Cory Doctorow—Linux Guru?

Cory Doctorow has “open sourced” every one of his books, so to us, he seems like the perfect candidate to use Linux. He agrees, and tells us about it.

Cory Doctorow's history and credentials would take the space of this entire article to list properly, so I'm going to do a decidedly improper job, and I hope you'll bear with me.

Cory Doctorow

An internationally sought-after activist on copyright and DRM issues, Doctorow is an ardent proponent of the Creative Commons, releasing all his own work under CC licenses on the Internet, regardless of their primary publishing format. A lifelong Mac devotee, a bit more than a year ago, he switched to Linux. I caught up with him on his Little Brother book tour and arranged an interview to talk about his experience with Linux. What follows is an excerpt of the conversation.

Note: to those of you who have never met him or who plan to interview him on your podcast, be aware that I caught him on an off day. When we talked, he was jet-lagged and exhausted, and he still spoke at a consistent 148 words per minute. And for him, that's slow!

DS: What's the deal with your Linux switch? You used to be a Mac guy, right?

CD: Yup, I mean, obviously, always Linux on the server, yeah, but I was always Mac on the desktop for a long time, starting with Apple II Plusses in 1979, and then Macs all my life—one or two a year minimum over the years.

DS: What prompted the switch, and what do you think so far?

CD: Well, there are a couple things—the DRM stuff keeps getting worse and worse. It seems like every time I turned around, Apple is doing something with its OS to add more bullshit to it. More DRM, more controls on how users use it....They're anti-features. There's no customer who woke up this morning and said, “Gosh, I wish there was a way I could do less with my music this morning—I hope there's an iTunes update waiting for me.”

So, it just seemed to me, increasingly, that Apple wasn't making computers to suit my needs; they were making computers to suit the needs of some theoretical entertainment giant. And, you know, I think that's their business if they want to do it, but they're not a charity, so if they don't want to make the stuff I want to buy, I don't have to buy it. Which is exactly what I did—I stopped buying it.

DS: And this despite the noises that Steve Jobs keeps making about removing DRM from the iTunes store?

CD: ...they keep saying that. Meanwhile...Audible...has the exclusive contract to deliver audiobooks to the iTunes store—and is now actually the largest audiobook seller in the world by far (they're owned by Amazon now), and Audible won't turn the DRM off on their audiobooks, even when the authors and the publishers ask them to. And, it's not just when it's a weird little indie. With my latest book Little Brother, the audio edition is published by Random House audio—they're the largest publisher in the world; they're part of Bertlesmann....So, you know, if Steve Jobs really felt like he didn't want DRM, he would be setting things up so there were competitors of Audible in the iTunes store who were offering stuff without DRM.

...Meanwhile you have Steve Jobs running around saying—at one point he made this big speech—how you should never allow your videos to be available in HD if you're a movie studio executive, unless you are assured that no one is going to make an HD burner or ripper that will be capable of making your DVDs....So it seems awfully mealy-mouthed, basically.

So [the switch to Linux] just seemed like the right idea. And then the other thing that happened was that I wanted a computer in a “color other than black”....There is a certain elegance to going into an Apple store and saying, “well, I want a Pro machine”, and they say, “well, this is the Pro machine and you can get it in fast, faster or fastest”. But at the same time, it was awfully refreshing to walk into the EmperorLinux Web store and have this incredible variety of CPUs to choose from. And Emperor's been pretty good to me. I'm on my second machine from them now. They have very, very responsive service. Every once in a while, I run into some problems that I think are endemic to Linux—where, I think in hindsight I made a mistake. I bought the next model up from the tiny, little ThinkPad I've been loving. I had an x50 and decided I wanted an x51 for the additional speed and power. And, frankly, the drivers weren't there and still aren't entirely there.

DS: Other than driver issues, what other problems or good points have you run into so far?

CD: Well, for the good stuff, it's all around Synaptic for me—and it's not just Synaptic as a package manager, but it's just the idea that there is a suite of tools that are guaranteed to work with your machine (more or less), where the cost of pulling the wrong tool is zero, and where they're open—so, if there are problems you can get them fixed. So that's really nice.

