Review of Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow
by Cory Doctorow
I don’t really know how to start this review, because this is a very important topic for me. It should be an important topic for anyone who loves books. Although Pirate Cinema concerns not-so-exaggerated attempts to stop people from copying and remixing movies, much of the same rhetoric around copyright has been applied to books. Libraries pay insanely inflated prices for ebooks because publishers are freaked out that electronic files exist and can be shared. (And let’s not even get started on DRM.) Amazon is not just trying but succeeding in revolutionizing a lot of the publishing industry, particularly around self-publishing, and not in a way that is necessarily good for creators.
And that’s the fundamental lie that Cory Doctorow exposes in Pirate Cinema. The companies and lobbyists behind increasingly draconian copyright regimes always claim that copyright is necessary for creators to flourish. They paint a bleak picture of a world where piracy discourages people from creating stuff because they won’t get paid. I suppose they have a point—I have no clue how our civilization survived without art for all those thousands of years before we had copyright!
So the conflict in this book, and indeed in real life, is not between pirates and creators. It’s between corporations and people, with the former wanting control over created content and the latter wanting … well, culture. As he has done with other books, such as the seminal Little Brother, Doctorow sees a trend in our society that he doesn’t like. So he has extrapolated it—just a little, because most of what happens in this book has been or is happening in some form somewhere today. And he tries to show why he thinks the world should be different, and why it matters that we fight.
This is polemical, no doubt about it, and not always for the best. The bad guys are caricaturish, almost moustache-twirling in how naughty Doctorow depicts them. Even as someone who is very sympathetic to Doctorow’s cause, I have to wish that there had been a little more nuance here. While I love that Doctorow takes the time to explain parts of the UK parliamentary system to readers, it might have been nice if we also learned something about how copyright actually works.
Still, this is a compelling book, and not just on a philosophical level. The characters are fun. Trent is a mixed bag as a protagonist: at times he’s sympathetic, other times he’s not very likable—a very believable portrayal, in other words, of a teenage boy who is a little too clever for his own good. I appreciate, too, that Doctorow doesn’t make him too much of a genius at everything. For example, Trent freely admits he doesn’t know that much about computers—he knows enough to Google around for instructions and commands to run, and he is very good at video editing, but those are his limits.
The pacing is also great—good enough to almost make me forget the lumpy infodumpy parts of the book. Doctorow never really lets us get comfortable with a status quo. First Trent leaves home and spends some time wandering London before lucking into a friendship that opens a lot of doors for him (literally). When he loses that laptop with the finished cut of his Holy Grail of Scot Colford remixes, I was almost as heartbroken as he was. But that’s the point—Doctorow needs to establish that it’s not the product that matters to Trent so much as the love, the act of creating. Really, what Pirate Cinema boils down to is a strong argument in favour of a more distributed notion of creativity. This scares the monolithic corporations that have a lot of power right now, because they don’t know how to control it or make money off it.
Pirate Cinema also captures the senses of dread and defeatism that lurk beneath any massive campaign for public change. Trent and his friends, even the fiery 26, are often discouraged when things they try don’t seem to make a difference to the public. They are up against lobbyists who have almost inexhaustible resources. Doctorow just casually discusses some of the reasons politicians listen to these companies rather than their constituents—whether it’s the lavish weekend getaway or the fear of being expelled from one’s party, something usually convinces them. This dysfunctionality, and the sense that the people we elect aren’t actually representing our interests any more, is very concerning. And it’s not surprising that libertarians find a lot to like about Doctorow’s novels.
As a YA novel, this is pretty good. The love story between Trent and 26 is neither contrived nor overly romantic. I liked the ending. Although I agree with those who think it’s abrupt as an epilogue, the writing was on the wall much earlier in the story, and it’s a very realistic way for their story to conclude. But I think the best thing about Pirate Cinema as a YA novel is simply its ability to educate and get younger readers thinking about these issues in a political way. Even if one doesn’t agree with what Doctorow argues here, it opens the door for critical discussions.
Beyond that, it’s a fun story with good characters and a strong message. That the message threatens to overwhelm those other two aspects at times is par for the course with Doctorow. I hesitate to call it unsophisticated, because it deals with fairly complicated issues. Let’s go with straightforward. There isn’t much in the way of subtext here.
I’m biased, though. Like I said at the beginning, copyright and the way corporations appear eager to own our culture so that we may merely consume it really concerns me. It’s an issue I feel passionate about, so I enjoyed Doctorow sharing his own passion for this subject in a suitably fictional form.