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Interview: On Copyright Scams, Surveillance Capitalism and the Lies of Big Tech

In conversation with Cory Doctorow on what chokepoint capitalism means for creators and consumers, its prevalence in the cultural industries, and how to fight against it.

In their new book, Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back (Beacon, 2022), Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow explain how big market players squeeze creators and consumers through monopoly and monopsony — and outline a way to break free from their grasp.

Coauthor Cory Doctorow recently spoke to David Moscrop for Jacobin and discussed Chokepoint Capitalism, Doctorow’s anti-capitalist oeuvre, what chokepoint capitalism means for creators and consumers, its prevalence in the cultural industries, and how to fight against it.

The inescapable tollbooth

David Moscrop: I want to start with your book Chokepoint Capitalism and the concept behind it. What is “chokepoint capitalism,” and what distinguishes it from market monopoly or oligopoly?

Cory Doctorow: Well, chokepoint capitalism is about the other side of monopoly — it’s about monopsony. The corporate doctrine for the last forty years, and the state doctrine for the last forty years, has been that monopolies are okay provided they’re not raising prices on consumers. So, monopolists have figured out how to corral audiences or consumers within a walled garden — that’s made partially out of laws and partially out of technology — to make it hard for you to reach them as a creator or as someone who wants to bring something to market without going through them.

That is the chokepoint. And at that chokepoint, they extract from you whatever it is that you have to bargain with. This is the answer, we think, to the forty-years-long question, which is “Why do we keep making copyright bigger?” Why have we seen ever-longer terms, more subject matter, easier victories, higher statutory damages?

The entertainment industry is getting bigger and more profitable, and yet the share of income going to creators, both in real terms and proportionately, has just declined steadily over that same period. It’s because you have to go through a chokepoint with your copyrights in order to reach the audience. And whatever the person operating that chokepoint wants, you have to surrender if you want to reach that audience, including whatever copyrights you have.

There’s a good example in the book of how the extraordinary collections of long-lived copyrights in music that the three big labels have — Sony, UMG, and Warner — meant that when Spotify wanted to start, they could only do so with permission from those three companies, which gave them the power to bargain for whatever they wanted. They took big ownership stakes in Spotify. Then, they came up with arrangements for royalties that allowed them to get guaranteed monthly payments — a large portion of which they wouldn’t have to pay to any artist — and to suppress the price per stream so that the 30 percent of the market that they didn’t control would get so little from Spotify that they wouldn’t be able to make any money or grow or challenge them. This is a really classic example of how chokepoints ensure that whatever alienable right you give to workers will be taken away if the workers can’t take their labor to more than one place.

MEGO: “My Eyes Glaze Over”

David Moscrop: You discuss several examples in the book, and you’ve just given one. Do any others stand out as particularly egregious? They all seem egregious to me. But when you were doing the research, was there anything that stood out as like, “My God, the whole thing is perverse, but this is particularly perverse”?

Cory Doctorow: They’re all pretty bad. The thing about these accounting scams is that they are what the finance industry calls MEGO propositions. “MEGO” stands for “My Eyes Glaze Over.” You build a financial instrument or arrangement that is complicated, so it’ll be hard to understand, and then you tell people that it’s hard to understand because it’s complicated. And it’s just a way of baffling people with bullshit.

In the first half of the book, we just use examples from different industries as exemplary of how these different accounting scams work and unwind them, one after another, in what we hope is a kind of entertaining John Oliver way. The second half of the book we devote to technical solutions. In that first half of the book, we do have some eyewatering examples of theft.

This article was originally published on Jacobin.