Let's say I need vector graphics—well, let's just go into Synaptic and type “vector” and see what comes up. All right, there's nine packages—let's try them all! Okay, this one's good.

That's pretty cool—that's actually really, really cool.

The downside has been that, especially for larger projects, the process by which you submit bugs—especially hard bugs—is way beyond my ability as a user to fiddle with....

...If I want to submit a bug to, and it forces me to do an e-mail loop to the Bugzilla, and the e-mail loop success takes 14 hours to go through, and the e-mail loop confirmation message goes to my junk-mail folder, so I have to spend 14 hours checking my junk-mail folder, remembering over and over again that I have to check it. And then when I'm through it, actually filing the bug against Bugzilla is crazy. It's just not an easy procedure.

DS: I've gotten taken to task a lot with reader feedback for the reviews I write, because I don't always submit bugs when I bitch about things, but it's for exactly this reason. I'm not a coder.

CD: Yeah. And I totally understand why they want a membrane between submitters and programmers. I have a membrane between me and people who want to submit stuff to BoingBoing, which is the “submit a link” file. The fact is that the “submit a link” page—when we've turned that off and we've given people easier ways to send us feedback and send us posts—the proportion of good stuff we got barely changed, but the proportion of bad stuff we got went way up. And by “bad stuff”, I mean spam, stupid suggestions and so on....So I think it's kind of a truism that “fools and wreckers look for easy targets”, whereas people of good will tend to hunt around. The problem is that it's very frustrating when you're experiencing a bug, and it's often nearly impossible to really get to it.

...And The GIMP too. I use The GIMP every day, all day long, and there's a persistent bug...that shows up when if I open a file, edit the file, and then delete the file, The GIMP crashes. And, that's my actual standard work flow, which is, take a screenshot of a Web page that I'm going to put on BoingBoing, open it in The GIMP to edit it. Save it. Upload it to my server, then delete it. And then The GIMP crashes. So basically, every time, I have to wait for The GIMP to load up.

It's kind of a dumb bug, and my guess is that it has to do with the “recent files” menu, but it's just a general pain in the ass, and I've never figured out how to submit bugs up to The GIMP. So yeah, it's that kind of thing I find very, very frustrating, but I understand why it's there. And I also have problems with drivers or proprietary hardware—which I understand is not Linux's fault—but that lack of driver stuff is very, very frustrating at times. Like I have a Wi-Fi bug with my Wi-Fi card that's apparently well known....So it doesn't work properly with B networks. I was staying at a hotel all last weekend in Los Angeles that had a B network, and...after about five minutes, the machine would lose the ability to route packets until I rebooted it....And then, if I tried to open too many sockets at once—like to get my RSS reader to run—then it would just crash entirely. The machine would hard-freeze.

So this was unbelievably frustrating. I've encountered bugs of that gravity in the Mac OSes. At least with this stuff, I was able to call up someone I know at Canonical and say I had this problem, and he said, “Yes, that's a well-known problem and we don't know how to fix it.” But at least it was a well-known problem...

DS: And you know not to spend your whole day banging your head against the wall trying to fix it.

CD: Yeah, that's it exactly.

DS: You got into Linux because Apple squeezed you out with the DRM shit. Beyond just giving us an operating system that's not governed by that kind of crappy politics, what other significance do you think Linux has in the copyright and patent and IP wars?

CD: ...In every DRM negotiation...there's always, at some point, some coercive mechanism by which the manufacturers and the consortium get together and require of the implementers that they implement in a way that is resistant to user modification. It's kind of easy to see why you would want DRM to be resistant to user modification, because the point of DRM is that you're designing a computer that's adverse to its user. So, if you're going to be adverse to the user, it doesn't do to have the user be able to modify the system, because the user is the attacker in that model.

