Artistic liberty, Internet freedom, downloading, State surveillance, copyright and government control: An Appreciation of Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema, the 2013 Prometheus Award winner for Best Novel

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear what makes each winner deserve recognition as notable pro-freedom sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society is presenting a series of weekly Appreciations of past award-winners.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema, the 2013 Prometheus Award winner for Best Novel, along with excerpts from Doctorow’s illuminating acceptance speech:

In Pirate Cinema, an optimistic young-adult novel, Cory Doctorow explores themes of artistic freedom, Internet freedom and peaceful social change – key issues for modern libertarians, especially the latter, since non-aggression is the fundamental axiom in libertarianism as a political and social philosophy affirming cooperation over coercion and voluntary private interactions over the force and enforcement entailed by the institutionalized violence of the unbridled State.

The story also sheds light on other libertarian issues of copyright and government surveillance in its focus on a young pirate filmmaker whose Internet activity threatens his family with government reprisals and who learns to fight back against outdated forms of control.

Trent, a brilliant 16-year-old, loves to make movies on his computer by downloading popular films from the Internet and reassembling the footage – which in near-future Britain, is highly illegal.

Such “pirate” criminals are punished, after being caught three times, with the cut off of their family’s entire household for a year from the Internet, with its associated work, school, financial and health benefits.

When Trent is caught, his family is nearly destroyed and he runs away to survive on the streets, where he joins artists and activists fighting a new oppressive government bill that will incarcerate many people, including minors.

Yet, the seemingly all-powerful government, in thrall to media conglomerates, doesn’t foresee the potential power of the people and the creative abilities of artists and rebels to use art to communicate and persuade people to change their minds.

That “power of the people” to voluntarily associate in cooperative ventures (in society and through markets) actually embodies core values of  modern libertarianism, which champions cooperation over coercion and therefore is especially wary of abuses of power by and through the institutionalized coercion of the State.

Note: Doctorow has won three Prometheus Awards for Best Novel, including for Little Brother in 2009 and Homeland in 2014.

Cory Doctorow (Creative Commons license)

Doctorow, a Canadian sf writer, also was nominated for Prometheus Awards for Best Novel for Makers  (2010), For the Win  (2011) and Walkaway  (2018).

Here are excerpts from Cory Doctorow’s Prometheus Awards acceptance speech, later printed in the Prometheus quarterly (Vol. 32, No. 1, 2013):

“When I started thinking critically about copyright and the Internet, I came at it as an artist, thinking about what I knew about creativity. I came out of science fiction, where we’ve been ripping each other’s ideas and storylines and titles off since the earliest pulp era, to the great benefit of our genre.

Of course remixing is the heart of creativity. Of course we stand on the shoulders of giants. As the protagonist of this novel remarks, “creativity means combining two things in a way that no one has ever thought of combining them before,” or as my mentor Judith Merril wrote in her Hugo-winning memoir Better to Have Loved:

“Whereas in other literary fields you wouldn’t dare take an idea from another writer and use it, because that would be considered plagiarism, science fiction people loved to build on each other’s stories. The business of giving away ideas and promoting other people’s work was part of the community at large.”

But as the years went by and the fight wore on, I realized that I was coming at it from a very parochial angle. Earning a living in the arts is an unlikely thing, and adapting Internet regulation to maximize the benefit of the miniscule minority of professional artists was flat-out insane. After all, the Internet is the nervous system of the 21st century — everything we do today involves the Internet and everything we do tomorrow will require it. The rules that govern the Internet ultimately regulate every corner of human existence, from falling in love to getting an education to electing a government to organizing the street-protests that bring that government down again.

“Once you get to thinking of things that way, you start to realize that even if the absence of rules that imposed unaccountable censorship and universal surveillance and the subversion of the integrity of the computers in our pockets, walls and bodies meant the end of the entertainment industry and my relegation to the breadline, they’d still be worth it.

“Now, I happen to think we can go on creating even in a world where we’re not allowed to spy on everyone and break their computers to make sure they’re not listening to music or watching TV or reading books the wrong way. I happen to think that we can guarantee a living to a comparably sized, statistically insignificant rump of would-be artists, even without the power to secretly and unaccountably censor the Internet. But even if that weren’t the case, we should still throw out censorship, surveillance and control as unfit for purpose.

“This year has seen incredible revelations about the scope and scale of the global Internet surveillance and the total lack of adult supervision for the world’s clutch of depraved spooks. We’ve known about mass surveillance for three presidential administrations, since Mark Klein bravely blew the whistle on AT&T’s work with the NSA in 2005, but the Snowden leaks have blown the lid off things and given the stalled court actions over Klein’s leaks the momentum they need to push forward.

“But even if we beat back the spooks, even if we kick Big Content in the pants and send them packing, the fight’s just getting started. Every single problem everyone has from now on will involve the Internet, because the Internet will be woven into every facet of our lives. Every problem will suggest the solution that coked-up Hollyweird fatcats and the creeps who read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a manual for statecraft arrived at: just break the Internet so that my problem goes away.

“This fight is getting started, and it has no end in sight. Organizations like EFF and the ACLU and the Free Software Foundation and Fight for the Future are the best bulwark we have against the special pleading that says, “If I don’t get to redesign the Internet to solve my problems, there’s going to be trouble.”

“Thank you very, very much for this honor. Pirate Cinema just keeps on getting more topical, and I hope that your recognition will help it spread to the places it needs to be heard, and help to create a generation who’ll stand up for the network we all depend upon.”

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciations of the next novels to be recognized with a Prometheus Awards: Cory Doctorow’s Homeland and Ramez Naam’s Nexus, the two 2014 winners for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the long run) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.


Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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