Why Cory Doctorow’s “Pirate Cinema” Makes Me Root for Big Content

When a book makes you root for the "good guys" to get fined into the stone age, it may have gone too far.

As regular readers of the site know, I have an interest in Hollywood movie mashups. So when I heard that Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow was writing a novel about remix culture and copyright law, I was intrigued. I love the guy’s blogging, and he’s been a great source for news about SOPA, PIPA, and other scary acronyms. I also enjoyed his novels Makers and Little Brother, in which he dramatizes the issues he blogs about through technologically-savvy-underdogs-take-on-The-Man narratives. He’s cyber-Upton Sinclair.

But like Sinclair, Doctorow isn’t trying to lay out both sides of a complicated issue and let the reader make her own decisions; he’s trying to fill people with outrage and get them to storm the Bastille. He’s writing shameless propaganda that makes one side good and noble and pure, and the other greedy and corrupt. I was willing to accept this easily enough was his target was the Department of Homeland security (as it was in Little Brother) because I’m a big old leftie. This time, however, Doctorow takes a complicated issue and tries so hard to erase all shades of gray that I ended up being more against him than with him. Since I’m as big a fan of video remixing as there is, this is quite an achievement.

What I mean by shades of gray is that while you might think that the current state of copyright law is unfair (and it is!), surely the 25 million people who pirated Game of Thrones are also in the wrong. I mean, no one outside some smart aleck in a high school Civics class is going to make a serious argument that everything should be available for free. Right? Well, the characters in “Pirate Cinema” go there:

They say it’s about protecting property, but they invented this idea that creativity is property! How can you own an idea? They say their imaginary property is more important than our privacy, our creativity, and our freedom. I say bugger that. I say we’ve got a moral duty to pirate everything we can, until they’re nothing more than bad memories.

Wowzers. I wish I could say that any character in the book feels like “there is no such thing as intellectual property” is an extreme position, but it’s what passes for conventional wisdom. (Throughout this article, I’m going to assume that the views of Doctorow’s main characters represent his own views. This could be completely wrong of course – an author is allowed to have characters believe things he doesn’t agree with. But given the fact that’s Doctorow is an outspoken “copyfighter,” I think it’s a safe bet that these characters  are pretty much in line with his own opinions. It would be strange if he wrote a whole book about copyright full of arguments he doesn’t support. If he doesn’t believe this stuff, I apologize for attributing the ideas to him, but that doesn’t make the novel any better.)

Colin Farrell is coming to get you for that Twilight-Evanescence video you made.

This is a speech that the protagonist’s girlfriend “Twenty Six” (everyone gets Matrix-y codenames in this book) yells as the police arrest her and a whole political assembly for copyright infringement. They’re rounding everyone up in the hopes of nabbing a small group that’s been holding underground (sometimes literally) film festivals of mashups. This mass arrest is one of the many comically evil things Doctorow has his version of Big Content do, even though I can’t find any mention of the real-life police raiding a Turkish restaurant in broad daylight to charge everyone with illegal downloading. (The book is set in the near future, so I suppose Doctorow would just argue that mass-arrests are just the next logical step, as soon as Snidely Whiplash gets appointed Chairman of the MPAA.)

Maybe you’re getting some idea of why this book rubs me the wrong way. The good guys have incredibly simplistic and convenient ideas about copyright (it’s not only okay to download all your movies for free, it’s a blow for freedom) and anyone who thinks there should be some sort of penalty for piracy should be shot out of a cannon directly into the sun. Here’s a speech that the protagonist’s sister gives later in the book (I’m using some ellipsis, but I promise I’m not misrepresenting the argument):

Back in the old days, they didn’t have science, they had alchemy. Alchemy was a lot like science, except that every alchemist kept what he learned to himself… Until, one day, everything changed. Some alchemist decided that rather than keeping his results secret, he’d publish them and let his peers review his results. We have a word for that kind of publication: we call it ‘science.’ And we have a name for the time that followed from this innovation: we call it ‘the Enlightenment.’… And wouldn’t you know it, some people are so bloody stupid and greedy and blinkered and ignorant that they think that this is a bad thing… They think that the Internet’s power to make sharing easy is a bug—and they’ve set out to ‘fix’ it, no matter how many lives and futures they ruin on this stupid mission.

