Sites all over the Internet are going dark to show that they object to legislation currently before the US Congress. I’m not American but these words are coming at you from a server in LA, so I guess I can weigh in. I’ll limit my discussion to one word, “Piracy”; what the “P” stands for in SOPA.

Piracy is when people use violence, or the threat of it, to transfer your possessions to themselves (after which you no longer have them), place you in captivity in pursuit of a ransom, and in many cases inflict death on you as a side-effect of their business model. This is a very real problem right now in certain parts of the world, and I have a lot of sympathy with the 18th-century view that summary execution is an appropriate approach to dealing with it; as a backup, of course, to the traditional tactic of blowing their vessels to bits with really big guns.

The activity that the legislation tries (futilely) to prevent is when people who are too cheap or too broke to pay small amounts of money for digital goods under the (often stupid, insulting, and clumsy) terms and conditions imposed by media companies resort to the use of sleazy, inconvenient, illicit distributors to get at those digital goods without paying.

This is not piracy.

Maybe it’s a problem. I personally don’t think so, in the era of iTunes and eBooks and Google Music, but that’s a complex argument around business models and intellectual-property regulation, and I understand that reasonable people can reasonably disagree with me. It is a common political technique to place one’s opponents at a disadvantage by associating them with a damaging label, and that’s what “piracy” is being used for in this context.

But it’s not piracy.

In the big picture, the proposed legislation will be ineffective at preventing sleazebags and broke undergrads from watching movies without paying for them, but it will significantly damage the usefulness of the Internet and provide extremely dangerous openings for censorship and for incumbent oligopolists to resist useful disruption. History teaches us that these openings will be exploited to the maximum extent possible, and in the case of this legislation the maximum extent is frightening.

Dear America: Please don’t do it.

And anyone who claims that unauthorized transmission of bits is analogous to piracy is at least a liar and is deeply disrespectful of the people who are suffering the effects of theft, kidnapping, and murder right now today in the Indian Ocean. They deserve your contempt, and they have mine.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Peter Keane (Jan 17 2012, at 22:37)

You nailed it. thanks.


From: Anne (Jan 18 2012, at 00:22)

The really baffling thing is that there is an act of piracy happening, but the law criminalizes the victim's resistance rather than the perpetrator's actions. This was put really well by the maker of Sita Sings the Blues, who put eleven jazz songs recorded in the early 1900's in her movie. By any stretch of the imagination, these should be in the public domain, but instead underlying zombie intellectual property claims are keeping this music from being heard. She summarizes the problem this way -- if these music companies can keep our cultural music heritage locked up, they can keep us from hearing it, and instead direct us to their new Brittany Spears record.


From: JulesLt (Jan 18 2012, at 04:41)

Definitely a bad word - how did it start??

The more accurate term would be forgery or counterfeiting.

And I do believe there is a definite problem, seeing as I work in an office full of people who earn $80k plus salaries writing software . . . yet think I'm mad for paying for stuff I could get 'for free'. Who are moving to ebook readers 'because I'll never have to buy a book again'. Who download commercial TV 'so I don't have to watch adverts'.

But at least they're honest enough to admit they're parasites on the paying customers.

As for Sita Sings the Blues - I'm ambiguous on this one, much as I am about web companies bleating that their new business models won't fly because the old guard want too much money.

I don't see how you can argue on the one hand that stuff should be in the public domain, while exploiting it on the other.

I can accept the argument coming from academics, or disinterested parties, but not from anyone who has a vested interest in using that content for their own gain - monetary or reputational.

(Or anyone funded by lobbying money from either side of this debate).


From: Martin (Jan 18 2012, at 05:20)

I remember a quote from Tim O'Reilly: "Piracy is a tax on popularity". A lot of indie bands and small budget movies would love be pirated (or distributed) like the Katy or Madonna of this world.


From: Bobby J (Jan 18 2012, at 06:45)

I agree with your overall sentiments, and am staunchly opposed to SOPA and PIPA and have been following them for several months now, but I just want to make a few points:

Regarding the use of the word "piracy" to describe obtaining unauthorized access to works under copyright, it is indeed an unfortunate use in light of violent acts of piracy that are going on today. However, for better or worse it has come to be a standard label for the intellectual property issues we're considering here. What with English being a constantly evolving language and all, it seems a bit pedantic to worry about how the current situation isn't the same as the traditional, "correct" meaning of the word.

I also don't think it's appropriate or necessary to use such emotional terms to describe the people and parties involved in this modern piracy, e.g. "too cheap", "too broke", "sleazebags", "broke undergrads", and "sleazy, inconvenient, illicit distributors". The reasons people turn to non-traditional distribution methods are numerous, including shows/movies/albums/etc. just plain not being available to access in any legal form in a given country, not wanting to wait through 10+ minutes of advertisements at the start of a DVD when trying to put on a movie for your kids, and many other things. And putting aside the broad claims that distributors are sleazy and illicit, to claim that they are inconvenient is dead wrong. In many cases accessing a pirated copy of a particular work is much more convenient than using an official, authorized copy (see DVD example above). The success of iTunes and the huge impact it has had on music piracy, along with the success of Steam and how big of a boon it has been to PC gaming, testify to the fact that if you try to match the convenience of pirating and give your customers access to what they want, when they want it, then a huge portion of them will gladly use the official distribution channels, and will even pay to do so.


