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A Special Guest Lecture: Cory Doctorow

Updated: May 9

By John Drinkwater, MA/MBA '24


In this year’s Fall 2023 iteration of ARTM 6300: Cultural Policy, Professor Peter Lyman assigned Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow’s 2022 book, Chokepoint Capitalism, as a required text. We were privileged enough to have Cory Doctorow join us in early November to discuss the book, with additional commentary on how Canada can play a part in supporting creative labour markets globally.  




 

Chokepoint Capitalism is subtitled “How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back.” The text details how anticompetitive practices employed by Amazon, Spotify, Live Nation, Google, Meta, etc. have created “monopsony” market structures. Whereas monopolies describe single-seller markets, monopsonies refer to a market with a single buyer for goods or services—in this case, creative labour.  

 

Doctorow was joined in our public lecture by AM&E Adjunct Professor Doug Barrett, serving as a discussant to talk with Doctorow about policy solutions that Canada may be able to employ to disrupt these anticompetitive practices.  

 

The structure of the lecture mirrored the structure of the book, taking place in two parts. Part One examined case studies of Big Tech capturing creative labour markets, deconstructing them in what Doctorow describes as a “John Oliver-esque” fashion. The case study Doctorow detailed in our lecture was that of Audible, the audiobook service that was purchased by Amazon in 2008. These days, Audible commands 90% of the audiobook market. To upload a book on Audible, authors are required to wrap it in digital rights management (DRM) encryption, which create extremely high switching costs for consumers. By locking-in consumers and controlling most of the market, the platform can squeeze suppliers with lower royalty payments and policies they would never normally agree to, such as monthly free audiobooks and no questions asked, full-refund return policies for Prime subscribers. 

 

Part Two looks at technical policy solutions that could be deployed to bust these monopsonies. Doctorow talked about transparency rights, which would require platforms to give creators access to sales and usage data for their work. Currently, they are not required to provide this information, which has led to several noted examples of platforms putting their “thumb on the scale” when calculating royalty payments. He also discussed imposing time limits on copyright contracts to prevent content owners from owning copyrights for decades on end; the number he proposed was 25 years before the copyright reverts to the creator. 

 

In what followed, Peter Lyman, Doug Barrett, and AM&E Adjunct Professor Peter Grant engaged Doctorow in a lively discussion about the Canadian context, including talk of the Online Streaming Act and the Online News Act.  

Altogether, Cory Doctorow provided a fresh policy perspective to our class, and we were all impressed by his storytelling ability and encyclopedic knowledge of a wide swath of creative markets and antitrust policy. 

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