This is the opposite of FOSS....There's no such thing as open-source DRM for that reason—and to the extent that there is, it involves things like code signing, which is really outside the spirit of open-source software—it violates the Four Freedoms if not the letter of the license....So wherever you have a DRM consortium you have a conspiracy to fight open source, and wherever that happens, you have a really good, chewy policy argument, because open source is generally considered by most IT ministries and policy-makers and so on to be of really important value to national economies, national autonomy, national security and all of that stuff. So, creating a mandate, as they tried to do with the Broadcast Flag, requires that the government would require of hardware designers that they design their hardware to resist user modification is such a nonstarter when put in those terms. When put in the terms that “well, you realize that this is a prohibition on FOSS”, that really gives us a lot of power to derail those DRM mandates. DRM always involves some kind of mandates....

DS: There's no market demand on it.

CD: Right. Some manufacturers might have an incentive to do it because they'll be offered some kind of special privilege by the entertainment industry...but when that happens, it has to be everybody. It has to be all the manufacturers that go along with it; otherwise, you wind up with a situation like you had a couple years ago where the big “legit” manufacturers were abiding by the Region Controls in DVDs and all the little guys weren't, and the little guys were clobbering the big guys because everyone wants region-free DVD players.

DS: Yup. I literally walked down to Wal-Mart and paid $30 for a region-free player.

CD: Yeah, and then what you end up with is that the big guys turn around and say, “Look, I know we agreed that we'd implement this region coding stuff, but we're not going to implement this region coding stuff”, because tiny, little two-man outfits in garages in Asia are kicking Sony's ass and Sony can't be having that.

So, you end up with this kind of Prisoner's Dilemma.

DS: Particularly in a situation where you have Sony owning movie studios as well, you've got an internal fight going on at the vertically integrated companies.

CD: Absolutely. So Sony or whoever needs an assurance that everyone's going to play ball, and without a mandate, that doesn't happen. So that means that wherever the mandate is arriving, if you can show the policy-makers who will be making the mandate stick that they're about to ban FOSS, it can often sway the debate, so that's kind of a big way in which DRM and FOSS kind of interact with each other, and in which FOSS is so vital to that debate.

I'm sure there are other ways. Obviously, between CC and FOSS there's the kind of QED—the demonstration that you can do it a different way, that there isn't just one way of doing it. And so wherever people say, “we need higher fences and stronger laws, otherwise no one will invest and no innovation will take place, and there will be no good equipment—no good software, no good hardware and so on”, then to the extent that you have FOSS in the marketplace that eschews that and CC licenses that eschew that, you've got something very powerful as well.

[Note: Doctorow then went on to tell of successes in this area, such as the defeat of Informem in Europe. The discussion is too lengthy to reproduce here.]

...So the last thing is, that where you have this stuff available at a low cost and low barrier to entry, it creates in users a set of expectations of what they can and can't do with media, so I think that it doesn't necessarily naturally occur to people that, for example, you can record a television show to a DVD. That doesn't always naturally occur. You kind of have to see it being done and then have it taken away from you to get worked up about it....

DS: It's human nature to expect “now” to last forever, despite the fact that we're used to an incredibly rapid rate of change and development.

CD: Exactly. So FOSS tends to be more richly featured, and so as a result it creates new expectations from users about what they can and can't do with their equipment.

DS: To swap tracks again to your other big advocacy area—privacy. What privacy tools and techniques can you recommend for beginning Linux users?

CD: I've been using GPG for a while now, and I'm actually finding it very easy to use, once I got it up and running. Although, again, it's not the best integration I was hoping for. I've got GPG running with Thunderbird, and I want it to sign every e-mail I send automatically, and I actually have to mouse over and click an icon every time I want to sign an e-mail, so if I don't remember, it won't sign all my e-mails, so it's just kind of a pain in the ass, and I can't believe there isn't a switch in an obvious place for that.

...TOR was incredibly useful to me when I was in China last year. It just seemed to me like, over and over again, the sites I wanted to visit were being blocked by the firewall, so I was able to get to them that way. And, I use TOR in other ways too—I mean, there are plenty of times when I try to get on-line, and I just find myself not able to access one site or another, and TOR just fixes it, which is great. I have FoxyProxy on Firefox, which allows me to turn on or turn off TOR automatically when I need it, and my friend Seth Shoan helped me with a little script to tunnel my mail over I'm sending SMTP over SSH over TOR, which is great.



