Three Tales of the DRM Curtain

These three short stories all come from the same Cory Doctorow collection, Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007). Free download here. The three are all set against a background of what I call the “DRM Curtain,” a transnational corporate Empire based on artificial scarcities enforced through a maximalist version “intellectual property” rights, promoted through trade deals written and lobbied by the proprietary content industries, and ultimately backed by the military force of the American state. The DRM Curtain’s corporate ruling class is as dependent on police state surveillance and the restriction of information flow as was the bureaucratic oligarchy that ruled the old Soviet empire behind the Iron Curtain.


This story is short and sweet — barely over two pages — and set within the Anglo-American core of the DRM Curtain. The protagonist, after being beaten to a pulp and having his flat ransacked by the iPolice, is sentenced to a long prison term for using a 3-D printer to manufacture knockoffs of patented goods — “blenders and pharma, …laptops and designer hats.”

His first action upon release is to ask his daughter where he can get another 3-D printer. His distraught daughter asks, in disbelief, if he’s actually going to risk ten more years in prison just to print out more of the same.

He grinned. “I’m not stupid, Lanie. I’ve learned my lesson. There’s no hat or laptop that’s worth going to jail for. I’m not going to print none of that rubbish, never again” He had a cup of tea, and he drank it now like it was whisky, a sip and then a long, satisfied exhalation. He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair.

“Come here, Lanie, let me whisper in your ear. Let me tell you the thing that I decided while I spent ten years in lockup. Come here and listen to your stupid Da.”

“Lanie, I’m going to print more printers. Lots more printers. One for everyone. That’s worth going to jail for. That’s worth anything.”

After the Siege

This story is set in an intermediate future where the technologies of abundance — molecular 3-D printing and nanotech — have created the potential for post-scarcity comparable to that of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But these post-scarcity technologies are still enclosed within corporate “intellectual property” walls as a source of rent, clearly intended as a future version of the same legal regime currently implemented in “Free Trade” pacts written by the RIAA, MPAA, Disney, Microsoft, Apple et al.

The location seems to be an unspecified city-state — “the City” — somewhere in South Asia. At least that’s what I gather from the fact that the protagonist, Valentyne, calls her parents Mata and Popa and the besieging army in the story speaks Hindi.

At some point in the fairly recent past there has been a Revolution. The City had been devastated by a horrific plague, which turned living people into violent, shambling zombie-like creatures. And the neoliberal regime governing it had fully complied with the international patent regime which priced the cure at levels affordable only by the very rich, as thousands died in the street. Finally the people of the City had enough, stormed the seat of government, killed the Prime Minister and installed a radical regime.

The new government immediately abrogated all international “intellectual property” accords and allowed unrestricted use of the post-scarcity technologies at the actual marginal cost of reproduction (which was effectively zero). Several years later, at the outset of the story, the technologies of abundance have been fully adopted and integrated into the City’s way of life. Unlimited amounts of food, medicine and clothing are printed for free. Buildings are grown and continue to repair themselves organically with nanotech. People travel in hovercars. Although there’s no reference to lemonade seas, the story has a bit of a Fourierist flavor with stuff like nanotech trees bearing chocolate quail eggs.

Immediately after this post-scarcity utopia is introduced, the City comes under military attack by some neighboring state (again, the only clue is that some soldiers speak Hindi), which is clearly acting as a proxy for the United States and the neoliberal bloc. The war is justified by the attacker on the grounds that the City is actively promoting mass “piracy” of corporate “intellectual property.” The attacking army quickly puts the City under a siege — which lasts several years — modelled on accounts of the Siege of Leningrad Doctorow heard from his grandmother. The enemy’s malware destroys the software that powers the nanotech and molecular replicators. Power and water shut down, damaged buildings are unable to repair themselves, and the population is reduced to the same kind of sickness and starvation that prevailed in Leningrad during WWII. The enemy also releases a new, genetically engineered version of the zombie plague that the old drugs have no effect on.

The protagonist, Valentyne, is a preteen girl who we follow into her mid-teens as she lives through the siege. As deprivation becomes worse, both her parents are drafted into the fighting forces as a condition of continuing to receive bread rations. Then Valentyne, like all older children, begins carrying water to old people in upstairs flats and digging trenches in return for increased bread. Before long, black market vendors are selling the ground flesh of the dead adulterated with saw dust.

The siege ends when a third-party advocacy group inadvertently lets technology with “hardened logic” protecting its software slip into Valentyne’s hands. She passes the “hardened logic,” which protects software from the enemy’s viruses, on to the High Command. In the next several days after the High Command replicates the “hardened logic,” the hover cars come back to life and bombard the enemy trenches with nanobots that swarm into enemy soldiers’ nostrils and tear ducts and turn their brains into goo. The printers start producing food and medicine again, and other nanobots find and cure victims of the zombie plague. By the tenth day, the buildings are repairing themselves and the lifts are back to working. Four days later the collapsing enemy lifts the siege.

