People who casually use the term “piracy” to refer to the unauthorized exchange of copyrighted music, movies, books, and software would gain a deeper understanding of the terms they use by picking up the highly readable book Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age by Marcus Rediker. This recently released study (Beacon Press, ISBN 0-8070-5024-5) describes the lives and political significance of pirates at the period of their greatest growth during the early eighteenth century.
Pirates, in Rediker’s analysis, were more than just thieves. They created an alternative way to regard work, society, and life’s pleasures in an economically and religiously repressive age.
By the eighteenth century, pirates–their ranks fortified by political dissidents and utopian communalists–had created an on-board ethos of democracy, sharing, and mutual insurance. (They created the earliest social security system.) This is in contrast to the military and trading ships of the day, ruled by absolutist captains who cheated their staff, kept food and water rations criminally low, and freely employed the whip.
The pirates treated people of all races equally, in contrast to the racist practices of their opponents that reached its extreme in slave trading. The pirates admitted women to their ranks and apparently were sexually loose.
The pirates spoke consciously and articulately about the oppression of sailors and others by the sinfully rich capitalists and traders of their time, and refused to be placated by the religious platitudes of such status-quo philosophers as Cotton Mather. (In fact, Cotton Mather admitted to some extent that the pirates were right.)
Rediker does not prettify pirates. He says forthright they were not just bandits and murderers but also terrorists–in the sense that they used violence to create fear and bend others to their will. Still, they possessed a sense of justice and chivalry that is usually missing from modern military engagements.
Pirates were dissolute, destructive, and often drunk. But this represented an excess of their basic vision of freedom: freedom from masters, freedom from the fear of sin, freedom from hunger.
Is it difficult to find a common thread between the villification of eighteenth-century pirates and the villification of people who trade or illegally sell music, moves, books, and software today? Like the old pirates, the information traders create a bounty from the work of others (the artists and writers). But at the same time, they create a new vision of information democracy that contrasts positively with the control freaks and commercial cynicism of the mainstream media conglomerates.
Information traders promote diversity, by allowing people to sample dated and unusual works. In an age where radio stations and movie studios bend their offerings to the profit-based goals of an increasingly small number of owners, this is crucial. Information traders also allow communities to form around works–something studios would like to do but are usually too controlling and hidebound to carry off.
Do information traders hurt the industry, as studios and software manufacturers like to claim? Well, revenues for music and movies are going down. But figuring out what lies behind that statistic is a tough undertaking.
It could be–as many claim–that people aren’t buying much because studios are just suppressing innovation and desperately putting out warmed-over imitations of the same lousy junk year after year.
It could also be–as others claim–that in a bad economy, people aren’t so willing to pay the inflated prices charged for the CDs and movies.
Or it could be–as the studios claim–that people use shared or illegally sold copies instead of paying their fair royalties. This claim has to be weighed against a massive amount of anecdotal evidence–such as everybody I’ve heard talk about their downloading–that says people buy more CDs when they get a chance to sample music online for free. Information traders therefore drive forward the entertainment industry. Low-cost authorized music services may eventually take advantage of this trend. But it’s hard to imagine any authorized service offering the wealth of obscure and challenging works one can get from unauthorized networks.
In emerging economies, anyway, the main source of infringement is not peer-to-peer downloading, but conventional copying and distribution. This phenomenon should have been considered by music and movie executives when digital media first emerged; anyone worth his six-figure salary would have prepared a business case to deal with it.
Villians of All Nations, in showing the environment that created, and was in turn created by, the illegal behavior of one generation, provides much food for thought in our own age, whose direction is increasingly dominated by a wide range of illegal behavior: undocumented immigrants, squatting, drug dealing, arms smuggling, money laundering, terrorism, and–yes–actual sea-based piracy. But in particular, Villians of All Nations can deepen the debate around unauthorized information trading.
Is there an upside to piracy?