Against Piracy

I am opposed to the draconian form copyright has taken. The political process has been taken over by corporations – organizations whose legal responsibility places the interests of society beneath those of their shareholders (as Enron and other corporate scandals have shown, often they do not manage even that). Copyright has become a threat to democracy, freedom and justice. However, I do not believe that piracy is a constructive response.

First, piracy reinforces the mass media model in which most people are comparatively passive consumers of creative goods produced by large corporations. Worse, in so far as media consumers add value to these works – by word of mouth advertising, for example, or by using them in their own creative endeavors – this only serves to increase the value of the original work, and hence the wealth and power of the copyright holders. To this extent, piracy does more harm than good.

Second, while there are many valuable creative and political uses for copyrighted material, any such work is contraband. It is tainted by the act of piracy that gives it birth; its ability to act in society is therefore typically severely circumscribed.

Third, benefiting by breaking the law is not an effective form of protest – civil disobedience requires consequences. Although the bad guys are are certainly capable of inventing excuses to rewrite the law – Alberto Gonzales’s hysterical claim that piracy funds terrorism springs to mind – there’s no need to help them.

There are exceptions of course – the mass distribution of Eyes on the Prize in protest of the corporate theft of history is one of them. But such situations are rare. Most illegal copying is less an act of “fighting the man” than of reinforcing his power. Copyfighters would better direct their efforts to expanding the commons (e.g. through the creation of share-alike Creative Commons licensed work) than distracting themselves with copying someone else’s work.

That said, I shed no tears for Sony or Disney when they are “victims” of copyright infringement.