Protect our Noble Pirates! On Pirating for the Greater Good.

On: March 16, 2013
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About Ingrid van der Mooren


What comes to mind when you think about piracy? Being but a simple new media-layman myself, my mind wanders off to the joy the free ‘file-sharing’ program Limewire († 2010) brought me in my teenage years and, more recently, downloading the newest episode of HBO’s Girls every Monday night. So yes, ambitiously heading for a career in publishing, it’s definitely time for me to get to know a bit more about this hotly debated internet phenomenon.

And that’s where I made my first mistake: piracy isn’t just restricted to the online world. In fact, as Adrian Johns, professor at the University of Chicago and author of several books on piracy, states in an attempt to sketch a historical outline of the piracy phenomenon, piracy can be dated back to the early modern period, owing its origin to the invention of the printing press by Johan Gutenberg in 1448. It wasn’t until the twentieth century, with the emerging of new media, that the notions of piracy and literary property became untwined from printing and the press.[1]

So then, what is piracy, exactly? Defining piracy is a tricky matter, as different stakeholders have different views.[2] According to Johns, the standard definition is as follows:

“the commercial violation of legally sanctioned intellectual property.”[3]

However, piracy is becoming more and more a political issue, something that even the European Union finds necessary to conduct research on and define (be it rather simple: “whatever the knowledge industries said they need protection from”.) Of course, piracy, with the infringement of intellectual property of others, has always been a politically loaded subject. But with the world’s information shift to the internet and the increasingly widespread opportunities to infringe, the stakeholders’ need to gain control over these illegal activities grows.

A legal way of addressing piracy is through intellectual property rights (IPR). In his essay on IPR, lecturer and post-doctoral researcher at Lund University Yiannis Mylonas discusses these rights critically, as he addresses “capitalism’s ‘organic’ and strategic colonization of fundamental social commons, such as culture, intellectual goods, as well as human creativity and communication” through IPR legislation. He concludes:

“Criticism addresses the political character of IP norms and laws, and contextualizes IP policies in broader undemocratic processes defining contemporary social order. Socio–political thought and knowledge behind the free and innovative praxis of multitudes is necessary.”[4]

From this point of view, you could almost say that piracy is an illegal, but morally justified part of the open access philosophy; regardless of your social status or resources, you should be able to access free culture, without begin held back by “capitalist ends”. The difference between the two is that open access is legal, while piracy is not. This is what caused online library of scholarly books to shut down, and, eventually, Aaron Swartz to commit suicide, depressed by his possible imprisonment and $1 million fine. Both were simply using new technologies for information sharing; and after all, according to this article, “sharing is caring” and we “pirate to learn”.

Of course, there are less noble ends to pirating files. Lawrence Liang, a legal researcher who specializes in copyright, addresses this when he speaks of ‘commercial piracy’. According to Liang, pirating occurs most within the domain of pleasure. Although the piracy described above is illegal, it is in fact morally accepted by most. This isn’t the case with commercial piracy, which lacks pragmatic justification; it simply fulfils consumers’ desires. Or, as Liang states:

“While one finds easier justifications for transgressions that deal with questions of livelihood and survival, and in the case of intellectual property, easier justification for transgressions that appeal to claims to free speech and access to information, when the matter involves is about new subjectivities and pleasurable transgression, the issue gets very differently framed.”[5]

So evidently, we can and do distinguish between different kinds of piracy: piracy for “the greater good”, and piracy for individual pleasure. And evidently, we judge these kinds differently as well. So isn’t it time to incorporate our moral and pragmatic justifications into the legal system somehow? I know, I’m but a layman, and intellectual property legislation isn’t exactly my area of expertise. But the pirates, they are us. So perhaps it’s up to us to make a difference.


[1] Adrian Johns, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 1-55.

[2] Nathaniel Poor, ‘When Firms Encourage Copying: Cultural Borrowing as Standard Practice in Game Spaces’, International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 689–709.

[3] Johns 2009, p 6.

[4] Yiannis Mylonas, ‘Accumulation, control and contingency: A critical review of intellectual property rights’ “piracy”’, First Monday 16:12 (2011).

[5] Lawrence Liang, ‘Beyond Representation: The Figure of the Pirate’, in Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski (eds) Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property, New York: Zone, 2010, pp. 353-375.

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