From: Dennis (Jan 18 2012, at 06:57)

Tell it to the Pirate Bay. I agree with you about the legislation, but the naming issue is a bit more complicated when some proudly wear the label.


From: Rod Barnes (Jan 18 2012, at 09:54)

I follow your blog regularly as I think you often share things of value -- like this article. So I intend no criticism but am only seeking clarification. I had to read the last paragraph three times - and still came out feeling confused by the last sentence.

The paragraph is clear with identifying those promoting SOPA/PIPA as being deeply disrepectful to those who are truly suffering piracy in the Indian Ocean -- and I agree.

However, the last sentence -- "They deserve your contempt, and they have mine." -- left me confused. Which "They" is meant?

They (the pirates?) deserve your (the promoters of SOPA/PIPA?) contempt, and they (the pirates?) have mine (my contempt). But that didn't really make sense. It makes sense that such pirates would have your contempt but how does that apply to your excoriation of those promoting SOPA/PIPA?

Surely it wasn't intended to say: They (those being preyed upon by pirates) deserve your contempt, and they have mine. But that is how it reads to me since the trailing object of the prior sentences are those being preyed upon.

Maybe you meant: They (those being preyed upon by pirates) deserve your [respect], and they have mine.

Just unclear to me...


From: Nicholas Sushkin (Jan 18 2012, at 11:33)

While downloading and posting copyrighted works on the internet is not piracy per se, everyone knows what you mean by "online piracy", "pirated movie", and so on. No one seriously attaches connotations with murder and ransom to acts of copyright infringement. Why fight words that are now part of the vernacular? You might find some more appropriate words to describe what's going on, but I am not sure it's really worth the effort.


From: BMeph (Jan 18 2012, at 11:50)

To Rod Barnes:

Did it not occur to you that the immediately preceding sentence might have some relevant connection to the one following it?

"anyone who claims that unauthorized transmission of bits is analogous to piracy is at least a liar and is deeply disrespectful of the people who are suffering the effects of theft, kidnapping, and murder right now today in the Indian Ocean."


"They (anyone who claims that unauthorized transmission of bits is analogous to piracy) deserve your (the reader of these words) contempt, and they (the same claimants as mentioned do recall who I mean, right) have mine (that of the author of the blog article, Tim Bray)."

Are we clear, now?


From: David Magda (Jan 18 2012, at 14:54)

The term "piracy" has been used as a synonym for unauthorized copying for a few centuries now, so insisting that it only be used for naval savagery is silly:


From: John Cowan (Jan 18 2012, at 15:17)

JulesLt, you write "I don't see how you can argue on the one hand that stuff should be in the public domain, while exploiting it on the other."

When someone makes a commercial movie based on a play by Shakespeare, who do you think "owns" that play and should be compensated for it? The heirs of Shakespeare? Surely not his publishers, who were pirates one and all. The editions during his lifetime were mostly made from actors' memories of the lines, and the First Folio publishing syndicate paid Shakespeare's heirs precisely nothing.

The English language is likewise in the public domain, so fortunately people all over the world can exploit it commercially without paying a nickel to the English.


From: Jeff Dickey (Jan 18 2012, at 18:09)

(Quoting the comment I made on the post when I +1 it on G+)


Exactly. One of the main reasons, if not THE main reason, why we're as FUBARed as we have been these last few years, as a species, is because we've let tiny, extremely lazy, extremely uncreative groups of people redefine, for their exclusive benefit, the language we use to discuss potential and actual problems that society faces. Whether it's the **AAs, AIPAC, the incumbent in the monopolised should-be-a-market that you care about, the effect is the same. By redefining the language to frame their narrowest, most exclusive benefit as the greatest possible good, otherwise well-meaning people are induced to cheerlead, or at best acquiesce to, evil that does a much larger harm to society as a whole than the preservation of obsolete economic or social models can possibly justify.


From: len (Jan 22 2012, at 19:09)


Maybe it's time to admit that the MegaFreeServers of ExpensiveToProduceDigital media are in the same game as MegaFreePhilanderers of SexWithYourSpouse. Sure, it's not a limited supply but you are spending a lifetime of work keeping it in fresh supply.

IMO as a producer and user, this is still an international copyright issue however it is defined and therefore a treaty obligation. If the question is not how can producers profit by licensed consumption, then it is what actions will a national entity tolerate as acts of predation so defined by treaty and what will it tolerate or assist in response to said actions?

There might good money in turning the tools of the TIC (terrorism industrial complex) into process servers that serve a litigant into noReturnDigitalHell.

It's one thing to chase down a lady making wedding videos out of Paul Simon's Old Friends on YouTube with no ad revenue except what is paid by Google to Paul Simon (and his fortunate legacy intermediaries may they soon all rest in peace). That's stupid. Makes the lady mad and she is a fan and so are her kids. When I post a video, Google obligates me legally and that is all any competent IP attorney needs to do their voodoo. Too much bad law and dumb legal action has been taken where it does a lot of harm just to make a point. What did it achieve? Bad blood.

But leasing out equipment to Universal to blast MegaServer off the air?

No problem.


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