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Saturday, October 20, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

Book review
'Pirate Cinema': Cory Doctorow's novel of creativity, copyright and protest

By Nisi Shawl
Special to The Seattle Times

"Film is a universal language," claim the ads of an international independent film distributor. In "Pirate Cinema" (Tor, 384 pp., $19.99), author and digital-rights activist Cory Doctorow's latest young-adult novel, that's a given. What's at stake is who is allowed to speak.

Who owns the images that are the words of this universal language?

Who can use them to form sentences, put forth new propositions, tell tales their originators never imagined?

Sixteen-year-old Trent McCauley, "Pirate Cinema's" hero, obsessively edits together illegally downloaded footage of a dead movie star, so the authorities block his family's access to the Internet. In the book's near-future British scenario, that means no work for his father, no disability benefits for his mother, no educational resources for his younger sister. It means their lives are ruined.

Fleeing the consequences of his artistic compulsion, Trent finds himself on the streets of London with fellow scofflaw "pirates," eating from trash bins, "squatting" — living communally in an abandoned building — and calling himself "Cecil B. DeVil" (after classic Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille). And continuing to cut and paste images of his idol into ever more ambitious movies.

Recounting Trent's/Cecil's inevitable collisions with increasingly draconian copyright laws, Doctorow zigzags through high and low drama, from thriller-like protest coordination, to anarchic parties in graveyards and sewers, to cellars packed with crowds of sweating rabble. The struggle against the corporate manipulation of governments is one clearly dear to the author's heart. Doctorow frames the conflict over copyright in these terms, and his passion for his topic is infectious.

Other things happen in this novel: first love, loss, the usual heartbreak and exhilaration of adolescence, but what really matters — to the characters and to us — is whether Cecil and his new friends are free to create their art.

Is what they do truly creative, though? Can a person make art of their own using the output of others? These are the sorts of questions many real-life artists are debating right now, questions that make "Pirate Cinema's" story potentially interesting to a wider audience than the teens to whom it's marketed. If the world abandons the concept of intellectual property, if people no longer own what they paint, write, compose, etc., how can they make a living by doing what they do and then selling it? If Ursula K. Le Guin gave away her books on the Internet as Doctorow does, why would anyone bother buying them? How would she ever earn any royalties?

Doctorow has Cecil theorize that the laws criminalizing his collagelike movies are obsolete because creative methods have changed: "Maybe from now on, creativity means combining two things in a way that no one has ever thought of combining them before." Cecil's pal Jem prefers to think of their escapades as "good, honest thieving." His sister, Cora, downplays creativity's importance compared to the work of realizing an artistic vision, saying: "we're all creative. We come up with weird and interesting ideas all the time ... Ideas are easy. Doing stuff is hard."

Following arguments like these can be fun. Along with its other attractions — David-and-Goliath-like encounters between kids and rich lawyers, epic feasts on jellied eels and other gourmet garbage finds, shivery alley escape routes — "Pirate Cinema" offers ample and appetizing food for thought.

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