Alchemy, which is somehow the same as blocking the Pirate Bay.

This would be a great speech if it were about internet censorship, but it’s about piracy. She’s saying the people downloading Skyfall on opening weekend are the new Da Vincis, and those who try to fight it are trying to send us back to the Dark Ages. LITERALLY the Dark Ages. (In the interest of being as fair to Doctorow as I can, his argument is probably more like: “In order to stop the people downloading Skyfall, you will also inadvertently stop the new Da Vincis, and therefore inadvertently send us back to the Dark Ages.” But that’s still ridiculous hyperbole.)

Let’s examine Doctorow’s objections to specific copyright enforcement laws. The book begins with the protagonist, Trent (his nom de remix is “Cecil B. DeVil,” which I won’t be calling him), getting his whole family’s internet access suspended for one year because he’s been accused of copyright infringement three times. Doctorow makes this seems like the most unjust punishment since the case of Bakery v. Jean Valjean, mainly because of the catastrophic consequences for the rest of his family. Has father can’t find work. His sister falls behind in her classes because she doesn’t have the internet. His mom can’t find any remedy for her chronic leg pain. When Trent calls her later in the book, she talks about how defending copyright can’t possibly be worth cutting off a family’s internet access:

If the only way the films and music and that can get made is by giving them the power to just cut off all our connections to each other and work and school and health, I think we should just let ’em die.

Another way to look at the situation is that Trent should have stopped downloading stuff after the first two warnings, thereby sparing the family those extreme measures. But okay, Doctorow has a point about how this policy hurts the innocent as well as the guilty. So what about requiring video-sharing sites to monitor the content they host? A law passed halfway through the book requires this, and immediately afterwards a site that “had never been much for pirate clips” closes up shop because they can’t afford to risk the new penalties:

We’ve been a place where dying people can share their final thoughts with their loved ones; where people in trouble can raise funds or support; where political movements were born and organized and sustained. All of that is collateral damage in your war on piracy—a crime that you seem to have defined as “anything we don’t like or that eats into our bottom line.”

Well no, they defined it as “unauthorized use of stuff that we own,” same as always. But nevermind, new plan: what about imprisoning the most egregious downloaders? Would that be fair?

Jimmy Preston, the kid they took away, had some kind of mental problems—autistic spectrum, they said on the BBC—and he didn’t go out much. But he’d collected 450,000 songs on his hard drive through endless, tedious, tireless hours of downloading. From what anyone could tell, he didn’t even listen to them: he just liked cataloging them, correcting their metadata, organizing them.

Preston is sentenced to jail for five years, and then he’s discovered dead in his cell after only a couple weeks. Does anyone else feel like Doctorow is stacking his deck just a smidge? There seems to be a puzzling lack of actual pirates in the book, just innocent folks chewed up by a heartless system.

Okay, so if all these laws are so terrible, what does Doctorow feel WOULD be a sane and sensible copyright policy? The closest we get is a sketchy idea thrown out by a friendly member of Paliament:

“I’m going to introduce a bill to amend the Theft of Intellectual Property Act. It will rescind all criminal penalties and end the practice of terminating Internet connections on accusation of piracy. In return, it will explicitly permit rights-holder groups to offer what are called blanket licenses to ISPs… Under this scheme, film studios, game companies, publishers, and music companies could offer ISPs a per-user/per-month fee in exchange for unlimited sharing of all music, books, and films.”

I tried to make sense of that. “You mean, I sign up with Virgin and give them, whatever, fifteen pounds a month for my Internet. They give five pounds to these groups, and I get to download everything?”

She nodded. “Yes, that’s it exactly.”

A blu-ray of Avatar costs 30 pounds according to Amazon. So what Doctorow is proposing is that for FIFTEEN pounds a month (only five of which gets split between the actual copyright holders), everyone gets UNLIMITED access to ALL the movies, books, video games, and music in the world. And in addition, piracy is completely decriminalized.

This game alone costs 40 pounds. Under the Doctorow plan, you would get EVERY GAME, MOVIE, BOOK, AND SONG EVER MADE, FOR LESS THAN HALF OF THIS PER MONTH. I’m sorry to yell, but this is not a serious suggestion.

