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[IP] Article: Before you speak of information pirates

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From: Andy Oram <andyo@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: August 16, 2004 6:25:45 AM EDT
To: Upd-discuss@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: [Upd-discuss] Article: Before you speak of information pirates

I thought this article would interest this list. There are
also three comments posted at the URL.



   Before you speak of information pirates

   by Andy Oram

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

   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

   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.

Andy Oram  O'Reilly Media                     email: andyo@xxxxxxxxxxx
Editor     90 Sherman Street                       voice: 617-499-7479
           Cambridge, MA 02140-3233                  fax: 617-661-1116
           USA                         http://www.praxagora.com/andyo/
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