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January 19, 2012

Piracy. In days gone by, it was a word that was used to refer to those blackguards that patrolled the sea, taking ships and treasure where they pleased. They were maligned and malignant. The image that has been passed down to us through novels and film of the fun-loving scoundrel or the incorrigible greedy scamp is far removed from reality. Pirates, by and large, were a bloodthirsty bunch with very little connection to the humanity that they made their prey. Despite the overwhelming amount of tales handed down about pirates, you will never hear one about a pirate who made his money leeching off of the trade routes, and having acquired sufficient wealth, settled down to a palatial dwelling among the gentry. All the tales you will hear or read of those actual pirates are of dirty, greedy vagabonds, spending their money as fast as they find it, spreading it out among whores, tavern owners and gambling establishments. The most successful of the pirates, those names you hear and recognize, Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, all displayed the properties that would be recognized today as psychopathy, unbelievably cruel with an inflated sense of entitlement and no sign of remorse. There was very little to redeem the pirate of yesteryear. About the only thing good that could be said about these cruel scavengers is that they had adopted a democratic system, leaving many matters to a vote and distributing the wealth to each according to his (or her) sacrifice. Though it should be said that this democratic system was often at the mercy of the strongest among them, most closely resembling the hierarchy of a modern-day street gang.
Today the word “piracy” is used to define something else entirely. By international consensus, piracy is used to define those people amongst us that download copyrighted materials without paying the creators, the producers or the distributors. Unlike the pirates of old, maniacal killers that would rob anyone with money, these modern day “pirates” encompass a huge swath of the population. It could be anyone. It could be your brother downloading pornography without paying and storing it in a file on his computer called “Shakespeare”. It could be your mother who downloads the latest film to her computer. It could be your grandmother who wants to hear Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” because it reminds her of your grandfather. It could be your neighbor, your teacher, your minister. The pirates of today are not drunken louts in a sloop firing buckshot into the side of a merchant ship. They are regular people. And they are vilified, cast as the same villainous murderers that patrolled the high seas.
But why should this be? How can the one, the lazy consumer who is not willing to spend money on intangible goods be made to stand alongside the psychopathic killer? Surely, we are told, that theft of “intellectual property” is the same as theft of material property. Can this be true? Should the internet pirate be made to dance the hempen jig on the gallows just as their alleged forbearers did? The question is valid: Are the two equal, theft of property and theft of “intellectual” property?
What is intellectual property? In the broadest sense, it is intangible. It is ideas; it is science; it is art. It is a construct of idea, rather than matter. In the recent past much of this intellectual property was distributed on the back of material: a song was on a disc, a movie on a tape, a book, well, was in a book. Being made of matter, it was required that currency should change hands. Money (which is Time, which is Life) would be paid for the materials and distribution needed to carry the intangible to the world. All of these things have now been reduced to lines of code that can be distributed around the world, in the blink of an eye. The old methods of conveyance are increasingly obsolete. But the companies that once profited off the need to exchange currency for tangible goods have been slow to adapt. Rather than recognizing the direction of the wind, they have taken to demonizing those that have embraced a globally shared culture. They are desperately trying to maintain the profits they once made from information, from ideas. They have pushed forward outlandish copyright laws to maintain control, ensuring that intellectual properties that may find new uses or new audiences, languish in obscurity unless rescued by one of these so-called pirates. Despite their howls of protest at revenue lost, these moneymen seem to have unlimited funds and resources to influence legislation. Rather than taking a pragmatic approach and finding new ways to elicit profit from the public, they seem determined to maintain the status quo and stifle creativity.
Where are the creators in all of this? Where are the artists and boffins that inspire and create? There are some, usually those that profit the most from their art (Metallica, U2, the major movie companies), that cry foul, claiming that their art deserves to be paid for, implying that were it not for the money they would not be artists. I find this a hard pill to swallow. I shake a little with rage to think about it. I have known several top-notch musicians, performers and writers. You will not have heard of them. They pursue their art for the sake of their art. Money does not come into the equation. None of them have been particularly rich, some of them have to work day jobs. But they continue to perform, play or write. It is not a question of money. They are there for one of two reasons, usually both. First, for the delight of their audience, and second, for the delight of themselves. The intersection of art and business has largely been at the behest of the business side. Of course, the rewards that business have offered to art have brought ever increasing numbers of “artists”, who are happy to be complicit in a deal that undermines the very word “art”. Look at the internet. Click around for a few minutes. How much of the content is provided by unpaid volunteers, happy to have a forum in which to voice their opinion, unchecked by the moneyed interests who are looking to expand their bulging bank accounts off the backs of the creators. The internet has become a place of free information, the aggregate of humanity, a moving snapshot of our darkness and our light, of the vile and the beautiful, of the strange and the voiceless, of the pompous and the humble. We are all creators and the moneymen have become irrelevant to the process.
In come the pirates, the greedy psychopaths who have not accumulated enough wealth, growing fat off the work of their stable of creators and determined to keep their steady flow of income coming from the innocent travelers of life. Empty your pockets, ladies and gentleman, and we will treat you with mercy. Try to ignore us and you will regret it.

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