Reviewed by Byron Clark
Cory Doctorow is a blogger and activist for civil liberties in the age of the advanced information and communication technologies and the war on terrorism. His near future speculative fiction novels such as Little Brother set in an America obsessed with anti-terrorism, have examined these issues, his next young adult book For The Win explored the economics of multiplayer online games, and the bizarre world of “gold farming” where workers toil in sweatshops to create virtual wealth, traded for real currency. Now with Pirate Cinema he’s taken on the issue of copyright and the power big content (film studios and record labels) has over government.
The story begins with Trent, a working-class teenager from a council flat in Bradford in the north of Britain having his family’s Internet connection terminated for illegally downloading movies. This scenario might seem familiar to local readers, as New Zealand not so long ago attempted to pass an amendment to the Copyright Act that would include disconnection from the Internet as a penalty for copyright infringement. This part of the bill was removed after public protest and concern from Internet Services Providers (ISPs)- businesses with interests different from big content.
Without access to the Internet Trent’s father loses his job as a work-from-home telephone operator, his disabled mother can’t sign on for welfare, and his sister struggles at school without access to the vast amount of information on the World Wide Web. Doctorow wants to show access to the internet has become as essential as electricity in the modern world. Ashamed of himself, Trent runs away from home to London, where he begins a comfortable life of squatting and dumpster diving. This scenario is a little unrealistic, but it makes a fun fantasy.
Trent’s hobby is making films by re-editing footage from other films, creating his own art by using that belonging to others. This is something that has become increasingly common in recent years as all video has become digital, home computers have become more powerful and video editing software more affordable. YouTube and similar sites have provided a distribution platform for these “mash up” artists.
The idea being alluded to here is that when something creative is made it belongs to its audience as much as the creator. Of course, that’s not the way big content creators want it, as creating these remixed films infringes on their intellectual property. Doctorow touches on the notion property is a relationship rather than something inherent, an argument true of all property but most obvious with “intellectual property”.
When Trent meeting a young woman named 26 at a pirate cinema screening he becomes an activist for the right to download, share and remix content, organising opposition to a new copyright law as well as a string of pirate cinema screenings in locations such as London sewers.
As his notoriety rises Trent is issued with a lawsuit for all of the clips he’s used in his films. This is going to date the book quickly, big content is starting to make peace with remix artists, Youtube now provides advertising revenue to the owners of music and video used in remixes or fan made music videos. Like those ISPs opposing New Zealand’s copyright amendment, a significant part of the capitalist class relies not on intellectual property so much as on the free exchange of information; Google (owners of YouTube) and Facebook are the two best examples.
The closest the book comes to a solution to the issue of piracy comes from an MP sympathetic to Trent and 26’s cause, who puts forward a bill that would see ISP’s paying a blanket license for content, similar to how radio stations get the rights to music. The party this particular MP belongs to isn’t mentioned, nor is which party is in power. This was a nice touch as it showed the issue is much bigger than party-politics.
The book gives a realistic portrayal of activism, Trent and the other major characters lead a campaign to overturn a draconian copyright law, rather than overturn the social relations of property (desirable, but not currently achievable) nonetheless a strong anti-capitalist view runs though, with Parliament portrayed as being more in the hands of the wealthy than the voters. Not to mention that many of the actions engaged in by the protagonists are far more exciting than collecting petition signatures and writing letters to MPs.
Young people reading Pirate Cinema will get a more honest lesson in parliamentary politics than they would in a high school civics class but they will also getting a thrilling adventure story. While perhaps not as good as his previous offering For The Win, Pirate Cinema is well worth a read, even if you’re a bit older than its target audience.