders of a few large firms.
If you’re angry because all the beer comes from two companies, you’re angry about monopoly. If you’re angry because all of the world’s shipping is done by three companies who for years have been telling their regulators to shut up whenever the regulators said, hey, those economies of scale you’re getting from making your ships bigger, they’re going to run into problems when one of them gets stuck into the Suez Canal. You’re also pissed about this kind of market concentration.
If you’re a glasses wearer and you’ve noticed that your glasses cost a 1000% more than they did a decade ago, it’s because one company, Luxottica Essilor, owns every eyewear brand you’ve ever heard of: Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Oliver Peoples, Bausch and Lomb, Oakley, all one company. They also own LensCrafter, Sears Optical, Target Optical, and Sunglass Hut. They also own the largest lens lab in the world, more than half the world’s lenses come from them, and iMed, which is probably your insurer because it’s the single largest eyewear insurer in the world. And they’ve hiked prices 1000% over a decade.
We’re all on the same side. We’re all on the same side with the people who are angry that the professional wrestlers they grew up watching are now begging for pennies so they can die with dignity of their workplace related injuries on GoFundMe. The reason they’re doing that is because instead of 30 leagues there’s one, and the rapey, Trumpy billionaire who owns it reclassified them all as contractors and took away their health insurance.
We are all fighting the same fight. And once we realize that we’re all fighting the same fight along with all the people who are angry about the concentrated power of the oil companies and the coal companies, then we can make real change.
Maximillian Alvarez: So what you’re saying is when Swifties unite with Amazon workers, it’s an unstoppable force.
Cory Doctorow: Damn right.
Rebecca Giblin: I think that’s actually all we need.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I would not want to get in the way of that.
Speaker 1: Yeah, thanks.
I wonder if you guys can talk about this a little bit from a cultural standpoint. I sort of see these challenges as emergent properties of systems like you guys do. I also see systems as sort of emergent properties of culture.
One thing that turned my head a couple of decades ago was there was somebody who was working from you who’s like a recovering Wall Street broker, and he helped me understand over a few months period that this ethos of raping and pillaging is not a bunch of people going, oh, I bet we can get away with this kind of nefarious thing, culturally. There’s actually a strong belief that it’s the right thing to do, that it’s the moral thing to do, that the rightness in the world happens when there’s winners and losers, and the people who know how to tune these technocracies to really take advantage of people deserve what they get.
It’s a system of justification, and it’s amazing to me how much Americans tolerate this really alien cultural ethos among us, almost like a caste system where we believe that we’re really owed this kind of [inaudible].
Cory Doctorow: Yeah. The question, for the video, is about this ideology of greed not just being good in a Gordon Gecko sense, but greed being a mechanism and inequality whereby we create these engines of productivity and produce shared prosperity, that it’s only by being as big a bastard as you can possibly be, that we can unleash the power of markets.
You may have seen this report in ProPublica about the company that helps landlords jack up rents. Part of their argument is that if you let humans decide when to jack up the rents their sentimentality will get in the way of charging what the rent should really be. When you drill into it, they’ll say, oh, well the thing is, if the rents go high enough that it will tempt in more developers to build more properties and then you’ll get the rents falling, and so the only way that you resolve the housing crisis is by letting thousands of people be put into housing precarity or homelessness because that’s what lures capital into the market.
They have a kind of side tale, which is that governments can’t build housing. They point to the problems of public housing in the United States. What they never mention is all the places where public housing does work. To the extent that you even talk about, say, Vienna or the UK before Thatcher sold off the council estates, there’s a kind of weird American exceptionalism where this country that is billed as the greatest country in the world suddenly becomes the worst one. Americans are just too stupid and greedy to build housing the way the Viennese did. There’s something in the schnitzel that makes you capable of building housing that Americans could never build.
