© 2012 Cory Doctorow
All Cecil B. DeVille wanted to do was make movies. He didn’t mean to ruin his family’s lives or start a revolution. In the not-too-distant future, consumer electronics have concealed chips which monitor and report web activity, and when that involves streaming or downloading copyrighted material, the reprisal is extreme: three-time offenders have their household internet connection terminated for a year. When Cecil’s hobby of downloading movies and remixing their scenes to make new stories catches the attention of the authorities and his home loses connection, the results are devastating: Cecil’s father loses his job and his sister begins sliding into academic failure. Horrified by the repercussions, Cecil flees to the streets, there to befriend eccentrics who have dropped out of society. Raiding dumpsters for food and living in an abandoned bar, Cecil finds the knowledge, the tools, the will, and the friends that he needs to fight back.
At the heart of this teen political thriller is the debate over intellectual property. This is a recurring theme in Doctorow’s work, but the center of everything here. In the book’s world, the American entertainment/recording industry has essentially captured Parliament: both of the major party-alliances pass whatever bill it urges. While attending an illicit screening of remix films, Cecil learns that a bill is heading toward Parliament which will allow for the incarceration of anyone — even minors — who breach very broadly-defined copyright laws. Even excerpting scenes for use in a YouTube movie review could land a kid in serious jail time. Armed with a self-built laptop sans corporate spyware, Cecil and friends launch an agitation campaign to spread the word and hopefully force an upset. As with Little Brother, Doctorow uses the novel to debate an issue. Doctorow’s publication history indicates that while he’s a proponent of looser copyright laws, there are limits to how far that can be taken. Here, the moments of nuance as other characters challenge Cecil’s presumptions are overshadowed by the flagrant bullying of the entertainment industry, who divide their time between creating garbage films and bankrupting or jailing kids.
I found Pirate Cinema interesting from every angle; from Cecil’s obsessive interest in producing films by creatively remixing scenes from one particular actor’s vast corpus of works, to his exploration of an illicit society — living in abandoned buildings, exploring underground London and looking for places to host film screenings, finding technological workarounds to counter technological surveillance, and of course the debate itself. Because his story is set in London, Doctorow also unleashes the full power of British English. Doctorow’s other novels set in America were written or edited so well to match an American voice that the hurricane of British lingo took me by surprise. I’d be really curious about a Brit’s perspective, whether his use of slang flows well or if its just a little much. (Imagine a narrator who sounds like Eggsy from Kingsman: The Secret Service, prior to wearing suits and speaking RP.) My used copy of the book is a discard from a Canadian library, though, so there may be an American edition out there that refers to dumpsters and drugs instead of skips and sugar.
Although part of the novel are unrealistic — the lack of dangerous and seriously disturbed people among the homeless who Cecil meets, for instance, and the over-the-top villainy — I found Pirate Cinema both clever and fun. Intellectual property and copyright issues are an on-going issue as we find ourselves more and more immersed in an ocean of content. What makes this novel especially interesting is that people really do edit films the way Doctorow describes; I’ve seen trailers made for movies that don’t exist (Titanic 2: Jack’s Back) ,witnessed the crew of Deep Space Nine react to Star Trek 2009, (they disapproved), and watched ‘movies’ that used footage from video-games, sometimes edited or framed to make it more cinematic. Improvisation with already-existing materials is the basis of culture and innovation: even at a professional level. I can’t help but think of John Carmack of ID Software creating a way to have side-scrolling PC games by using the first level of Mario as his subject. Cecil’s is a case that’s more troublesome: while he IS using footage in original ways, the film itself is someone else’s product, and it cost them to produce it.