I really want to be fair here. I really do. But I have to say it: this is a dumb idea. Doctorow damn well knows that the average cost of cable TV by itself is well more than fifteen pounds a month, and it’s only a small fraction of “all music, books, video games, and films.” Even if you could get all the different copyright holders to give up on their distribution methods and go for this, the cost of such a service would be so high that most people would stick with piracy. The idea only works if you can somehow force all the media companies in the world to devalue their products so much that it’s not worth it to pirate the stuff. Maybe Parliament can also decree that I get to have a new Lamborghini Gallardo for $9,999. Also, if I steal one, they’re not allowed to arrest me.

The sad part is, even if it only cost 15 pounds a month for unlimited access to everything, the people in this book would not pay it. For one thing, nobody has a job or any source of income at all (beyond panhandling). But more importantly, they all feel entitled to have everything they want, for free. They don’t want to pay rent, so they live in a squat that they renovate into a palace. They scavenge food from dumpsters, but they’re so good at it that they eat nothing but gourmet meals, which Doctorow loves to describe in mouth-watering detail. They hook up the power illegally and mooch off someone else’s internet (the Tragedy of the Cyber-Commons!). At one point, Trent meets a friend-of-a-friend with a warehouse full of spare computer parts, who seems perfectly happy to build him a supercomputer for free:

How’s this sound, then: Twelves gigahertz, sixteen gigs of RAM, four terabyte raid, two gigs of VRAM, twenty-five-inch display?

That sounds like a pretty nice gift from a near-stranger! Here’s how Trent describes the lifestyle of his gang, none of whom has any regular source of income:

It was all brilliant, sitting in our cozy, candlelit pub room, using our laptops, playing the latest dub-step revival music we’d pulled down from a pirate radio site, watching videos on darknet video sites, showing our screens to one another.

I found myself growing increasingly offended on behalf of all the REAL homeless people, who probably have to suffer with mere dial-up internet and only eight gigs of RAM.

I can completely understand why Trent and company love this lifestyle. What mystifies me is the sense of genuine moral outrage they muster up at the idea that anyone would oppose their industrial-scale piracy:

I realized that somewhere out there, there were gleaming office towers filled with posh, well-padded execs who went around in limos and black cabs, who lived in big houses and whose kids had all the money in the world, and these men had decided to ruin my family for the sake of a few extra pennies. There were actual human beings who were answerable for the misery and suffering of God knew how many people all around the world—rich bastards who thought that they alone should own our culture, that they should be able to punish you for making art without their permission.

Did you notice how in the last sentence, Trent substitutes “making art” for “illegally downloading copyrighted material?” This is because Trent’s speech would be a lot less convincing if the last sentence was:

Rich bastards who thought that they should be able to punish you for downloading Black Ops 2 without their permission.

This false equivalence of piracy and art is absolutely central to the book. Here’s the synopsis off of the book’s Amazon page.

Trent McCauley is sixteen, brilliant, and obsessed with one thing: making movies on his computer by reassembling footage from popular films he downloads from the net… This brings him in touch with a demimonde of artists and activists who are trying to fight a new bill that will criminalize even more harmless internet creativity…

So illegal downloading becomes “harmless internet creativity.” If you knew nothing about BitTorrent, you would get the strong impression from this book that the only folks who use it are remix artists looking for raw material. When Trent first lands in London, he randomly meets up with two more teens who had their internet cut off. And wouldn’t you know it, they too were only doing it for artistic purposes:

Rabid Dog had got his family kicked off the net with his compulsion to rework horror films to turn them into wacky comedies, romantic comedies, torture comedies, and just plain comedies…

[Chester] was another video nutter, obsessed with making dance mixes of Parliamentary debates, looping the footage so that the fat, bloated politicians in the video seemed to be lip-syncing.

Let’s be honest: only a vanishingly small percentage of all the pirated copies of Final Destination 3 are being downloaded by mash-up artists, and it’s kind of disingenuous for Doctorow to pretend otherwise.

(An aside. When I read that description of Chester’s Parliamentary debate remixes, I thought Doctorow had made a mistake, because in the United States any video of a government proceeding would be 100% public domain and fair game. But when I Googled it, I found a 2011 blog post by Doctorow himself where he points out that UK citizens are not allowed to use videos of Parliament for satirical purposes. Doctorow obviously knows his stuff. That’s why I’m truly puzzled why he decided to dumb his book down to the level of a Saturday morning cartoon.)