I think that the good news is that this ideology takes work. It’s not a thing that comes to us naturally. And Yochai Benkler is one of the fathers of the free software movement. He talks about how if you go to Wall Street, you go to Zuccotti Park and you see the kids playing in the playgrounds surrounded by their broker parents, you’ll hear those broker parents leaning over the gate of the park and saying, Timmy, share! Because nobody wants to live with a toddler who acts like we are told in business school we all need to act. It is a miserable existence.
Just like after World War II they found that a large plurality of soldiers just aimed over the enemy’s head because no one wants to shoot a stranger, and it took work to figure out how to turn people into people who would shoot at strangers who they had no beef with except that your boss had ordered you to shoot at them and their boss had ordered them to shoot at you. It takes work to convince people to be greedy, to be jerks. And to a certain extent, if we take our foot off the gas, that vehicle is going to roll to a stop. It’s going to take some work, but I think we can do it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, also, in terms of the broad spectrum of potential solutions or partial solutions, I’m hoping that this week is another chink in the armor of the capitalist ideology that leads us to believe that if someone is a billionaire, they’re inherently smarter than us and more deserving than us, and we are watching in real time how untrue that is. Elon Musk is a dipshit and everyone is seeing in full view… And this is not just about Musk and the tech geniuses who fancy themselves as such, but also the old school capitalists who love cashing in on that same sort of adoration that we pour on the rich and powerful.
One example that I would give is Warren Buffet. Warren Buffet, people teach whole business classes about this guy. He’s like a business genius, so on and so forth. At The Real News, we’ve spent all year reporting on how people like Warren Buffet have taken our supply chain and driven it into the ground by driving workers into the ground, by jacking up costs for shippers.
So everyone is off. Workers are quitting in record numbers after having their numbers slashed by, geez, 80% over the past 40 years. We are not moving nearly as much freight as we should be in this country. Everything in the system is getting worse, and yet profits are record high. Stock buybacks are sky high. The only genius that Warren Buffet has is that he located a fixed infrastructure, like no one’s going to be building more freight rail lines in this country. It’s not a competitive market, it’s a cartel. The main companies that own the freight rail lines, they each got their lines picked out, they’re not competing with anyone, so they can just, again, squeeze that resource, charge more to shippers, and slash their workforce to pile more work onto fewer workers, move less freight, and just rake in a bunch of money.
Sorry, we had a hand up there.
Speaker 2: I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, no. This isn’t about me.
Speaker 2: I’m curious what you think about, and this is a little outside of the purview of the book, which is obviously about capital and specifically about creatives who produce goods that are sold in the private market, which is usually an individual to market relationship.
But I’m curious what you think about academia, broadly, and maybe broader than that, the nonprofit-industrial complex. Because it seems to me that particularly, this has been happening for a while, but particularly post COVID, there’s been a move to try to capture the intellectual property of intellectuals who are within either public universities or private universities that are funded by the public through the tax statement of their nonprofit status.
An anecdote is a friend of mine who’s faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, as soon as the pandemic began and classes were all moved to remote, she was asked to record all of her courses, which she’d previously refused to do. There had been some kind of suggestion of this in the past, but all of a sudden this became a sort of mandate that people were being asked to sign off on, which was to sign off on recording their lectures and giving over the intellectual property of those lectures to the university in perpetuity so that they could then be used… Have the class with no teacher, imagine the savings.
I’m curious if you have any thoughts, I realize it’s a little outside of what your specific area is, but it seems like the university is becoming more privatized and trying to do a similar thing to capital in these big capital markets, and it seems like there’s a relationship there.
Rebecca Giblin: Well, again, I would say it’s all part of the same thing. I’m a professor at a law school in Australia. In Australia, we relied very heavily on international students to subsidize the running of the universities. When COVID hit, there were no more international students. We saw the vulnerability of these economic structures, and it’s been carnage. Like tens of thousands of university workers laid off. We in universities are also people who are really passionate about our work, passionate about our students and our research, and always give more when we are asked for more. But what was really, really clear when that happened was that a lot of these universities that had even quite large endowments or cash reserves or real estate holdings that they could have cashed in in order to support their labor force, they did none of that. We were the first ones to go. And I think that this demonstrates exactly the same pathology, that it’s not about the people, it’s about the money.
