Diluting the Value of Piracy

One of the most common arguments seen on geek-news discussion forum Slashdot is over the distinction between copyright infringement and theft. Theft, of course, requires depriving someone of something, which is why we have copyright law in the USA and internationally. One of the tools used for this purpose is the repurposing (or "railroading", if you will) of the word "piracy" to apply both to persons who take naval vessels by force of arms and to infringers of copyright. I propose that we stop supporting this deliberate and misleading act by refusing to repeat the terms being used to demonize copyright infringers, and instead using terms that actually mean something.

In my earlier article on the word "rape" I complained about the PC lobby making it impossible to utilize words in the sense in which they are meant. Here we instead have an entrenched power (copyright cartels) who have an interest in how persons who infringe copyright are treated. These cartels have succeeded in purchasing for themselves a series of laws which extend the period of copyright such that no copyrights have expired since 1923. The most recent of these forays was the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which is often considered to have been specifically for the protection of Mickey Mouse.

So now we come to the real theft here, the true deprivation: our cultural heritage. As pathetic as it might be, America's heritage is one of commercialism. The only thing special about America which caused this was timing; here our forebears were in a land of unimaginable richness, especially if you had come from the cold, rainy, rocky, and deforested United Kingdom, and the technology to sell stuff to people was just being invented. It was a match Made In America, and its legacy is with us today, with the political landscape dominated by corporate interests.

Take "jailbreaking" for example; it is intended to be evocative, and to suggest that the device has been locked up against its will. Unfortunately, the concept of being innocent until proven guilty is far too complicated for many people to comprehend, and so the term simply implies a criminal act. Perhaps a better way to refer to it would be as "freeing" or perhaps "liberation", but I suspect that the best term to use would be "unlocking". If you rented a house, you might be upset to find that the room with the water heater and the furnace in it had been locked, and you couldn't get into it. What if there was a problem that you could fix, and which needed fixing right away? What if you wanted to make minor changes to accommodate an appliance, or just check up on the system? You're really going to want that door unlocked. This is something that the average person can apprehend quickly.

And then, there is piracy. In 1603, Thomas Dekker wrote his first pamphlet, The Wonderfull yeare. In it, he writes "To the Reader" of "Word-pirates" but he seems to me to have been writing of idiots who ought not to publish, parrots and not plagiarists. Indeed, these were unlicensed publishers, and not necessarily copiers at all. Wikipedia (that hallowed hall of entrenched interests) also claims that the term "piracy" has been used to refer to the unauthorized manufacturing and selling of works in copyright, but then proceeds to give a citation which does not support that assertion at all. It is in fact not until the Berne Convention where there is a good citation; the term was simply written into law without explanation. However, the word does not appear anywhere in the text of the current convention, suggesting that the world powers maintaining the unified copyright convention draw a distinction between maritime assault and copyright infringement.

If I steal from you a loaf of bread, you can not eat that loaf of bread. If I steal from you a compact disc, you can no longer listen to the music on it. If I copy that disc, however, you have lost nothing. You may still listen to that disc, break it in half, or sell it. If I would never have bought that disc from you, I have not deprived you of anything but imaginary revenue, to which you are logically entitled to an imaginary payment; imagine away. The situation gets a bit stickier if I then provide copies to another party, unless of course they would never have paid you either. In which case, all you are entitled to is more imaginary revenue. Unless, of course, you manage to get me convicted of criminal copyright infringement, in which case you may be entitled to damages of hundreds or even thousands of dollars per song. It's difficult to imagine how any of this relates to armed assault on the high seas.

A good name to replace "piracy" is a little harder to come up with. You're making two of something out of one of something. Or a thousand of something. Really, it's a kind of miracle! The last guy who doubled what he had and gave it to the people got nailed to a tree, though, so I guess we shouldn't call it "Jesusing", as one wag suggested on the dot. Clearly, however, referring to copyright infringement as piracy is a deliberate and fraudulent attempt to conflate copyright infringement and theft.


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