Trent’s claim that he only downloads to create art is his whole defense when he’s put on trial for copyright infringement. Here’s what his barrister argues:

My client is a young man who stands accused of selectively downloading short clips for the purpose of making acclaimed transformational works that act as commentary and parody, and which constitute rather impressive creative works in their own rights. He is, fundamentally, a competitor of the claimants. They may paint him as an uncontrollable menace to society, but what business magnate would characterize his competition any differently?

So according to his lawyer, Big Content isn’t after Trent because he illegally downloaded thousands of their movies. It’s after him because the mashups that he throws on YouTube for free are a grave threat to The Avengers. To this I say, how does Doctorow explain this video of Star Wars characters singing “Call Me Maybe?” Has Lucasfilm (now Disney!) just not noticed this yet? Will their lawyers send a takedown notice to YouTube any second and then come after its creator with the fury of a thousand suns? Or is it possible that Big Content actually doesn’t care about internet mashups? Is it actually possible that Big Content LIKES internet mashups? This isn’t a big secret; for years now, YouTube has been offering to help copyright owners make money off of fan videos that use infringing material.

  • Make Money. Hundreds of media companies have signed up already, multiplying their inventory of monetizeable videos.
  • Fan Interaction. Turn your fans into marketers and distributors of your content—while letting them interact with their favorite content.

Still cracks me up.

I’ve seen it at work with my own stuff. Way back in 2008, I made a video of an actual seal singing the Seal song “Kiss From A Rose.” It was immediately blocked for copyright infringement. Four years later, I got an email from YouTube that said the video was live again, but with an ad and a link to iTunes. Warner Media Group gets a tiny bit of cash, and I get to share my video. This is a win-win! And the fact that it’s happening after four years leads me to believe that Big Content is growing MORE tolerant of remix culture, not less. So when Trent’s lawyers are claiming that the film studios are desperate to stop his remixes of old movies most people have never heard of, I’m skeptical.

Nope, the studios are pissed because of the many, many films Trent has enjoyed without paying them a dime. Here’s Trent’s response when his lawyer tells him not to pirate anything while the trial is going on:

I smiled back, but I was thinking, Not download? You’re having a laugh, right? I didn’t really stop to count up how much downloading I was likely to do in a given day, but of course, it was an immense load. I probably broke the law a few thousand times a day.

But somehow, during the trial, Trent has the audacity to be offended when they accuse him of serial downloading:

Their lawyer made a big deal out of the number of legal claims that had been laid against me and called me a “compulsive thief” who “could not seem to stop downloading, no matter what the stakes.”… They made me sound like a maniac who pirated everything and anything. It would have been funny if it didn’t make me want to crap my pants with terror.

Yeah, imagine the nerve of that guy calling you a “compulsive thief,” just because you kept downloading after two legal notices telling you to desist and a court order cutting off your internet access, and because you ran away from home in large part to continue downloading stuff, and because you kept downloading while you were being prosecuted for downloading?

How does Trent explain his compulsive behavior?

I left home a year ago, when they took away my family’s Internet access because I wouldn’t stop downloading. I couldn’t stop downloading. I know that sounds stupid, but I was making films, and to make films, I had to download films.

Okay, so his argument is that piracy is the only way he can make his mashups. And since the mashups are art, and art is good, the piracy must be justified. I mean, it’s not like there’s any legal way to get copies of films, right? They don’t just sell them in stores on little silvery discs, do they?

Little known fact: you can BUY copies of movies, for money.

In all honesty, if Doctorow had decided to focus his book on what you’re allowed to do with your own legally purchased content, it would have been much more interesting. Trent could be a kid who spends all his money on DVDs and blu-rays, which he then uses to make remixes. The central question of the book would be whether this is allowed. But Doctorow goes a bridge too far and argues that buying a copy of the copyrighted work is totally unnecessary. To me, this is the difference between supporting Trent and feeling like he’s kind of an entitled ass.

Trent spends all his waking hours remixing the works of fictional movie star Scot Colford, without paying anything for the content. He believes this is his right, because he is an artist. In case you had any residual doubt about this, Colford’s granddaughter reaches out to Trent to bless his work and absolve him of any possible guilt. “We’ve made (and continue to make) plenty of money off Grandad’s works,” she writes him, “notwithstanding your so-called piracy.” One guy pirating hasn’t cut into your royalty check? Then piracy must be a-okay!