And I was thinking when you were talking before, it’s something that I think about quite often. I literally do fantasize about this. What if instead of valorizing people like Warren Buffett, we valorize the people who are kind and who dedicate their lives to their communities and who build connections and who make things better? What would that society look like in terms of taking your foot off the gas pedal?
And what’s been kind of wild to me, so many things following Twitter in the last week, but every thread talking about another absolutely batshit thing that Elon has done, is there will be Elon fans in there going, oh, you just don’t get it. He’s so smart. Right? It’s wild to me. So these people just really valorize that. But what if we valorize something really different? And how do we go about building a society that does that? So I think this is a very circular and probably unsatisfactory answer to your question, but I do think that’s absolutely happening.
It’s been happening for decades in the academic publishing markets as well, where these massive corporations have been extracting huge amounts of value, billions of dollars every year from academic labor forces that are subsidized by the public, and we’ve just allowed that to happen too. We have to stop allowing these things to happen. We have to demand different. We have to demand better.
Cory Doctorow: I want to maybe have a slight pushback. I agree with your point that academic workers need to be fairly compensated and that they should be treated with dignity and so on. But I think that we run the risk of saying, in the Spotify example, say, that the problem is that all the music is available and not that the problem is that the artists aren’t being well compensated. I think pedagogically there’s a good reason to record lectures. I just think the problem isn’t that students can access a lecture later if they miss a class, they can go back and look at it, we can make it open access. I’m a visiting professor at the Open University in the UK where we sort of invented MOOCs. Our classes are available for free. We used to broadcast them over the terrestrial airways. We still do for some of our courses, but if you want to get credentialed you have to pay to get the examinations and the invigilation and the evaluation and so on.
Rebecca Giblin: Recorded lectures are incredibly helpful as well for people who don’t have the same first language as the lecturer and so on. There are so many –
Cory Doctorow: So all of that to me is fine. But the problem isn’t, just like the problem with Spotify isn’t that we can get all the stuff, the problem with tertiary education having recordings of professors, is not the recording of the professor, it’s the economic arrangement that accompanies it. But I’m all in favor of in particular public universities making the stuff that is financed through public financing public. Again, the problem isn’t that if you do work on a vaccine at a public university with an NIH grant that then doesn’t become your patent that you get to exploit. The problem is that once you file that patent, the university’s technology transfer office sends it to a rapacious pharmaceutical giant that makes sure that the 2.5 billion people in the 125 poorest countries in the world don’t get a COVID vaccine until 2025. That’s the problem. And we should fund our universities well and we should make sure that those researchers are well compensated and so on. But it shouldn’t be through the creation of exclusive rights regimes over publicly funded work.
I think that one of the tricks that large firms and corporate mindsets like to play is to try and trick us into thinking that we have to take the good with the bad, or the bad with the good, rather. So Google wants you to think that it’s impossible to search the internet without being spied on in every conceivable way from asshole to appetite. But Google ran a non surveilling search engine for the first five years, and it was the best search engine on the internet. And it wasn’t until five years into their business that they were like, we should monetize this by spying on people. Mark Zuckerberg wants you to think that there’s no way you can talk to your friends without being spied on. Facebook used to bill itself as the non-surveilling alternative to MySpace, and they didn’t spy on you.
So these are totally separable. We can have universal access to all human knowledge and well-compensated academics. We don’t need to choose between those two. We can do both. You could have universities where students get a lot of individualized attention and where there’s not just a professor but lots of people helping the professors without having precarious adjuncts who have to go to food banks.
The problem isn’t that there are lots of adjuncts on the payroll, the problem is that they’re paid so badly. And so I agree with you entirely that the corporate mindset within the university that sees the academic workers as a resource to be squeezed is a huge problem. But I just want to be clear that the answer isn’t to enclose knowledge that’s produced at public expense. It’s to fairly compensate the workers who do that work.
