Illegal Art: A Review of Pirate Cinema

Who owns the Internet?  Is access to it a right? A privilege? Who can take away our access to the web, and for what reasons? These questions come into center focus in Cory Doctorow's brilliant novel Pirate Cinema.  It's the story of Trent, a dedicated film-maker who is bursting with creativity and dedication.  The problem, though, is that the material he uses to make his films is copyrighted footage that's been illegally downloaded from the net.

At 16, Trent is a putting his entire family in danger with his downloading, and when his family is cut off from Internet access due to his activities -- his dad can't work, his mom can't make the doctor appointments she desperately needs to manage her chronic pain, and his bright younger sister can't study for exams -- Trent can't deal with the guilt.  He runs away. But this is not a typical runaway story.  This is not a novel about joining a gang and living by force or starting a violent revolution against the powers that be.  This is a story about community, making art, falling in love, trying to change the world, and strong coffee.

The debate about intellectual property might seem dry and abstract when we hear about laws such as PIPA and SOPA, but in the only slightly futuristic London that Doctorow portrays, the laws about how citizens can use the Internet are portrayed clearly and dramatically.  His realistic characters explore important philosophical, ethical, and cultural questions: Whose rights are more important -- the rights of citizens to survive and function, or the rights of a few companies to protect immense profits? What is creativity?  Who owns culture? Who really controls government?

Although these meaty questions are addressed, this novel is by no means a pedantic preach-fest.  It is a heady and action-filled adventure that is raunchy, suspenseful, humorous, sweet, and above all, realistic.  Trent and his rag-tag group of friends running the Pirate Cinema are full of hopes and dreams, fears and hormones.  I heartily recommend this book to 10th-12 graders, especially those who are film enthusiasts or who are particularly interested in net neutrality or Internet freedom.

Heads-up: This book contains language you wouldn't use in front of your grandmother, and characters engage in mild drug use and sex, but there is nothing graphic or disturbing.  There are simply choices characters make that we get to examine to see whether they seem to be good choices or not.