Pirate Cinema is a coming-of-age story within a not-too-distant-future dystopia in which corporations have succeeded in controlling technology and the media. Trent McCauley is a young teen who is obsessed with creating his own films. He uses illegal content scoured from various pirate sites to patch together his own little films. When the law catches up with him, he and his family are banned from the internet for a year. Trapped in a well of guilt and self-disgust, Trent runs away to London, where he discovers an entire society of happy homeless people who live via dumpster diving, begging, and sleeping in abandoned houses. He cannot shake his need for a creative outlet and begins making films again, precipitating an international battle against the Big Bad Media Industry.
As might have been apparent in my summary, I thought the story was interesting, the protagonist was sympathetic, but that the plot was a vehicle for a very dogmatic political perspective. And because this book is mainly a political statement, the remainder of the review is going to be my analysis and response. If you just want a good story, skip the remainder of my review and take a look at the book. Otherwise, be prepared for quite a bit of criticism of what I see as Doctorow's attitude of entitlement.
First of all, I had some issues with the whole "happy homelessness" thing. Doctorow presents a world where all of the homeless are generally kind and giving. "Soft" drugs are merely looseners, food is always readily available via dumpster diving, and housing in condemned houses is safe and easy to find. Homeless people are merely recycling food that would otherwise go to waste, using housing that an uptight and corrupt government has condemned, and...oh, of course,...begging money off people for survival. Not only do I think this is a totally unrealistically rosy portray of life on the streets, but this general attitude bothered me: a large percentage of this utopian homeless society, including Trent and his friends, would be perfectly capable of holding down jobs. Instead, they live off the kindness of strangers and charity that could go to people who are truly in need. This again shows the attitude of entitlement: apparently, Trent and his friends "deserve" all of the charity they receive because they don't want to work for it. Not only do I find that unsympathetic, but I think it also callously disregards the very real crisis of homelessness and life on the streets. It isn't a fun utopia and resources aren't just lying around waiting to be picked up. Many people are mentally ill and very often victims of violence and abuse. It does a massive disservice to the issue to try to portray homelessness as an enjoyable adventure.
This general attitude of entitlement is seen in the other political viewpoints as well. The main drive of the book is a dogmatic propagandist push regarding digital rights management (DRM). Doctorow is totally against DRM and believes that people should have access to content to create art for arts sake. I'm not exactly thrilled about DRM--I'm a Linux user, the only non-open-source programs I have (other than Adobe flash) are on my phone, and I pay extra for non-DRM'd media--but I totally believe that people should be allowed to own the rights to the content that they create. I try to make use of all free resources that are available--I'm a big library user--but I do my absolute best to obtain all content legally and fairly because I believe that people who create content own the right to determine how it is distributed. Doctorow disagrees, and doesn't even see the need to defend his position until about two-thirds through the book.
Let's take the case of Trent. Doctorow tries to claim that for his creative output, Trent "needs" to steal films illegally and reconstruct them, and that somehow once they have been released to the world, content creators should have no rights over the content that they have created. I don't agree. Trent's first project is taking the works of a generally G-movie actor and remixing them to display the actor losing his virginity on-screen. Wow, what a sympathetic project...does the actor own any rights over his own form? Doctorow tries to argue that Trent "needs" the clips and that he shouldn't need to pay for them...but why can't he create his own content or use old films in the public domain? The real answer is that Trent doesn't want to and it isn't convenient. But we don't automatically have rights to something just because we want it.
Doctorow makes everything into a straw argument by asserting that said actor would be fine with the way his work is slashed and remixed, but how does that excuse it in the general case? Doctorow lives what he preaches--he releases his stuff online--but it is significantly easier to profit this way from writing than visual art because visual art is just so much easier--and more tempting-- to steal. I think artists deserve the right to decide how their artwork is used. Some people who participate in content creation--for example, artists on the website DeviantArt--make their livelihoods by selling their artwork. Others release their work under licenses such as Creative Commons that allow reuse, but prohibit obscene or hate-oriented work. Doctorow asserts that people don't own any rights to the content that they create. This sense of entitlement infuriates me.
First, I dispute that "art for art's sake" has always been free. Let's say that we accept that mixing together clips of other peoples' work is Art (capital A) rather than plagiarism. Even so, throughout the ages, artists have had to pay for their materials. You can't go into a craft store and pick up a canvas or ceramic clay and tell the storekeeper that you "deserve" to have the materials for free because you are creating "Art." Why should film clips be any different? Doctorow tries to claim that art is somehow special and that a consumerist perspective on art is somehow new. Uh, no...art has never been free or a higher calling. Most of the Renaissance art was created for and paid for by patrons who had significant control over the content created. In Doctorow's world, everyone but the Big Bad Corporate Suits wants to release the content. But creating content costs money and effort, and I think the content creators should be able to profit off of the work that they create.
I enjoyed this book--I thought the story was enjoyable and the characters were sympathetic. However, I think Doctorow's political perspective is both naive and entitled, and I find books which present only one side of a complex issue vastly irritating. The entire time I read it, I had the feeling I was being repeatedly bonked on the head by Doctorow's Morality Hammer:
I do think Doctorow brings up a lot of interesting questions that deserve further thought. Are "fan videos" or transformations of film clips art, and are they on the same calibre of creativity as works that are fully original? At what point does a work enter the public domain so that its original creators lose rights to it? In an era where gaining access to illegal content is trivial, how can we ensure that content creators are compensated for their work? All questions worth considering, and Pirate Cinema is a great vehicle for opening up the conversation for these and other questions.
I received this book via the Goodreads First Reads program.