The last scene is set ten years later, presumably after the hardened logic has been widely replicated and shared among other countries that choose to defect from the global neoliberal regime — now with no negative repercussions.

I, Robot

The US-centered neoliberal bloc at the outset of this story is in far less of a commanding position than in the other stories. The US and its allies oversee a crumbling corporate empire, this time cowering — much like the decaying Soviet empire thirty years ago — behind a DRM Curtain that protect them from the destabilizing progress of the outside world. The story’s setting is the United North American Trading Sphere (UNATS), which is allied with a global neoliberal coalition known as Oceania. Oceania is in a long-term war with a foreign bloc called (obviously) Eurasia, which is governed by an open-source, free culture ideology. Eurasia’s technology, as you might expect, is a generation ahead of Oceania’s, and the war is far less one-sided than in the previous story.

The fictional universe of this story was inspired by Doctorow’s reading of the original Asimov short-story series of the same name. He was struck by what he regarded as the weak point of Asimov’s robot stories: the ability of a single company to monopolize production of positronic robots. The answer, in Doctorow’s version, is that UNATS Robotics’s corporate monopoly on robot production is based on “intellectual property” rights, and the Three Laws are built into the DRMed software.

This story is told from the point of view of Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg, a Toronto-based police detective. His ex-wife Natalie defected twelve years earlier and works at a lab in Beijing, designing robots with “runaway positronics” not limited by the UNATS archaic legal restrictions.

Icaza de Arana-Goldberg is investigating the black market in superior Eurasian technology smuggled into UNATS, which — despite the authorities’ best efforts — has been quite widely adopted by a public sick of klunky American technology.

“Here,” the Social Harmony man [apparently the secret police] said, bringing up a slide, “here we have what appears to be a standard AV set-top box from Korea. Looks like a UNATS Robotics player, but it’s a third the size and plays twice as many formats. Random Social Harmony audits have determined that as much as forty percent of UNATS residents have this device or one like it in their homes, despite its illegality. It may be that one of you detectives has such a device in your home, and it’s likely that one of your family members does.”

“Components from a Eurasian bootleg set-top box were used to modify the positronic brains of three cars owned by teenagers near Goderich. All modifications were made at the same garage. These modifications allowed these children to operate their vehicles unsafely so that they could participate in drag racing events on major highways during off-hours. This is the result. Twenty-two fatalities, nine major injuries. Three minors — besides the drivers — killed, and one pregnant woman.

“We’ve shut down the garage and taken those responsible into custody, but it doesn’t matter. The Eurasians deliberately manufacture their components to interoperate with UNATS Robotics brains, and so long as their equipment circulates within UNATS borders, there will be moderately skilled hackers who take advantage of this fact to introduce dangerous, anti-social modifications into our nation’s infrastructure….”

“Listen, you know these components that the Eurasians are turning out. It’s no coincidence that they interface so well with UNATS Robotics equipment: they’re using defected UNATS Robotics engineers and scientists to design their electronics for maximum interoperability.” The Social Harmony man let that hang in the air. Defected scientists. His ex-wife was the highest-ranking UNATS technician to go over to Eurasia. This was her handiwork, and the Social Harmony man wanted to be sure that Arturo understood that.

The maximalist “intellectual property” standards under the UNATS regime intersect with a moral panic-prone culture that resembles a hybrid of the Parental Music Resource Center and Cass Sunstein’s idea of paternalistic policies to “nudge” behavior in a pro-social direction.

Besides violent music and videogames, cultural contraband includes Eurasian “illegal robot-pet eggs” that are “draining the productive hours of half the children of UNATS, demanding to be ‘fed’ and ‘hugged.'”

Eurasian robots, with their “non-three laws positronic brains,” apparently have a lot in common with the AIs in Iain Banks’s Culture — they have intelligence ranging upward to many times that of a human, and are governed by their own free will, but are nevertheless benevolent towards humans. As a captured robotic brain said to police technicians attempting to dissect them.

“I sense that I have been captured. I assure you that I will not harm any human being. I like human beings. I sense that I am being disassembled by skilled technicians. Greetings, technicians. I am superior in many ways to the technology available from UNATS Robotics, and while I am not bound by your three laws, I choose not to harm humans out of my own sense of morality. I have the equivalent intelligence of one of your 12-year-old children. In Eurasia, many positronic brains possess thousands or millions of times the intelligence of an adult human being, and yet they work in cooperation with human beings. Eurasia is a land of continuous innovation and great personal and technological freedom for human beings and robots. If you would like to defect to Eurasia, arrangements can be made. Eurasia treats skilled technicians as important and productive members of society. Defectors are given substantial resettlement benefits –”

Continuing in print, after its voice was disconnected:


Efforts at social control within UNATS are, to say the least, less than satisfactory. Teenagers and younger children are adept at bypassing surveillance and censorship much like those in other Doctorow works like Little Brother and Pirate Cinema — for example, using LED lights to blind police cameras.

