Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow: A Reaction In Several Parts. Part Three

I am almost done chatting about everything which Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow has inspired me to say. This will likely be the final reaction post; I recommend reading Part One and Part Two if you would like to catch up.

So far I’ve disagreed with Doctorow on some of his biggest ideas – that of free content, artistic poverty, and such. But there is one place in which we do have a few square inches of common ground, and that’s draconian copyright law.

A little bit, at least.

In theory, I’m strongly in favor of copyright law. I argued in Part Two that artists, even remix artists, have the right to make money from their work. And copyright law helps protect those artists. If I come across someone attempting to sell copies of Rain of Ash under their own name, copyright law makes it quite easy for me to make them stop. And I appreciate that – if anyone is going to make money from Rain of Ash, it’s going to be me. And all things being equal, I would rather have those protections than not.

Has copyright law gone too far in some cases? Arguably, yes. Technology has advanced to the point where much of our entertainment is no longer tied to one person – one novelist, one musician, one playwright who creates the piece we all enjoy. Rather, today’s entertainment are huge films and games, the work of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people. And the question gets even murkier when it comes to transmedia – who, ultimately owns the copyright to Game of Thrones? George R. R. Martin, obviously – but he doesn’t (as far as I know) hold the copyright to the HBO show. So while the novels may eventually fall into public domain (though hopefully not for a very long time!), when will the show’s copyright expire? Will Halo ever become public domain? Or Lord of the Rings?

It becomes quite obvious that copyright law needs a desperate rewrite so it may catch up with technology and the new(ish) phenomenon of corporations holding copyright in lieu of individuals. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and Halo should eventually fall into the public domain. I’m all for artists making money off their own work, but I’m less enthused about the prospect of an estate making money off their dead relative’s work.

Which is why I feel Pirate Cinema missed a golden opportunity to discuss these issues. Trent’s favorite film creative, Scot Colford, has been dead for several years. Over the course of his multi-decade career, Colford was an actor, director and producer on various projects. There’s some good discussion there to be had regarding which copyrights Colford held, which his estate held, and which each entity deserved to hold.

The book also falls down on permitted uses of copyrighted material. Trent’s works are transformative and/or parody – both protected expressions under current copyright law. Yet the book never really touches on that fact (and I cover the issues of pirating the content he uses for these works in Part Two).

Instead, the book only deals with copyright in the most superficial ways, including wandering into a fallacy which personally irritates me the most about copyright discussions – the assertion that it’s not cool to copyright ideas.

Well, yes.

Copyright law doesn’t cover ideas. I could, if I wanted, sit down and write an epic trilogy about nine companions who undertake a dangerous quest to destroy a magic ring while the forces of evil gather their armies and prepare to destroy civilization. And while critics might accuse me of bad and uninspired writing, as long as I don’t actually lift sentences verbatim or use proper nouns, the Tolkien estate can’t touch me. What’s protected is the work – the actual words as they were formed by the celebrated writer. Someone else could write a novel about a young vampire hunter coping with her sister’s transformation into a vampire, and while I might be irritated and flattered in equal parts, it’s not actually infringement unless they directly copy the work I’ve done by putting words to paper.

By buying into this fallacy, Pirate Cinema misses a really great opportunity to delve into a complex issue; and I was rather disappointed to see the discussion never move beyond the superficial.

While doing some background research for these series of posts, I came across a non-fiction book which Doctorow wrote about the Internet and content; Information Doesn’t Want to be Free: Laws for the Internet AgeThe synopsis is intriguing; I’ll have to read it and give a new reaction once I’m done!

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