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It's just a matter of time - really?

marv-e56s's picture

I've been using various flavors of Linux on all of my home desktops since about 1995, using Gnome, KDE, Enlightenment, and/or XFCE desktop environments. The only problems I've really had has been accessing webpages specifically designed to Windows standards.

My daughter uses Mac OSX (on her laptop) and I don't see any difference in functionality.

That's a recognized myth: "I

Anonymous's picture

That's a recognized myth: "I don't see any difference in functionality". The truth is that both Windows and Mac OS X are very good when we talk about a OS suitable for desktop.

Linux is just for servers, it is designed for servers, that's why Linux isn't used massively around the world. (although we'll always see people saying that that is because MS is doing illegal things under the hood...)

It is just a matter of time

Anonymous's picture

It is just a matter of time before Cory Doctorow is using Mac OS X again. Why, you may ask, and obviously I have the answer: Linux is not designed to be suitable for desktops.

Of course, you can still dream about the Linux domination and all that lies, I don't have a problem with that.

Awesome Article

Paul McRae's picture

I dream of a day when we will live in a world without DRM.

Signing email automatically

Kperkins's picture

Hey Cory. In thunderbird go to account settings, click on Opengpg security, and check the boxes marked " default".
I think it's only if you have enigmail installed, but I don't think you can even use gpg without it. (Don't know had it installed for forever.)

Deja Vu

Anonymous's picture

This is from Nov 1, 2008. First comment from Oct 8, 2008. What's the deal? LJ is now recycling articles. Wow.

From the Print edition

Webmistress's picture

This article is from The November 2008 print edition of Linux Journal. We occasionally highlight print articles on the web after they have been made available to all readers. In this case, I feel like this is a particularly interesting interview, and well worth bringing to the attention of our web readers.

I particularly enjoy reading the discussion of Apple and DRM in light of last month's move by Apple to DRM-free music on iTunes.

Katherine Druckman is webmistress at You might find her on Twitter or at the Southwest Drupal Summit

The sciprt explained

Anonymous's picture

Tor is used to anonymously surf the internet, you connect to a tor server and it has exit nodes in different countries so your ip looks as if its coming from say Germany.
ssh -- secure connection method between server and client.
So ssh over tor would make it have a secure anonymous connection. SMTP over ssh over tor would make sending mail over a secure anonymous connection.

Now the command
alias tortunnel='ssh -o ProxyCommand="/usr/bin/connect
↪-S localhost:9050 %h %p" -f -N -C -l username
↪-L5002: -L5003:

-o is option switch for ssh client this command is telling it to call connect using the command /usr/bin/connect (I am guessing this is an example script hence replace /usr/bin/connect with your own connect command)
this connect command takes the -S option to have connection sharing on port localhost:9050, since its localhost you can connect to port 9050 on your machine using only the loopback socket. %h %p are replaced by hostname and portname.
-f (force backgrounding)
-N (do not open shell just forward ports)
-C (compress data when sending)
-l username logs in with the username you provide
-L5002:broadcast-address:25 replace the broadcast address with correct address, this command will port forward local port 5002 to smtp port 25. Similarly -L5003:xxx:110 will port forward local port 5003 to pop-port 110 for incoming mail. Finally, 5555:localhost:5555 will open port on local machine "5555" to remote machine you are connecting to on port "5555" last address ( should be the ssh-server address.


connect is real

RichS's picture

Get connect.c from

Unfortunately, Goto san's html page is down, but mirrored here:

The usage instructions are in the source.

great interview

Anonymous's picture

Thanks, this is excellent. I wish more people paid attention to these issues, because they strike at our basic freedoms.

smtp over ssh over tor script??

yoav's picture

Great interview. It's important to raise awareness to and voice the issues with DRM, Privacy, Surveillance Society, Freedom of speech, consumer choice and everything that relates to it.

I'm a little confused about this little script provided though. Could somebody explain what's going on exactly for the benefit of the less technically familiar with ssh tunneling / tor proxying etc?? I'm vaguely familiar with both, but still a little baffled with marrying those two together.

I'm particularly unclear about those addresses. Were they supposed to be replaced by localhost or the remote SSH host?? Where does the SMTP server address / username+password fit in all this?