If you come from a land down under, you may be familiar with a bit of a kerfuffle in Oz. Last month, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government released a “discussion paper” on the topic of “Online Copyright Infringement.” Abbott’s paper called for Australia’s leading Internet providers to police so-called “digital piracy,” and in so doing, kicked up quite a Barney, mate.
This, of course, is just the latest in a long string of stories on the subject of “digital piracy,” a phrase which is often bruited about reflexively, without much thought being given to what is being said. One would think that when it comes to discussing copyright infringement, it would be obvious that “piracy” is a metaphor — yet Craven is constantly surprised by the number of people who seem to believe that a pimple-faced adolescent illicitly downloading a Beyonce mp3 is actually, somehow, similar to, say, Captain William Kidd looting the Cara Merchant.
So, to clarify that “piracy” is merely a metaphor when referring to copyright infringement, and to humbly suggest it may be a poor one at that, I submit the following list of five ways digital pirates are not like real pirates:
1. When a digital pirate “steals” something, he or she is making a copy, not removing the thing itself. Imagine if Hayreddin Barbarossa, the infamous16th Century Ottoman pirate, sacked a Spanish galleon — but left in its place a perfect replica of the ship, manned by the same crew, and identical down to the last gold doubloon. That would be equivalent to modern digital piracy.
2. Very few modern digital copyright infringers have peg legs.
3. Some copyright watchdogs claim that every illegal download is a “stolen sale.” In other words, our hypothetical Noxzema-using digital “pirate” from four paragraphs ago, in their view, is stealing the equivalent of what that Beyonce track would cost on, for example, iTunes. But by this way of thinking, the micro SD card in Craven’s smartphone, which holds hundreds and hundreds of (legally purchased!) mp3s on it, would be valued at well over a thousand bucks. If I lost the blamed thing, I daresay my insurance company would tell me otherwise. In the digital realm, cost has been divorced from the object itself.
4. Real pirates used eye patches. Digital pirates use software patches.
5. When Blackbeard plundered Charleston, South Carolina, the city was much the poorer for it. Real world piracy means diminished returns for the businesses affected. But such has not always proven to be the case in instances of digital piracy. In 2001, author Paulo Coelho put a pirated Russian translation of his famous novel, “The Alchemist,” online for free download without his publisher’s consent. Almost immediately, Russian sales of the book skyrocketed, going from 10,000 in 2001, to over 100,000 a year later. Similarly, studies have shown that digital music “pirates” legally buy up to 30-percent more music than non-”pirates.”
So are there ways in which the metaphor of “piracy” is appropriate for copyright infringement? Craven can think of one: In both cases, the pirates are hunted and hounded by business interests who perceive their riches as being threatened by a lawless class of picaroons. In most ways, digital copyright infringers are nothing like pirates, but in that way, matey, indeed they arrrrrrr.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.