Review – Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Pirate Cinema predicts a grim future where teenagers are punished for illegally downloading movies off the Internet.

You’ll have to forgive me for siding with the bad guys.

Cory Doctorow’s previous young adult novels have verged on being manifestos. A thriller set in a US surveillance state, Little Brother veers uncomfortably close to advocating domestic terrorism, and large sections of For The Win are devoted to explaining macroeconomics through the business models of on-line role-playing games. But the stakes in both those books are relatively high– indiscriminate detention policies in Little Brother and brutal labor practices in For The Win. Those scenarios justify a certain amount of hand-wringing. The call to action in Pirate Cinema, however, is “What if we lived in a world where we couldn’t get movies for free?”

In near-future England, Trent McCauley is a super amazing high school dropout who devotes all his time to making the best video mash-ups ever. After downloading one too many copyrighted movies, the cops shut his Internet off, depriving his family of their connection to work, healthcare, and education. None of this affects Trent, who runs away from home and hooks up with all the trendy homeless kids who populate London. After smoking a lot of pot and listening to his beautiful girlfriend tell him how talented he is, Trent decides it’s not only his passion to create movies made entirely from other people’s work, it’s a god-given right.

As Trent practices his video editing skills, he lives a charmed life in an abandoned pub without fear of crime, illness, or starvation. His reputation grows and his YouTube page views skyrocket. His friends get arrested, the government cracks down on torrent-users, and his family lives in anguish not knowing whether he’s alive or dead. None of this affects Trent. His closeted gay friend becomes more confident after getting beaten up in jail. His parents forgive him because his films are undeniably fantastic. Even the estate of the actor whose footage Trent uses in all his films endorses his brilliance. And in the end, Trent creates an utterly convincing digital short that his team of Adbusters-inspired activists project all over Parliament to sway the world to his side.

The message of his film? “It’s. Not. Fair.”

There’s only the briefest hint in Pirate Cinema of a sympathetic argument  for pirate movie makers. “This is part of our culture,” they plead.  “Who’s to say we don’t own a stake in it?” With the constant threat of expanding copyright duration, there’s certainly room for concern that there may come a time when nothing will enter the public domain. But the message of the book, and Trent’s thesis statement, isn’t an impassioned plea to be allowed some leeway to play with the same tools the big studios use. It’s just that “It’s. Not. Fair.” that there are laws stopping us from doing whatever we want, whether that’s downloading movies off the Internet, breaking and entering, or committing vandalism.

Pirate Cinema isn’t a rallying cry. It’s a one-sided, juvenile whine for instant gratification and glorification. Trent’s epiphany that “It’s. Not. Fair.” wouldn’t be so disturbing if everyone in the book didn’t come to agree with him. As it’s presented, Pirate Cinema takes place in a truly awful future where self-righteous teenagers are entitled to everything they desire and they can harness the power Internet towards enabling their every whim.

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2 Comments

  1. I didn’t love Pirate Cinema to pieces, but I did enjoy it more than you did. I felt it got a little too preachy, and Trent’s homeless life was far too easy. I got very frustrated that while he was living the high-life, his parents and sister were still suffering. As much as I enjoyed Little Brother (and I enjoyed that far more than Pirate Cinema), I’m ready for Doctorow to go back to writing non-YA stuff.

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