Maker Hacker

Ye Olde Tech Pirates

How the term for sea-faring swashbucklers became synonymous with illegal downloaders.

Pirates are popularly defined as individuals who attack and rob ships at sea. Think Treasure Island, Captain Morgan, and Pirates of the Caribbean. But today, the pirate label is equally applied to individuals who copy, distribute, or download copyrighted materials online. How can pirates be both swarthy, eye-patch-wearing privateers and average, movie-downloading teenagers?

You might think that this unlikely comparison is a relatively new development, a bit of linguistic sleight-of-hand concocted by corporations in order to cast anyone with an un-purchased music file as a murdering scoundrel. You’d be wrong. Well, half wrong.

As long as there have been copyrights, copyright-infringing individuals have been called pirates. Actually, the phrase “Word-pirates” was first used to describe unlicensed book printers in 1603, about a century before modern-style copyrights were officially recognized by law:

“Banish these Word-pirates, (you sacred mistresses of learning) into the gulfe of Barbarisme: doome them euerlastingly to liue among dunces…”

The above words were penned by dramatist Thomas Dekker in his popular plague pamphlet The Wonderful Yeare. 1603. and they refer to renegade book publishers who were not members of the Stationers’ Company of London. You see, in 1557, the powerful Stationers’ Company (imagine a British book-printing mafia) was granted a Royal Charter giving them a monopoly over the publishing industry. Part of this was the understanding that when a member of the Company claimed ownership of a particular text, no one else was allowed to print it.

painting by Daniel Maclise, "Caxton showing the first specimen of his printing to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth at the Almonry, Westminster"

Painting by Daniel Maclise of a 15th century printer with King Edward IV

In this budding age of intellectual property, the metaphor of the pirate-publisher flourished. By the early 1700’s, illegally reproduced books were commonly called “pirate editions.” Even Daniel Defoe, author of what is considered the first modern novel, discussed book piracy in his introduction to True Born Englishman, saying:

“Had I wrote it for the Gain of the Press, I should have been concern’d at its being Printed again and again, by Pyrates, as they call them, and Paragraph-Men…”

The whole issue of copying the work of others was non-existent until the printing press became widely used. Before this, most books had to be handwritten and hand-copied. Few distinctions were drawn between the work of the original author and the additions and “improvements” of the hand who copied it. But once book printing became a major industry, its moneymaking intellectual property had to be protected.

The 1709 Statute of Anne gave publishers the copyright over content for 14 years (with an option to renew for another 14) during which time only their licensed printers could copy and distribute the work. After this period, the work fell into the public domain and could be printed by anyone. In 1886, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works replaced the Statue of Anne and explicitly addressed copyright piracy, saying:

“Pirated works may be seized on importation into those countries of the Union where the original work enjoys legal protection”
Avast! This 1906 advertisement for copyright registration services clearly warns against pirates.]

Avast! This 1906 advertisement for copyright services clearly warns against pirates.

By the 20th century, intellectual piracy was an established concept in popular parlance, and one readily applied to the new and novel practice of illegally distributing copyrighted software online. With the advent of personal computers came the rise of entire subcultures dedicated to collecting, trading, and exchanging copyrighted “warez” over Bulletin Board Systems, the Internet, and other networks. Almost as rapidly, software companies labeled these individuals pirates, and came up with elaborate codes and encryptions in an attempt to outsmart the folks who would copy their software.

In response, many of these budding hackers banded together, embracing the pirate label (one group even published their own digital magazine on piracy) and working to successfully crack software encryptions. For a time, it looked like the pirates had the upper hand. One 1983 article in the New York Times concluded:

“…the software industry, like the recording industry, is learning that a certain level of piracy is just a cost of doing business.”

However, not all hackers ignored the negative implications of the term “pirate.” Richard Stallman, a prominent programmer and Co-Founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has been an ardent advocate for the freedom to distribute and modify computer software. For years, Stallman has warned against using “pirate” as a self-descriptor:

“Publishers often refer to copying they don’t approve of as “piracy.” In this way, they imply that it is ethically equivalent to attacking ships on the high seas, kidnapping and murdering the people on them. Based on such propaganda, they have procured laws in most of the world to forbid copying in most (or sometimes all) circumstances.”

It is interesting to note that today, many copyright-holding corporations have succeeded in expanding the pirate label to include those who take and use illegal copies, in addition to the pirates who copied it in the first place. One study created in 2012 by a coalition of software companies categorizes 57% of all computer users as pirates. This is like saying that anyone who read one of those 18th century “pirated” books was as guilty of copyright infringement as the renegade publishers who printed them.

In early 2012, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) became embroiled in controversy for espousing just such an expanded definition of piracy. The bill essentially labeled any site containing pirated content to be guilty of copyright infringement, arguing that Internet Service Providers should block these sites. The general public reacted passionately to stop the bill. Thousands of websites and millions of people came together—not in defense of online piracy—but in defense of internet freedom.

The new shift in this linguistic trend is not the internet’s close association of the word “pirate” but rather this troubling expansion. Over the centuries, the pirate label has grown to include swarthy swashbucklers, Elizabethan book printers, 19th century invention stealers, and clever software copiers. Only time will tell how its use will change over the next four hundred years.

These pirates got you hooked? Here’s more:

Time Travel

PIRATE magazine, issue 1
A surprisingly retro glimpse into the early years of online piracy


Simon Klose’s 2013 documentary following the court case against The Pirate Bay


The Cathedral and the Bazaar
Eric S. Raymond’s iconic essay on open source software engineering

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