Right To Art: Cory Doctorow’s “Pirate Cinema”

“I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong” – Jay-Z, “Takeover”, from 2001’s “The Blueprint”, which itself contains samples of The Doors “Five to One” (which contains the lyric “no one here gets out alive” which became the title of a Jim Morrison biography, so either I’ve proved the point I want to make or I’m mind-clicking into a twisty little maze of passages)

Cory Doctorow’s “Pirate Cinema” is both a great book and an important book. It’s a great, quick read with a story that bounces and bounds along, sprinkled with the right mixture of Doctorow’s adopted British culture and legal and technical exposition And there are kissy scenes, at which Doctorow has become increasingly adept with successive novels. Dealing with copyright and the current, frightening trend toward more draconian enforcement and broad interpretation of copyright laws, it’s an important book – everyone should read it. If you didn’t know that it’s now illegal to unlock a cell phone in the US, start reading.

The actions and events portrayed in “Pirate Cinema”, however fictionalized, are based in reality. They are the result of a set of industries that don’t understand how culture is spread and discovered, or even how new art is made. Intense copyright enforcement is not just an assault on our ability to enjoy and share and ideally influence others to buy and refine their cultural tastes, it’s a frontal assault on art in general. To quote from an email exchange with Cory shortly after I finished the book, “Referencing and remixing is inherent to all art.” I have to believe that, somewhere, Dizzy Gillespie smiles every time a jazz musician drops “Salt Peanuts” into a solo or shout chorus, and the reason that Phish fans feel compelled to document every song tease that peppers a live show is that for a few seconds, we’re all in on the reference and joke. When xkcd references Jay-Z with a perl and Unix command line riff, the pointers now make a cyclic graph. And that’s a good thing, even though I had to explain it to a co-worker yesterday (who heard Jay-Z for the first time, so I have completed my musical civic duty for the week).

Art has always been about sampling, out of respect or honor or a tip of the beret to the first guys to try something. Recognizing the value of remixing and reassembly puts required recognition on creativity, not just content. Is Claus Oldenberg less of an artist or cultural icon because Split Button samples the non-Amish approved part of a men’s shirt? When I finished “Pirate Cinema” my first thought was “This is the Barry Ulanov moment for digital content” — Ulanov being the critic who propelled bebop artists out of the jazz canon of the time.

Salt Peanuts, Salt Peanuts entered our vernacular as a result. What else are we missing by dampening creativity, or ignoring the artistic life lessons of a self referential copyright fairy tale?

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