The origin of the term “piracy” dates back to the thirteenth century when rogue seamen who intercepted merchant and military vessels to rob them of their cargo were known as “pirates.” In the early eighteenth century, the term took on a new meaning, referring to the unauthorized use of intellectual property. Images of the swashbuckling pirate are still reproduced in popular culture today: in movies, television programs, romance novels, and theme parks. By the late 1900s, the term had been loosened from its original meaning and become the primary descriptor of the unauthorized use of copyrighted works, patents, and trademarks. By the early years of the twenty-first century, the most common usage of the term piracy had come to signify unauthorized uses of intellectual property via the Internet and sale of CDs, DVDs, and computer software on the black market. While seafaring pirates pilfered material property to keep or resell, piracy of intellectual property involves the infringing appropriation of immaterial goods, including creative and intellectual works.
The distinction between piracy of material goods and that of intellectual property is essential to the understanding of the term “piracy” and its actual practice. The theft of material goods deprived the owner of cargo or land that could not be recovered without force. However, the distinctive feature of the theft of immaterial goods, such as intellectual and artistic creativity, is inherent in the nature of the product, which is easy and cheap to reproduce. Copyright law created a dichotomy between an “idea” and its “expression,” the former being unprotected by intellectual property law and the latter protected by its embodiment in tangible form. Thomas Jefferson wrote of ideas and informational goods as eminently sharable, comparable to lighting another person’s candle from one’s own, giving the other light but not leaving oneself in the dark. Jefferson was referring to what economists now call “public goods,” which allow joint or nonrival consumption by all potential consumers. The costs of producing a book, film, or recording are primarily incurred during the production of an original text. After that, the costs of reproducing copies drops significantly and the text becomes prone to piracy. This is why, under capitalism, state intervention to protect intellectual property became essential.
The function of intellectual property law therefore is to protect artistic and intellectual creativity from those who make unauthorized copies at the expense of both the actual creators and the owners of the means of communication and production. The latter ultimately decide what gets produced, and this involves the transfer of intellectual and artistic works to capitalists who control the systems of production and distribution. In Marxian terms, the labor of the artist, intellectual, or inventor is appropriated for the purpose of making a profit, and the actual creators end up being exploited by the appropriation of their work. Like factory workers, intellectual and artistic workers are not compensated for the value of their work; the factory worker puts in eight hours of labor but is paid for only six. The remainder is profit for the capitalist, meaning that piracy actually begins at the level of production and then moves to the level of unauthorized reproduction.
Media piracy began with the rise of the book publishing industry after the invention of movable type. European governments sought to control book piracy through the licensing of printers to help promote the development of an infant industry. In return, printers and publishers agreed not to publish seditious or heretical works. However, the monopoly prices and profits earned by licensed book publishers inspired literary piracy by unlicensed entrepreneurs seeking a share of the industry’s fortunes. This began a trend rooted in the structure of capitalism involving conflicts between big and small capital over unauthorized use of intellectual property, battles waged primarily at the industrial level. In addition to books, small capital pirated vaudeville acts, motion pictures, and musical recordings on a regular basis. At the same time, the United States sought to protect copyrights and patents held by national industries while refusing to grant protection to foreign works and inventions until the late nineteenth century.
The infringement of intellectual property protected by copyrights and patents grew more intense as the means of communication evolved. Struggles over the control of copyrights and patents at the industrial level were waged between oligopolies and peripheral firms engaged in various forms of intellectual property. By the mid-twentieth century, new communications technologies opened the doors to unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted works in the home and the office. Starting with the introduction of reel-to-reel tape recording and photocopying, intellectual property owners began to lose control over the uses and users of their works. The trend accelerated with the development of music cassette tapes and then the introduction of the VCR in the mid-1970s. While new home and office technologies generated piracy on a mass scale, industrial piracy of music and movies became a problem for intellectual property owners on a global scale. At the start of the twenty-first century, the unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted works – computer software, recorded music and movies – became rampant, especially in China and Russia. As the major exporter of intellectual property, the US turned to international forums such as the World Trade Organization to combat global piracy.
In the late 1990s intellectual property owners faced a new front in controlling their works – the Internet. The music industry was the first to face infringing uses of its property. First, central servers such as Napster made the piracy of music cheap and easy. The music industry was successful in shutting down Napster, but by then Internet users had begun to use peer-to-peer systems to share music files to engage in copyright infringement. The copyright industries (software producers, music companies, and movie studios) fought piracy using litigation, legislation, digital rights management, and marketing to protect their intellectual property. Their efforts have begun to pay off with services such as iTunes and video on demand. The logic of capital and the logic of intellectual property go hand in hand, despite Jefferson’s reminder that the sharing of information and culture could spread light.
- Bettig, R. (1996). Copyrighting culture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Bettig, R. (2003). Copyright and the commodification of culture. Media Development, 1, 3–9.
- Bowles, S., & Edwards, R. (1985). Understanding capitalism. New York: Harper and Row.
- Jefferson, T. (1985). The portable Thomas Jefferson. New York: Penguin.
- Segrave, K. (2003). Piracy in the motion picture industry. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.