Rebecca Giblin: But I do think… Yeah, definitely clap for him [applause]. But I do think that the fact that, in this example, that that professor sees that providing that access to that knowledge is a direct route to her potentially losing her job, this is a huge problem. And this is, again, it’s the exact same pathology, because she is almost certainly right.
Speaker 2: [inaudible] I mean I agree with you that recording of lectures and having recorded lectures be available is good and it certainly should be the case with publicly funded universities. But I think exactly what you’re saying, if what you’re being asked to sign is that this is no longer your intellectual property and it can be used for whatever, including replacing you –
Rebecca Giblin: But see, I think the only reason that that’s a problem is because you know that these universities will replace you if they possibly can. And this is exactly the same thing that we’re talking about.
Maximillian Alvarez: And it feels like the lunch money example. It’s like the problem is that even in higher ed these choke points are there. I mean right now in the largest strike in the country, does anyone know what the largest strike in the country is right now?
Cory Doctorow: UC System.
Maximillian Alvarez: UC system. 48,000 academic workers are on strike across the state right now. On the other end of the country, part-time faculty at the New School are on strike as we speak. And the thing is that both of these groups, it’s bonkers because at the New School, an ostensibly progressive institution that does great work, has great people, 87% of its teaching is done by part-time faculty, by contingent faculty. That is a choke point. That knowledge is there. That’s the service that the university is ostensibly there to give, but workers are being ground to dust, students are being asked to pay more for it. Someone is in the middle controlling all of that crap.
Cory Doctorow: You’re getting at an important point here which is that when there’s monopolies within the supply chain, the whole supply chain starts to look like a monopoly, because the alternative is that the monopoly crushes the other parts of its supply chain. So the university will doubtless say something like, well, all of academic publishing is concentrated into just a few hands, and they’re screwing us. All of scholarly publishing is concentrated into a few hands. They’re screwing us even worse. So our faculty need to publish in top-tier journals. And then those journals charge us five and six figures to subscribe to them. Our students want to get the textbooks, but the textbooks cost more than they ever did and we have to figure out how to subsidize them. So we have to figure out how to concentrate. You see this in every industry.
So in the US when pharmaceutical companies were allowed to concentrate, they turned around, they started raising the prices, they charged hospitals. Hospitals then started to create regional monopolies so they could bargain back and they would say, oh, you want a hundred times more for your chemotherapy drug than you were charging us last year? Fine. Well, no hospital within 300 miles of this place is going to buy your chemotherapy drug anymore, and they could get the pharma companies to budge on prices. But then they turned around and they screwed the insurers, and then the insurers formed monopolies so they could push back on pricing. So then you have this fully monopolized supply chain, insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, pharmaceutical companies, hospital supply companies. Hospital beds are a monopoly. They’re a monopoly that’s merged with the coffin monopoly which is super creepy. But saline is a monopoly. All the saline in America is made in one factory in Puerto Rico, which is why after Hurricane Maria you couldn’t get a bag of salt water.
And in every one of these cases, they’re merged into monopoly to fight each other. The only groups that aren’t monopolized in that supply chain are the healthcare workers at one end who have worse wages and worse working conditions and the patients at the other end who pay higher prices and get worse care. And everyone else, yeah, they fight with each other a little about who’s going to get what. But the one thing they all agree on, the one thing they’re all on the same side, is that these guys and these guys can go fuck themselves because they’re just there for the taking. And this is true in publishing. We just saw a wonderful thing where the DOJ, or the FTC rather, managed to convince a court not to allow Simon & Schuster to be bought by Penguin Random House. Penguin and Random House used to be two separate companies too. Now they’re one.
Rebecca Giblin: Before that it was hundreds of separate companies.
Cory Doctorow: Yeah, you list out all the imprints they bought. It just goes on forever. It’s farcical. But about a decade ago, there was a big antitrust case because all the publishers got together to conspire with Apple not to allow their books to be sold on Kindles, only on iPads, because Amazon was selling e-books below cost because they wanted to lock in all of the readers to the Kindle platform.