So how does this case end up?

The judge only deliberated for forty-five minutes. I wasn’t surprised—the dinosaurs’ case was ironclad.

His Honor was kind, though: he reduced the damages to £152.32: one penny per charge. The entire courtroom laughed when that was announced, and I had to hide my grin.

Look, you knew there was going to be a picture of Jack Sparrow in this post somewhere. Let’s just get past it and move on.

So Doctorow’s happy ending is that the fine for pirating a movie is one penny (technically one British penny, whatever that is). Everyone laughs and laughs about this clear victory of good over evil. But if this is the new precedent, than why would anyone ever bother to pay for a DVD again? And if that’s true, how can the entertainment industry stay in business? Maybe that doesn’t bother Doctorow, since the entertainment industry is just a cabal trying to figure out “how to stay rich if kids go around downloading rubbishy pop music without paying for it,” in the words of one of the characters. Rubbishy! Good riddance!

But here’s the contradiction: this is a book about people who are absolutely obsessed with remixing these “rubbishy” songs and movies into something new. Speaking from personal experience, you don’t spend dozens of hours remixing stuff you think is crap. You do it because you’re inspired. And without copyright law, none of those movies Trent is obsessed with would have been made in the first place. The studios didn’t produce Bikini Trouble in Little Blackpool out of the sheer joy of creation. They did it because there was a business model that made it profitable to do so. This is such a basic, obvious point that I feel silly for pointing it out, but Doctorow’s incredibly one-sided book kind of forces me to.

I’ve read enough of Doctorow’s writing to understand the broad strokes of his position. There is no way to police illegal downloading (according to him) without restricting what computers are allowed to do and policing internet traffic. The idea of machines or systems being purposefully crippled to protect the entertainment industry enrages him. If THAT is the price of copyright enforcement, he says, than it’s not worth it. But decriminalizing piracy ALSO has a price, and we need to balance it against completely unfettered copying. Trent scoffs at the idea that:

… we were taking food out of their kids’ mouths by remixing videos or sharing music, when every kid I knew spent every penny he could find on music as well as downloading more for free.

First of all, at no point in the book does ANYONE pay anything for music. Second of all, I would suggest that these kids should just STOP DOWNLOADING MUSIC AFTER THEY RUN OUT OF MONEY. But finally, I would not be so quick to dismiss the idea that piracy hurts sales. Take a look at the Hong Kong film industry. It used to crank out films at a massive pace in the 80s and 90s. But in China, piracy became mainstream with the introduction of video CDs. Instead of packing cinemas on opening day, people just picked up a bootleg for a fraction of the cost. Today, Hong Kong cinema is a shadow of its former glory, and it’s largely because the audience there is so accustomed to piracy that it’s not worth it for production companies to create new stuff.

That’s the gaping black hole at the center of this book: any sort of acknowledgement that copyright law is IMPORTANT. What he dismisses as “greed,” the entertainment industry would certainly defend as “basic fairness.” Surely Doctorow is grateful for the money he received when Little Brother was optioned, so maybe intellectual property laws are a good thing after all. And if that movie gets made, I’m sure he’d take issue if teenagers started handing out pirated free copies of it outside cineplexes on opening day, as his protagonists do. Oh, did I not mention the single most infuriating part of Pirate Cinema yet?

About halfway through the book, a big Hollywood blockbuster called Milady de Winter Part 18 is opening in London. It is literally the 17th sequel in the series, and Trent admits that everyone he knows goes to see these movies. But he also assures us that the they are a “miserable, festering gush of cinematic puke.” So naturally, this gives Trent and his friends the right to sabotage the film. They load up a thousand thumb drives with a pirated copy of the movie and include this message:

When you go to see terrible shows like this one, you just give money to the people who are destroying our country with corrupt, evil laws. Your children are being sent to jail by laws bought with the money from your purchase. Don’t give them your gold. If you must see this stupid film, do it at home and keep your money for better things. Make your own art.

They distribute the thumb drives outside the movie theater on opening night. Then they watch a reporter interview an outraged motion picture lobbyist while they “cackled like a coop full of stoned hens.” I hate to say this, but if those are Doctorow’s heroes, I’m rooting for the lobbyist.