Let's Drop this Insulting €œDigital Piracy€� Meme

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Until recently, piracy referred to the lawless times and characters of the 17th and 18th centuries – or, if closer to the present, to artful/humorous representations of them in books, theatre and film. This has allowed the media industries to appropriate the historical term, and re-fashion it for their own purposes. And they have been highly successful: even normally sane journalists now write about “software piracy”, or “music piracy”.

It has been hard to fight against this mental laziness, because nobody really cared about the distinction between piracy and copyright infringement – which is what the media industries are really talking about. But just how outrageous this misuse of language – and history – is becomes clear in the light of recent events off the coast of Somalia, where true pirates are operating.

For example, consider this email with the subject line “BSA Launches Faces of Piracy Campaign” (BSA = Business Software Alliance), reproduced on this blog post:

We've all been following the events of the past week of the pirates off the Horn of Africa. Piracy takes many forms, some more violent than others. I wanted to let you know that the Business Software Alliance is launching a new campaign today "Faces of Internet Piracy" that shows the real-life impact of software piracy--from hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to jail time.

This callous linking of life-threatening events off the coast of Africa, with digital copyright infringement, which doesn't even involve the loss of material objects, since perfect copies can be produced without affecting the original, is cynical in the extreme. It shows to what depths the BSA has sunk if it is able to equate the two.

I'm not the only one who has noticed, this of course. As well as the post linked to above, here's a comment from the New York Times' Freakonomics column:

In light of the recent spate of Somali pirate attacks (here’s one interesting long view, and here’s another), I wonder if it’s time to start calling “digital piracy” something else.

It was a clever name, at least in the beginning. Hijacked movies, music, games, even books — yeah, it’s the outlaws taking from the establishment, creating some wealth for the common man, yada yada. But in recent weeks, as real-life pirate attacks have gained in intensity, violence, and geopolitical meaning, talking about digital thieves as pirates has come to seem clever to a fault, and inaccurate too.

But after that good start, the post goes off the rails:

So should we rename it? Neither “e-theft” nor “d-theft” (for “electronic” and “digital,” respectively) are any good; they’re too bland and too broad. Maybe “dobbery,” as in digital robbery?

This misses the point completely: that there is *no* theft or robbery involved – nothing is stolen, nothing is taken. Rather, a government-granted monopoly has been infringed upon. And to those that say this represents lost sales, there is evidence that shared copies of music, for example, act as marketing for that music, and actually *increase* sales, not decrease them.

So perhaps instead of “digital piracy”, we should really be talking about “digital philanthropy". In any case, it's certainly time to drop the stupid “piracy” meme, and to put it back to where it belongs: on the high seas.

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