When the six big publishers get together and they collude to raise prices on e-books, that is illegal, and they got slaughtered by the FTC. But if those six companies become one company, and instead of the CEO of Random House, the CEO of Penguin and the CEO of Simon & Schuster meeting in a smoke-filled room to fix prices, the president of Penguin, who works for Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, the president of Random House who works for Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and the president of Simon & Schuster who works for the President of Random House, Simon & Schuster get together and do the same thing, that’s just business.
So yeah, we’ve now stopped those firms from further concentrating. That’s good news. Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House had this bizarre thing that they said, which was that they would bid against each other for books if writers wrote really good books. And Stephen King went in and said that’s just nonsense, right? That’s like a husband and wife bidding against each other for the same house. It’s crazy. It’s never going to happen. But we’ve left them exposed because there is this giant monopoly in their supply chain. So they’ve got work to do there.
And it’s just important to remember that there’s never just one ant, there’s never just one monopolized part of your supply chain. As soon as you get some, you get it all the way up and down the supply chain and they crush all the businesses that don’t form monopolies. And in the end you get monopolies up and down and then the only people who are left are customers and workers, and they’re the ones who really get shafted.
Maximillian Alvarez: So I know you guys got to get to the airport. So I think we have one more question, and I just wanted to check if we had time. Yeah, in the back, please.
Speaker 3: Thank you. I really appreciate your work and what you brought up. But I think what I keep coming back to is what do we do and where do we have power? Because it sounds like a lot of the solutions that you point to or that you’ve highlighted come back to changing laws. But the problem that you’re describing is capitalism. It’s an exploitative system that concentrates capital, that capital is owned by a minority of the population. And that’s the thing that we have to change. And we have the advantage of being workers that actually work and produce value. And the fact that they own that value right now is something we have to change. But I’m curious where you see examples of workers organizing. And really it comes down to class struggle, if we will be frank, of where we would have power to break the monopolies or to break the power that they hold over us is us organizing and us looking to each other, and to us looking at the millions and billions of workers around the world that have immense power.
But as soon as we get funneled into their system of laws and their system of, you can’t strike because your union says this and your contracts say that, then we’ll be waiting around forever. But we didn’t get any of the gains that we have from –
Cory Doctorow: Obeying the law.
Speaker 3: So I’m really curious if you can speak to more examples about where workers in Spotify or Audible or these other places or outside of even the technical world have organized and where that benefits everyone.
Cory Doctorow: So before we answer that, for the cameras, the question is about what the role of labor and labor organizing is in all of this and where that fits besides just changing laws.
Rebecca Giblin: One of my favorite stories in the book is from the Writers Guild of America and their recent strike against the big four Hollywood talent agencies. We worked with them and particularly David Goodman who was the president of the Guild over the course of that strike. And we could see what a toll this was having on him. So basically what was happening here is that the Hollywood talent agencies had sewed up the talent, particularly writers, in exactly the same way, exactly the same playbook that we’ve been talking about. And even though it’s the so-called golden age of television, writers’ share was declining, their conditions were getting worse and they realized that they needed to take action. Now they do have a strong history of unionization in Hollywood, and that really helps because they’ve got that shared history and that shared experience of knowing that solidarity does work.
But still, it was huge. The Guild changed their code of conduct to get rid of these conflicts of interest and shakedowns that the big four agencies were particularly engaging in. And then all of the writers in Hollywood said, if you don’t comply with the new code of conduct, you don’t work with us anymore. And then in a single week, 7,000 Hollywood writers fired their agents. And the agents couldn’t believe it. They’re like, you can’t operate without us. And David was actually our interlocutor at our US Launch Day event in Beverly Hills in September, and he told the story of how it took some time. And, in fact, he was a bit sheepish to say his wife noticed way before him. It took some time before the writers noticed that, in fact, there could be Hollywood without the agents, but there couldn’t be Hollywood without the writers, and that they were the ones that had the power.
And what he said was so powerful. He said, we’ve realized they only had the power that we gave them. And this is what we all have to understand, that we are the ones, the workers and the customers, we are the ones that do have the power ultimately, individually nothing at all, but collectively we’ve got all of it. So we have to realize that and we have to find ways of exercising that power and doing what’s necessary to achieve that.