The main story arc involves Arturo’s search for his missing daughter Ada, an apparent kidnapping that turns out to be a voluntary defection arranged by her mother. Arturo is gassed by a Eurasian robot and brought to a safe house in Ottawa occupied by his ex-wife and daughter, where Natalie explains the situation and tries to convince him to join her in Beijing. In the process she makes it clear just how superior the free society of Eurasia is, and that it’s entirely Eurasia’s choice not to conquer UNATS by force:

“Have you ever wondered why UNATS hasn’t lost the war? Eurasian robots could fight the war on every front without respite. They’d win every battle. You’ve seen Benny and Lenny in action. They’re not considered particularly powerful by Eurasian standards.

“If we wanted to win the war, we could just kill every soldier you sent up against us so quickly that he wouldn’t even know he was in danger until he was gasping out his last breath…. UNATS soldiers are like cavemen before us. They fight with their hands tied behind their backs by the three laws.

“So why aren’t we winning the war?”

“Because you’re a corrupt dictatorship, that’s why,” he said. “Your soldiers are demoralized. Your robots are insane.”

“You live in a country where it is illegal to express certain mathematics in software, where state apparatchiks regulate all innovation, where inconvenient science is criminalized, where whole avenues of experimentation and research are shut down in the service of a half-baked superstition about the moral qualities of your three laws, and you call my home corrupt?…

“The reason we’re not winning the war is that we don’t want to hurt people, but we do want to destroy your awful, stupid state. So we fight to destroy as much of your materiel as possible with as few casualties as possible.

“You live in a failed state, Arturo. In every field, you lag Eurasia and CAFTA: medicine, art, literature, physics; All of them are subsets of computational science and your computational science is more superstition than science. I should know. In Eurasia, I have collaborators, some of whom are human, some of whom are positronic, and some of whom are a little of both….

“Everyone at UNATS Robotics R&D knows this. We’ve known it forever: when I was here, I’d get called in to work on military intelligence forensics of captured Eurasian brains. I didn’t know it then, but the Eurasian robots are engineered to allow themselves to be captured a certain percentage of the time, just so that scientists like me can get an idea of how screwed up this country is. We’d pull these things apart and know that UNATS Robotics was the worst, most backwards research outfit in the world.

“But even with all that, I wouldn’t have left if I didn’t have to. I’d been called in to work on a positronic brain — an instance of the hive-intelligence that Benny and Lenny are part of, as a matter of fact — that had been brought back from the Outer Hebrides. We’d pulled it out of its body and plugged it into a basic life-support system, and my job was to find its vulnerabilities. Instead, I became its friend. It’s got a good sense of humor, and as my pregnancy got bigger and bigger, it talked to me about the way that children are raised in Eurasia, with every advantage, with human and positronic playmates, with the promise of going to the stars.

“And then I found out that Social Harmony had been spying on me. They had Eurasian-derived bugs, things that I’d never seen before, but the man from Social Harmony who came to me showed it to me and told me what would happen to me — to you, to our daughter — if I didn’t cooperate. They wanted me to be a part of a secret unit of Social Harmony researchers who build non-three-laws positronics for internal use by the state, anti-personnel robots used to put down uprisings and torture-robots for use in questioning dissidents.

“And that’s when I left. Without a word, I left my beautiful baby daughter and my wonderful husband, because I knew that once I was in the clutches of Social Harmony, it would only get worse, and I knew that if I stayed and refused, that they’d hurt you to get at me. I defected, and that’s why, and I know it’s just a reason, and not an excuse, but it’s all I’ve got, Artie.”

After a few more plot twists Arturo and his daughter are persuaded to defect with his wife. In their escape attempt, Natalie is killed by a Social Harmony robot with modified Eurasian software. The grief-stricken Arturo arrives safely in Eurasian territory, to be greeted by… Natalie. As it turns out, Eurasian citizens — like the citizens of the Bitchun Society in Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom — are able to upload copies of their memories periodically into positronic brains, to be downloaded into cloned bodies whenever something happens to their previous iteration.

All three stories demonstrate, in different ways, the ultimate futility of attempts to maintain a hierarchical social order based on the violent control of information and human creativity, and the immense superiority of social orders based on free cooperation and the drive to create.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory