Why we should all pay attention to debates about piracy
In early 2012 there was a wave of protests in the USA against the proposed introduction of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These ranged from petitions and rallies to service blackouts and denial of service attacks. The proclaimed intention of the bills was to protect the rights of copyright holders, but they were heavily criticised for their potential to limit free speech and stifle creativity and innovation. By January 2013 activists were celebrating Internet Freedom Day to mark the anniversary of these protests, which had succeeded in stopping the controversial bills in their tracks.
However, for many people there was little justification for these celebrations. They saw the protesters as radical anarchists defending their right to get something for nothing. Indeed, if official descriptions about copyright pirates and their actions and motivations were taken at face value we would be right to dismiss such protests as the actions of a radical fringe engaged in straightforward property theft.
In my view debates about piracy should be considered as political discussions with far-reaching ramifications - they represent much more than conversations about the morality or illegality of the activities of a minority. Debates surrounding piracy have resonances beyond the issue of whether Western teenagers are able to access the latest episode of Glee or download World War Z. The debate is partly about the divide between those who are able to participate in a global society through their online access to cultural materials and those that are not. It is also concerns the [End Page 71] way large corporations profit from intellectual property rights as commodities. And, increasingly, it intersects with issues of privacy: a number of activists and political groups have been vocal about the potential of legal changes ostensibly intended to curtail piracy to enable greater levels of surveillance and censorship.
One of my main reasons for writing this article is to point out that, although SOPA is no more, this does not mean that further anti-piracy measures have not subsequently grown up in its place. And there is now a growing international movement to resist the creeping enclosure of culture by global corporations. Political pirate parties (on which more below) have sprung up across the world, and after a conference in Brussels in 2010 they joined together to form Pirate Parties International, an NGO that boasts 42 members. And a number of other organisations are also concerned with promoting the rights of individuals in the digital age, including the Open Rights Group in the UK and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US.
Piracy: definitions and deviance
Before getting deeper into the argument that piracy is something that concerns us all, I need first to take umbrage at the term itself, not only on the grounds that its meaning is loaded, but also because it has been carefully constructed by certain actors and organisations so as to frame the debate and thereby dictate in advance the bounds of acceptable behaviour. Discussions about piracy are often stalled by the competing ideological and moral standpoints of those who enter the debate. In particular, the moral judgments of particular groups are often reflected in the terminology that they use; words that seem innocuous on the face of it are seen to be deeply ideological when examined in detail.
The term piracy originally referred to robbing ships at sea, and the pirate was a cut-throat opportunist who sacked ships for personal gain. Over time, this definition has expanded, and piracy now also refers to the unauthorised duplication of materials protected by copyright. There is also a range of synonyms for the activity of unauthorised copying of copyrighted works - such as file sharing, copyright theft and bootlegging - each of which carries differing connotations. Bootlegging is now seen as rather anachronistic, and has largely fallen out of fashion as a description of acts of copyright violation. File sharing, on the other hand, brings with it as many misleading associations as the term piracy. It implies that works are not [End Page 72] copied and illegally distributed, rather that they...