I have just finished reading Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow, and I have a lot I’d like to say about it. So much that this is the first in a series of ruminations on copyright and artistic issues inspired by the book.
First up: this is not a review. I thought the book quite excellent, and highly recommend it. Five stars! You should read it!
However, I still disagree with the core ideas of Pirate Cinema. While it’s a well-written book, it’s a well-written book which supports a philosophy I disagree with. It’s that philosophy I’ll be discussing.
Synopsis (spoilery): Trent is a teenager, living in semi-poverty in the north of England. He spends most of his time illegally downloading movies, then recutting them to create his own films. The book is set Twenty Minutes into the Future; when the Internet has become as necessary for daily living as running water or trash service. And with this greater reliance on the Internet comes more draconian restrictions on it’s use. As a result of Trent’s illegal activity, his family is cut off from home Internet for a year. This makes life nearly impossible for his parents (who need it for their work or to access medical benefits) and his sister Cora (who relies on Internet for her schoolwork). Ashamed of how he’s harmed his family, Trent runs away to London. He soon meets up with a vagabond named Jem and later a beautiful activist named Twenty (whom he starts dating). Jem and Trent (now going by the nom de film Cecil B. DeVil) become squatters in an abandoned pub. They do most of their grocery shopping in the trash bins behind high-end stores and any income they receive comes from panhandling. Due to his relationship with Twenty, Trent/Cecil finds himself drawn into protesting various draconian copyright laws. Whereas Trent’s earlier illegal downloading “only” cut his family off from the Internet for a year, a proposed new law would have earned him an extended prison sentence. The latter half of the book is Trent fighting for the repeal of this law while also dealing with a lawsuit which Big Content has levied against him for copyright infringement. In the end, the draconian copyright law is repealed, and Trent only has to pay a pittance for his copyright infringement.
Part One of this response/reaction will be dedicated to issues of property rights, both material and intellectual.
Trent makes his money through panhandling, squats in an abandoned building and gets most of his food by raiding grocery store dumpsters for expired or slightly damaged food. Trent and Jem do get kicked out of their pub-home and Jem ends up serving a short stint in prison for stealing electricity. However, the two of them (and others) eventually reassume residency once Jem figures out a legal way to obtain electricity. And after Trent’s laptop is stolen, he manages to acquire a new one by building it out of discarded and barely-obsolete parts. And, of course, the downloading. Trent comments at one point that he downloads illegal content at least several times a day; and designs his custom-build laptop specifically to hide this piracy.
So, Trent’s view of property rights as it comes to material possessions seems to be fairly casual. If a thing has been discarded, whether that thing is land or food or computer parts, he is entitled to pick it up and use it. He feels no shame in asking others for money; but it never once occurs to him that he could get more money if he were willing to take it by force. He’ll accept only what has been given.
I cannot wholly disagree with this stance, especially when it comes to food and shelter. If you own something and decide it is of no further value to you, and relinquish your property rights by discarding the item, you cannot then reassert those rights if someone else comes along and picks up the thing you threw away. I won’t stand in the way of someone feeding or housing themselves in ways which do not cause harm to others.
Trent’s relationship to electricity is a little more nuanced. He’s made homeless after getting in trouble for stealing electricity to wire up the abandoned pub. However, even though electricity is even more critical to a high quality of life than Internet, Trent never speaks one word of resentment for being made to pay for electricity. He spends many pages describing how Internet has so transformed society that it’s become just as much a public utility as electricity. But while he does pay for his electricity eventually, he complains much more about being asked to pay for content. Jem’s plan to pay their electric bill is instead presented as a clever way of sticking it to the man. If it makes you feel subversive to pay your electricity bill with a prepaid card… more power to you, I guess?
So far, I don’t have many quibbles about Trent’s attitudes to property rights. However, when it comes to intellectual property, this is where he and I diverge.
We’re never told just what Trent has been pirating, except that he tends to steal films featuring, in some way, the fictional actor Scot Colford. Trent is a fan of Colford’s work, and spends much of his time tracking down even obscure PSAs featuring the actor.
This is the part I have a problem with.
Intellectual property is still property, even if it’s not as tangible as a banknote, a house or a sandwich. Electricity isn’t a tangible product, either, but Trent still feels it’s just to pay his bills. There’s very little explanation given as to why Trent feels entitled to access this property for free over other types of property.
In one scene, piracy is spoken of not as a means to an end, but a moral duty – that every offering from every movie studio must be pirated until those studios are driven out of business. There’s a strong feeling that the studios are ‘too rich’, and using their power to unjustly impose harsh penalties for content pirates by swaying Parliament to pass unpopular and draconian copyright laws. But political corruption is a pervasive and nasty reality which pervades most issues. I’m not sure that the solution to political corruption is to bankrupt movie studios.
Another argument, brought up at another point, is that films and music and such are culture, and that asking people to pay for access to their own culture is morally wrong. To which I shall point to the Fuck You Pay Me meme which occasionally circulates among my artist friends (and, I imagine, other circles of creatives). The main point of which is, artists deserve to get paid for their work. Culture is not created in a vacuum; it’s the product of hard work by creative people. People who spent hours on their projects. And they deserve to be paid. Living in an abandoned pub and eating food found in dumpsters while stealing your artistic supplies may be a sustainable business model for a teenager in Britain, but it’s not something every filmmaker, writer, painter, musician or poet can do.
Not to mention the implication that ‘true’ art means living in poverty.
If you make good art, people should be willing to pay for it. You deserve to make money. Anne Rice, Felicia Day, Jennifer Lawrence and even Stephanie Meyer deserve every penny of wealth they have. Because they made things that other people found to be of value, and spent money on. Doctorow, to his credit, has made all of his books available for free; and many other artists happily give away their work. But simply because I can watch content on Geek & Sundry for free doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have to pay Netflix to watch Doctor Who. I have a free story, which anyone may read, but I also want to get paid for Rain of Ash.
Is it wrong that people who can’t pay for culture are unable to access it? Perhaps. It’s certainly unfair. But there is literally more culture in the world than any one person has the time to absorb and experience. And not all of it is locked behind a paywall. Public libraries exist, and have even begun to include video games in their catalogs.
I’ll also point out that paying for culture becomes less onerous in a more equitable society. If the issue is that too many people can’t afford to watch Star Wars, and so get locked out of those cultural conversations, then the real issue is why so many people can’t afford a movie ticket. Piracy is not the solution.
But this blog post has gone on quite long enough. Suffice to say, content is valuable, and if you like something, you should pay for it if that’s what the creator is asking you to do.
Coming later: More on copyright, as well as thoughts on remix culture and open source anything.