As I expected, I enjoyed and was slightly awed by Cory Doctorow’s new novel Pirate Cinema. This one is set in a slightly future Britain; I wasn’t sure how much was based on fact when I first read details like that in London “our nearest library closed at 5:30 and was only open four days a week thanks to the latest round of budget cuts” or that “cinemas had introduced mandatory metal-detectors and coat-checks for phones and computers.”
(It was Nymeth’s discussion of the novel that spurred me to finally make the time to write my own review. I’ve been doing lots of reading but have fallen easily into the habit of tossing one book aside and picking up another without recording my reactions.)
The protagonist of Pirate Cinema, who calls himself Cecil, makes films out of clips of other films, which in this only-slightly-fantasized-future-world gets his family’s internet cut off. He says “it’s easy to define creativity: it’s doing something that isn’t obvious.” When a friend argues with him and says “you’ve got to admit there’s something different about making a film out of other peoples’ films and getting a camera out and making your own movie,” the argument goes on until Cecil’s sister Cora points out that “we’re all creative. We come up with weird and interesting ideas all the time. The biggest difference between ‘creators’ isn’t their imagination–it’s how hard they work.” Cecil makes his clip films because he’s driven to see the clips in relation to each other, not because he’s looking for money or fame.
So who is the “big bad” in this novel? It’s entertainment companies and their anti-piracy laws. What teenager living in the post-Jack-Sparrow world doesn’t laugh at the piracy warnings on DVDs? What person in his right mind buys their claim that copying equals piracy and piracy is stealing? Let’s picture it: you have a boat full of dressed-up people and a pirate ship pulls up alongside, takes photos of their clothes, and sails off to make exact copies so they can also wear these latest fashions. Is this stealing—do the copies make the original pleasure-boaters suddenly naked? No. “Stealing” is not the right word.
In the novel, a character says “people are sick to death of the piracy wars” which sounds about right to me. Cecil thinks of “all those educational copyright videos they’d made us watch in school, where big stars came on and told us how awful we all were to download their stuff without paying for it, and then they’d trot out some working stiffs–a spark, a make-up artist, a set builder–who’d drone on about how hard he worked all day and how he needed to feed his kids. We’d just laugh at these–the ancient, exquisitely preserved rock star we saw getting out of a limo crying poverty; the workers who claimed that we were taking food out of their kids’ mouths by remixing videos or sharing music, when every kid I knew spent every penny he could find on music as well as downloading more for free.”
Why have these “piracy wars” gone on? Because “Parliament has been giving EMI and Warner and Sony and Universal so much power for so long, they’ve got so used to going to parties with pop stars and getting their kiddies into the VIP screenings and behind the rope at big concerts that they don’t even think about it. They just get out the rubber-stamp and vote for it.”
So we’re in familiar territory here, for a Cory Doctorow novel. And he pulls it off yet again, making the story entertaining enough and the characters well-rounded enough that we care what happens, learning more about copyright issues than we ever thought we could in the process of following his storyline. It’s a formidable talent, presenting fiction permeated with fact. I feel fairly certain that if a reader were to check the facts behind the fiction, like that “90 percent of the film copyrights in the whole history of the planet belong to five studios” and “eight companies control 85 percent of the world’s radio, TV, films, newspaper, book publishing, and Internet publishing,” that reader would find out that these statistics are real.
The scariest part of the novel, the part that should make it hit home for a lot of us, is the way the fictional corporations manage to shut down “UKTube” the name of which even contains the name of its real-world prototype. This online video site has to shut down because of something called “the Theft of Intellectual Property Act” and they explain that “according to our solicitors, we now have to pay a copyright specialist to examine each and every video you upload to make sure it doesn’t infringe on copyright before we make it live….We don’t know if Parliament intended to shut down this site and all the others like it, or whether this side effect is just depraved indifference on their part. What we do know is that this site has never been a haven for piracy. We have a dedicated, round-the-clock team of specialists devoted to investigating copyright complaints and removing offending material as quickly as possible….But it didn’t get us anywhere. Bending over to help the big film companies police their copyrights cost us a fortune, and they thanked us by detonating a legal suicide bomb in the middle of our offices. You hear a lot of talk about terrorism these days. That word gets thrown around a lot. But a terrorist is someone who attacks innocent civilians to make a point.”
At the climax of the novel, Cora gives a brilliant speech about knowledge and intellectual property that also manages to add to the many eulogies for Aaron Swartz. Like Cecil, I was awed by the speech. And I’m awed by the skill of Cecil’s creator, who always has a message but creates fictional characters to demonstrate how it works in the real world.
Update: I forgot to link to Doctorow’s free download of this book: http://craphound.com/pc/download/