(Note: This was originally written for The Mountains Of Instead but turned out too long. I had to use it, especially in light of the recent death of Aaron Swartz. The themes of this book are very relevant to the case)
The year is, well, not so far from now. Life in the UK is much the same, only the technology has changed. Even in that sense society is entirely recognisable, with the only significant difference being further reliance on the internet: for study; for work; for recreation; even for claiming benefits. It is against this background that nerd icon Cory Doctorow sets his latest YA novel, Pirate Cinema.
Pirate Cinema opens with Trent McCauley, a nondescript 16 year old Bradford schoolkid, indulging in his hobby. Trent is a remixer, downloading any appearances of fictional actor Scot Colford which he can lay his hands on and rearranging them into his own wildly creative and popular montages. Unfortunately for Trent, the entertainment industry takes a dim view of such activities and under the draconian laws of the land his family have their internet service disconnected.
Even today this would be a blow to many people – one year without access to email, Facebook, YouTube and everything else. In Trent’s world it is nigh a death sentence. His younger sister is cut off from vital educational resources in the middle of her schooling. His father, barely scraping by at an online temping gig, has his sole source of income removed. His mother can no longer apply for benefits to aid her crippling leg problems, nor can she find any online help. Trent, shocked by the consequences of his innocent downloading, flees home and heads for the bright lights of London.
By the end of his first night he has lost his laptop (using it as a pillow while sleeping in a park was perhaps a silly idea) and is reduced to begging for change. Fortunately he is adopted by Jem, a genuinely altruistic old hand at this life and Doctorow briefly transforms Pirate Cinema into Oliver Twist. Jem introduces Trent to the smart (and honest) way to live on the streets, with the principle of sharing their gains with those less fortunate at the forefront of their minds. Before long they are squatting in an abandoned pub and renovating it, transforming it into a veritable palace.
Trent soon finds his internet feet again and is continuing his remixing under the alias Cecil B. DeVil. This soon lands him in hot water yet again and matters escalate to the point of a legal battle and a grassroots war with the entertainment industry and the corrupt politicians whose pockets they are filling to ensure their laws pass. The ongoing collaborations with Trent and his new-found activist friends, set against the scheming and machinations of the executives and politicians, form the meat of Pirate Cinema, with Cory Doctorow subjecting his characters to all manner of mishaps and misadventures before reaching an exhilarating conclusion.
Pirate Cinema is a great little read. My only real gripe was his often embarrassing attempts so conduct dialogue using teenage slang. Canadian Doctorow has been resident in the UK for several years but his grasp of kidspeak is tenuous at best and makes for some unintentional giggle along the way. Seriously, I have never seen anyone say “Cor!” outside of the Beano.
On the plus side, it never takes itself too seriously and plays about with pop culture references, pokes gentle fun at its geeky excesses and manages to entertain and ultimately educate at the same time. It’s suited perfectly to an audience of an age with its protagonist and any references to sex, drugs and swearing are subtly glossed over. It’s possible that some may find Doctorow’s style overly preachy, an accusation levelled at his previous YA effort Little Brother (a book which made me wish I had been born 20 years later so I could be reading it as a teenager today). However, as an avowed copyfighter this was not an issue for me personally. Overall it delivers exactly what one would expect from a YA novel with this premise – a funny, rousing techno-fable which should please a wide audience, especially among computer-literate teens.
So that’s the meat of the review. Now for the Public Service Announcement. Pirate Cinema is a fictional novel but the world it depicts is most assuredly not. The legal battles, political maneuvering and lobbying which form the heart of the story are based, with very little exaggeration, on events occurring right now. UK readers may be familiar with the Digital Economy Act which passed in 2010 and handed unbelievable powers to rights holders to prosecute those they believe to be infringing copyright, even without evidence. France recently introduced a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule identical to that used in Pirate Cinema. The copyright battles in the US are probably well known to everyone with an internet connection.
There is a mammoth power struggle going on and unfortunately consumers and artists are getting the short end of the stick due mainly to simple lack of funding. Multi-billion dollar industries whose profits continue to grow year on year – despite deepening recessions – would have us believe that those who would dare to remix existing works and share them without charging a single penny are on a par with organised criminals like the mafia and should be jailed. People like me, who buy an ebook at Amazon for an insanely inflated price and are forced to use third party programs to strip its DRM and read it on the device of our choosing, are lawbreakers – a threat to the entire publishing industry.
This is not hyperbole. This is real. This is how the situation is portrayed to MPs by lobbyists with pockets full of party invitations and brown envelopes. People like Cory Doctorow are trying to help the situation by informing and educating.
And yes, he is a man with the courage of his convictions. Pirate Cinema is available for free download at his website, along with all of his other novels. Contrary to what the industry would have us believe, he conducted his own experiment and, in line with what other similar studies have shown, found that offering free downloads with no DRM at all actually increased sales of paper and electronic copies alike. Sharing is good. Sharing works.
(Okay, the free copy has regular ‘commercial interludes’ reminding you that he has to eat but this is a small price to pay. If so inclined you can choose to donate a copy to a school or library via his website while retaining a free copy yourself. This is very, very good thing.)
So there we have it. Call Pirate Cinema a simple novel, in which case it is a wonderfully enjoyable David and Goliath tale. Call it an educational supplement, opening people’s eyes to the goings-on around them. Call it a call to arms for today’s young generation, warning them of the need to exercise their rights and maintain eternal vigilance. Whichever way you look at it, Pirate Cinema is a gem of a book for any tech-oriented, creative or even vaguely pro-active mind.