Pirates vs. Publishing Industries: a Stalemate

On: March 18, 2013
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About Crispijn Sleeboom


Scenario #1: Pirates are vicious freeloaders, the artists are their victims and the publishing industries have the artists’ best interests at heart. Scenario #2: the publishing industries are evil, capitalist scum who only care for money, the artists are their victims and the pirates are copyright-bucking rebels who fight for freedom of information and art. When talking about digital piracy, both scenarios are prevalent, depending on whom you ask: either the publishers are the villains, or the pirates are. Contrast and compare: in the article ‘Can Low Self-Control Help with the Understanding of the Software Piracy Problem’ by George E. Higgins, the habit to download illegally is linked to low self-control (a personality trait we traditionally regard as a vice), and downloading illegally is immediately characterized as being a selfish, self-gratifying and, most importantly, criminal act of force; in an interview conducted by Matthew Fuller, Sean Dockray characterizes the publishing world as forcibly introducing scarcity into the system, against the wishes of both the audience and the authors, painting university presses as money-grubbing, mustache-twirling capitalists. These narratives are obviously diametrically opposed, and it should be obvious which parties in this debate are partial to which narrative.




Of course, both of these narratives come with their own little linguistic tricks. Pirates liken themselves to freedom fighters, while the publishing industries liken them to thieves. The artists, whose work is the focus of the debate, are generally torn on which party to side with. It’s not hard to see why: both sides have good arguments to defend themselves with. The publishing industries’ arguments are fairly straightforward: downloading movies, books and music without paying for them is doing the producers of these items a disservice and effectively robbing them of money. According to the letter of the law in the Western world, this is true, and since the ideas of copyright and authorship are deeply ingrained into our public consciousness, this makes this the dominant narrative. Pirates are common thieves. Pirates, naturally, disagree.


According to Kevin F. Steinmetz & Kenneth D. Tunnell in ‘Under the Pixelated Jolly Roger: a Study of On-Line Pirates’, Pirates use so-called techniques of neutralization to subvert the dominant narrative and claim the moral high ground. They have a number of concurrent arguments, which are as follows:

  1. Denial of responsibility, which is basically the same as pleading ‘not guilty’: since the law enforcement can’t actually witness the act of pirating but can only follow the content around on the net, pirates can claim that somebody used their open wireless connection to upload and distribute illegally. This is more a legal argument than a moral one, since it only shifts the blame, and doesn’t actually morally excuse the actions of pirates as a whole.
  2. Denial of injury, where the pirates claims that piracy is a victimless crime. (Then again, this also how guys who have sex with corpes defend themselves.) Basically, they say that downloads don’t significantly harm the profit margins of the publishing industries. This claim has, as of yet, been impossible to verify or deny.
  3. Denial of the victim, where the pirates claim that there’s not really a victim at all. The claim here is that, since the files downloaded are basically immaterial, there’s no genuine theft taking place. This is more a philosophical point, and easily dismissed by pointing out that you are, technically, distributing the fruit of someone’s labor without paying for it.
  4. Condemnation of the Condemners, where the pirates don’t excuse their own actions, but instead paint the actions of the publishers as wrong. By this logic, two wrongs make a right.
  5. Appeal to Higher Loyalties, where the pirates appeal to ideals to defend their actions. Such ideals are Free Culture, antiauthoritarianism, and an idea of anti-copyright.


Pirates generally defend their actions with a combination of the second, third and fifth argument, while also appealing to the audience by allowing them a convenient way to find self-gratification through media. However, since they are a deviant voice in the dominant system, their ideals generally clash with the existing situation. Pirates, for example, want to share products that are of a high quality, have good production values, and are thus expensive to produce, but are unwilling to pay for them. The producing industries, on the other hand, experience a similar clash: pirates are unlawful, but it has turned out to be damned hard for the law to actually catch them.


One of the problems in these two opposing forces might be the fact that tend to dialectally oppose each other. When discussing this topic, both groups define themselves through the other group, using the opponent to place themselves on a moral high ground. This leads (and has led) to an inconclusive stalemate, time and time again. Perhaps it’s time for a synthesis, where the feuding parties set aside their differences and try to work out a more productive way of cooperation, where a compromise between these two different sets of ideals is reached.




Matthew Fuller, ‘In the Paradise of Too Many Books: An Interview with Sean Dockray’, Mute Magazine (May 2011).

George E. Higgins, ‘Can Low Self-Control Help with the Understanding of the Software Piracy Problem’, Deviant  Behavior (2004), p. 1 – 24.

Kevin F. Steinmetz & Kenneth D. Tunnell, ‘Under the Pixelated Jolly Roger: a Study of On-Line Pirates’, Deviant Behavior (November 2012), p. 53 – 67.

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