Speaker 4: May I say something as a small business owner, and I know you got to go. So we opened a store in Pigtown in Baltimore and we were told that we were stupid and crazy for doing that for all kinds of different reasons. And we’ve been there three years now. My wife owns it. We work there. We have three part-time employees. We prioritize their wages over our own. We budget about 20 hours a week for each of us at $17 an hour while paying a minimum of $15 when you start. And our manager makes $21 and budgets more hours. So we are some place that is attempting to do things in a subversive way, a backwards-ass way, a way that might drive us out of business. I don’t know.
But we are doing everything we can, and we serve our community, we provide a bunch of affordable opportunities. We give books out every single day, and the bookmarks you see are sourced from a local printer. The shirts that we wear are sourced from a local printer. So we are practicing cooperative economics. And I just want to say it is that hard. It is that hard and it’s set up that it’s so difficult to do things in an ethical way, especially when you claim to be about community and you claim to be about equity. And then when you back it up by doing it, there’s a cost and there’s a deep, deep risk and it’s very, very difficult. And I just thank you for this work, [inaudible] you’re interested because I’m excited to see this.
Cory Doctorow: It’s an excellent time to point out that we can make your books non-returnable if you would like to get one from Term City Books back there. We’ll deface the hell out of them. So if anyone’s interested.
Rebecca Giblin: But this is exactly the kind of business and the more businesses we have like this working together and then that’s a different kind of flywheel we can create. Congratulations on doing this and I’m really glad to hear that.
Speaker 4: We’ve raised the property value of our landlord.
Rebecca Giblin: Oh good.
Speaker 4: That’s the other thing, right? You have these landlords in Baltimore, and that’s where I want to see the laws change. We talk about crime in Baltimore, but we don’t talk about the economic crime of out of town development and investors holding us hostage.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and on that note, just to close out, I think the thing to emphasize, and I’m seeing a lot of workers do this and they’re telling me this. In fact, a lot of folks that I’ve interviewed are bringing this fight to their workplaces. I’ll give one example. Vincent Quiles, an incredible organizer who led the unionization effort in Philadelphia at Home Depot, a horribly anti-union company. And he realized in the process of this unionization effort that everyone was pissed off about something. Everyone was being overworked, including the managers. And then he was like, the person who’s responsible for our misery is not in the store. So you’re not the enemy. As a small business, you’re trying to practice cooperative economics. In a city like Baltimore, the enemies are the developers who are getting tens of millions of dollars from the city and the politicians who are just rubber stamping that and all of that money’s going out of the city.
What Vince Quiles said to the union busting consultants who said, we don’t have enough money to pay you guys what you want, and also we already invested a billion dollars in our workforce last year. Vince responded immediately. He was like, you guys spent $15 billion dollars on stock buybacks. So you spent 15 times more on your shareholders than you did on the 500,000 employees who make your business run. The enemies are actually doing us a service because they’re making themselves a smaller target. And to Corey and Rebecca’s point, we have to keep our eyes fixed on that target and build solidarity wherever we can. If we’re all like Care Bears focusing our shit on the people at the top, we can win. So let’s give one more round of applause for Rebecca and Corey [applause]. And thank you again to all of you. Thank you to Nancy. Thank you to The Peale for hosting us. Please go buy this incredible book, and let’s get Rebecca and Corey to the airport.
Nancy Proctor: I just want to thank Real News Network. Thank you, Max. I want to thank Karan, our interpreter. And if anybody wants, The Peale is open. We’re usually open in the afternoons, the evenings, early evenings, Thursdays and Fridays 3:00 to 7:00. If you want to go see the Lee Boots exhibition on the second floor, the Sankofa Dance exhibition on the third floor, you still got time to do that. And also, if you would like to take away books from the Muse Web Conference, who have kindly underwritten this event, they’re on the back corner there and they are free. Thank you all for coming.