Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow – Review

By on July 19, 2014

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The worlds of creativity and copyright law often end up at odds with each other.  While the concept of remixing existing works into new pieces of art is nothing new, the amount of any one piece you’re allowed to use and where the line between creation and theft lies get more and more complicated. Then, too, there’s the dispute over how much a piece of media is worth and how widely available it should be made. Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow takes on this legal dispute by giving it a human voice and a story that feels more real than is strictly comfortable.

Trent McCauley makes films by taking existing clips and dialog and recutting them into new movies. He’s dedicated to his hobby, but quickly finds himself on the wrong side of the law.  His entire family loses their internet access for a year as punishment for his crimes. Trent realizes quickly that his family desperately needs their internet access. His father needs it to do his job, his mother needs it to track and treat her medical condition, and he and his sister need it to complete their schoolwork.  In short, Trent realizes that he has almost single-handedly ruined his family. He’s horrified and ashamed, but  he’s so driven to create the movies he loves making that he can’t stop.  The only solution he can seem to find is to run away.

Trent goes to London, and on his first day quickly sees the perils of being homeless.  Fortunately, he meets a young man named Jem.  Jem immediately takes Trent under his wing and shows him that it’s possible to live a grand, creative life even if you’re living in a squat and eating from the trash.  All it takes is knowing where to look for the things you need and being very sure about what it is you want.

As Trent gets accustomed to his new life, he finds other like-minded artists.  He and his friends join an online community of artists that stage guerrilla movie screenings.  In the meantime, even more intellectual property laws are being passed, funded primarily by the media conglomerates that control the majority of the content Trent and his friends are remixing.  Soon, Trent and his friends find themselves becoming activists in order to try to overturn laws that have grown increasingly harsh.

Pirate Cinema takes place in Britain, but there are more than enough parallels in the story to make it seem like it could happen anywhere.  Whenever a government takes more interest in corporate profits than human beings, that system of government becomes both broken and corrupt. It becomes possible, legally, to ruin someone’s entire life, regardless of their age and ability to comprehend the repercussions of their own actions, because they wanted to create something from existing material, even when that material was credited as a source. It’s a sticky problem to navigate, because, certainly, the people who make the content should be paid, but is it worth throwing in jail young people who are experimenting with artistic techniques in order to find their own voices and displaying some truly remarkable gifts for editing and storytelling?  That’s the central question in Pirate Cinema.

Doctorow’s stance on the matter is clear in the way that he tells the story.  Of course it’s not fair, and it’s not good policy, for a government to make laws based more on corporate greed than on common sense and punishment appropriate to a crime. Violent crimes are far worse and are consistently punished much more lightly than copyright infringement cases.

It’s the impact on the characters that really drives the point home. There’s a little bit of glorification of living in a squat and scavenging what they need from trash bins.  However, there are also points in the book where reality does come crashing in.  Trent and his friends are brilliant at repurposing available technology out of necessity. They started out with natural talent that blossomed under pressure. But they’re also kids. They get homesick. They get hungry. They get scared.  They encounter some bad people, not all of whom are corporate villains.  They get hurt. It’s not some glorious wonderland where everything is good and no one ever hurts.

Pirate Cinema never gets preachy about its message.  The point is vitally important to the story, but while the legal issues drive the plot forward, they never force the story into becoming a Big Message Book.  It’s still enjoyable to read. It’s an engaging and intelligent book that provokes thought.  These are issues that can affect anyone who wants to download music or movies or any type of media, whether they do so legally or illegally.

Trent and his friends realize that they don’t like the state of the world where they live.  They also come to realize that in order for it to change, they’re going to have to do something about it.  They become revolutionaries, and they do it through nonviolent means. They’re activists engaging in civil disobedience (although, as a reader, I got the sense that there was one character who may have had any idea about that concept) and trying to mobilize a larger population. They want their countrymen to wake up and start taking interest in what their government is doing.

Twenty-six, the enigmatic central female character in the story is an impressive character.  She’s fiercely intelligent and she’s the original activist in the group.  Twenty-six understands that what she does could get her into trouble, but she also feels strongly enough about the action that she takes that she feels it’s worth it.  She’s maybe not the most normal girl I’ve ever encountered in fiction, but she’s one of the most real. In Pirate Cinema she’s more than just a love interest: she has things to do and places to go, and that’s a fantastic thing to find in any story.

Pirate Cinema is near-future science fiction with a bit of a political thriller bent to it.  The technology isn’t that far off from what we have now, and while it’s not a full-on dystopian story, there are dystopia elements to it. It brings questions to mind about not only who is passing laws and why, but also how government actually functions, what art really is, and whether or not anyone can actually change what they don’t like about the world.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Pirate Cinema. Doctorow writes characters who learn from their mistakes and evolve, even when they start out naive and a little bit self-absorbed. They aren’t unlikeable characters, and they feel like the kind of people you already know. They aren’t perfect; they’re just trying to get on with their lives the best way that they can.

There’s good food for thought for adults in this book, and while I was conscious of the fact that the characters were almost all teenagers, there was never a point where I felt like it was “teen fiction.” To be honest, when it comes to reading, I tend to divide books into “enjoyed reading” and “did not like,” rather than “kids’ book,” “teen book,”  or “adult book” categories. Good stories are good stories. Still, I would stick to recommending Pirate Cinema to teenaged readers and older.  Trent and his friends are unsupervised teenagers, and they do the kinds of things you’d expect unsupervised teenagers to do – they experiment with drugs, they have sex, and they spend a lot of time on their hobbies.

Pirate Cinema is a book well worth reading because it makes intellectual property concepts so accessible and because those issues provide such a solid framework for a compelling story.

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