Don’t Call Me a Pirate, Call Me a… Corsair

Title CardThinking about it, the internet as we know it really is some sort of science fiction. (source: pixivid 2034628)

For those of you who don’t follow the news from Down Under (which one probably won’t do unless they live in the southern hemisphere), you may not know that recently the Australian government passed a law to censor the internet. That may be the most pejorative way to put it, but it’s the basic effect of what I consider to be a very poorly (and perhaps hastily) drafted piece of legislation. In short, rights holders can apply to a judge to have a website with the ‘primary purpose’ of facilitating internet piracy blocked. But I’m not going to spend much time debating the merits of the law—that’s a different piece for perhaps a different time, and the Americans in the audience can get up in arms about freedom of speech then. Instead, I’m going to use this space to talk about terminology. Why the term ‘piracy’ at all?

Full disclosure: I’m a terminal copyright infringer. It’s one of the necessary parts of being an anime blogger, which some of you may know me as (i.e. those of you who only found this blog from being linked from RandomC, the two of you who actually read the ‘About’ section of this blog). Not only do I download digital copies of anime, I also take screenshots from those anime and post them publicly. In copyright purist terms, I’m a grave sinner. Still, production houses are unlikely to come after me, because the work I do is probably good (and free) marketing. This new Australian law, though, is almost definitely going to impact my blogging ability (at least, until I gain tech savvy and find a workaround), so I have certain biases against it.

What I’m really interested in, though, is why we call it ‘piracy’ at all. It’s a wholly inaccurate description of the entire exercise. Internet piracy is about creating unauthorised copies of digital material. Actual piracy, instead, evokes images of grizzled bandits plundering their way across the high seas, flying the Jolly Roger while making prisoners walk the plank, stowing their filthy lucre on inaccessible islands instead of banking it with a discrete financial institution.

I would hazard that these two things are not like each other. Though I’m sure there’s someone who has burnt a bunch of CDs and buried them at some point.

It may seem a pedantic point to argue about the terminology, but terminology colours debates. Consider the famous Betamax case, in which making copies of televisions shows with your VCR wasn’t considered copyright infringement. No, it was ‘time shifting’. Time shifting. That’s brilliant. I hope whichever lawyer came up with that got a raise. If the judges were convinced to refer to copying Sesame Street to watch with your kids later as something damning like ‘piracy’, I’m sure that the case would have turned out very differently.

Whomever managed stick the term, ‘piracy’ surely scored an incredible PR coup. Did you know, pirates (the peg-legged kind) were the original enemies of all mankind? All states were licensed under international law to act against pirates, wherever they may be. That’s right, in a world where all countries invariably hated each other, they agreed on one thing they hated more: piracy. And here we are today. Chinese software rippers are pirates. Some guy who sneaks a video camera into a cinema is a pirate. Every anonymous seeder of a torrent is a pirate. Your grandma who downloaded an mp3 is a pirate. They are all the enemies of all mankind.

It’s likely too late to ever change the term, though, especially since there are those on both sides of the debate who seem to have embraced it. Those representing aging media businesses, since it implies that copyright infringement is plunder and theft (it isn’t). The internet anarchists love it, since it evokes images of swashbuckling in something starring Johnny Depp, and it makes it sound like an incredible anti-authoritarian gesture (it isn’t). For the rest of us, though, I hope that when we’re trying to have an informed debate about copyright, scarce and unpleasant as they are, we will remember what we’re actually talking about when we start slinging phrases of art like ‘piracy’ around without really meaning it.

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3 thoughts on “Don’t Call Me a Pirate, Call Me a… Corsair

  1. Actually, I’ve always been incredibly put-off by contemporary society’s conceptions of copyright and patenting as their conceptions are aimed towards enriching coffers instead of legitimately protecting the ‘origination’ status of individuals’ creations. What copyright and patenting should be about are as extensions and spin-offs of the concepts of slander and libel, where in those cases it’s about grievous, malevolent misinformation of the affected party, whereas copyrights and patents are used to ensure that individuals’ creations are rightfully theirs and cannot be claimed by other parties as originally originating from them. Of course, this premise and definition for copyrights and patents pose their own problems but nevertheless, it should be a move towards a more accurate assessment and execution of law.

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    • Reforming intellectual property law is a whole other, incredibly complicated kettle of fish. The thing is though, there is a school of thought that allowing creators to enrich coffers incentives creation (patent law is designed explicitly to allow patent holders to monetise their creations, for example), and there is some merit to that view. It used to be that copyrights last the lifetime of the creator in order to allow them to make use of their intellectual property. These days, though, the owner of copyrights are increasingly companies, and they do not die like you or I. And the lifetime + 70 years rubbish (Disney’s fault, mostly) does not help. Alas, there are too many vested interests to do much reform of these laws; I doubt the powers that be would agree to loosening the current regime at all, let alone adopt a new (but quite interesting) model like the one you propose.

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      • Indeed, so true. Oh well, even if you can’t influence sweeping change across large or gigantic companies, more so smaller ones, then perhaps it is best that one begins the steps towards change by starting from oneself. As cliched as that sounds yet again.

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