In an age of digital technology and networks spanning the entire globe, the copying and distribution of everything that can be reduced to a computer file — in other words, almost everything — has become easier than ever. Dark times have come upon the gatekeeper seeking to profit from the distribution of content. When the internet itself is the gatekeeper, it essentially costs the user nothing to make and distribute copies. The result is that a growing number of people are becoming “pirates” (as those who copy culture outside the limits of the law are frequently called).
The disruption of the existing system of gatekeepers, and along with it the raison d’être of many people and companies, has made the debate on piracy more controversial today than ever before. Yet the themes addressed in the debate, just as the character of the cultural pirate himself, has a surprisingly long history.
The first known pirate was St. Columba, who in the mid 6th century founded a scriptorium in monastery in Durrow. The problems started when Columba saw that his teacher, St. Finnian, had brought home a psalter after a visit to Rome. Columba copied the manuscript at night, hiding the fact from the watchful owner.
When Finnian learned of the copy, he immediately demanded that it be turned over to him. Columba refused, and the matter was taken before the court of Diarmaita Mac Cerbhaila. If we are to believe historical accounts of the proceedings, Columba had the following to say in his defense: “My friend’s claim seeks to apply a worn out law to a new reality. Books are different to other possessions and the law should recognise this. Learned men like us, who have received a new heritage of knowledge through books, have an obligation to spread that knowledge, by copying and distributing those books far and wide. I haven’t used up Finnian’s book by copying it. (…) Nor has it decreased in value because I made a transcript of it. The knowledge in books should be available to anybody who wants to read them and has the skills or is worthy to do so. (…) I acted for the good of society in general and neither Finnian nor his book were harmed.” Does that sound familiar?
Contemporary supporters of the decriminalisation of piracy voice similar arguments. It his hard to deny the benefits brought by popular access to knowledge and culture. Sadly, over one and a half thousand years since its start, the debate remains at its starting point; the context has changed, but the feeling is that a “worn out law” is being applied to a new reality. The law resembles the ruling of the Irish king, who is said to have stated: “To every cow its calf and to every book its copy. The child of Finnian’s book belongs to him.” Today, in nearly every discussion on copyright law, the copying of immaterial files is compared to the theft of watches, bicycles, and cars. The efficacy of the rulings is comparable as well: Columba didn’t return the book, instead cursing the king and defeating his army at the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne.
“The history of the content industry is a history of piracy. Every important sector of ‘big media’ today — film, records, radio, and cable TV — was born of a kind of piracy so defined,” notes Lawrence Lessig in his book Free Culture. Hollywood was founded by outlaws seeking to evade the licensing fees charged by Edison’s trust, which owned the rights to the Kinetograph. The inventor’s company was based in new Jersey, and had no control over what happened on the West Coast, which made California an obvious choice. In any case, the United States was a pirate nation prior to 1891. Its legal system did not recognise the copyright of foreigners, and pirate editions of British books were published, to the detriment of such authors as Charles Dickens.
What’s different today is that almost everyone — not just rebellious publishers and producers — is a pirate. According to a poll conducted by the Central Statistical Office, 20% of all Poles and over 50% of Poles aged 18–24 admit to downloading multimedia content off the internet. Thus, in his latest book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Lessig calls for us to come to terms with piracy and to replace the fight against pirates with a system that would provide royalties to artists. Otherwise, he says, we risk branding an entire generation as a band of pirates.
The problem with the term “pirate” is that it inspires violent solutions to the challenges posed by mass copying. According to Lessig, the ongoing “war on piracy” makes it impossible to recognise the positive aspects stemming from increased participation in culture or to assess the damage caused by pirates in a realistic manner. Or to understand that pirates are often harmless and have simply resorted to illegal copying in response to harsh, unrealistic laws.
At the same time, the term “pirate” is being reclaimed. More and more people are identifying with what was once a derogatory label, as can bee seen in the success of European Pirate Parties. Once a criminal, the pirate has become a person who simply doesn’t believe in the current intellectual property system. Interestingly, attitudes towards piracy aren’t unanimously hostile on the other side of the barricade. Three years ago, a Disney executive described piracy as “just another business model”. Paolo Coelho publicly praises piracy, secretly uploading his books onto peer-to-peer networks. George Lucas pays close attention to pirated mash-ups of Star Wars, threatening the creators of the poorer films with litigation while extending offers for collaboration to the authors of the best pieces.
The growing number of people joining the pirate movement are a sign that it’s high time we reorganise our copyright laws. Symbolic culture isn’t the only thing at stake. Yet another revolution is sure to come in the not-to-distant future, one that will make St. Columba’s claims regarding the exceptional status of media a thing of the past. The copying of physical objects will soon become just as straightforward as the copying of digital goods is today. Neil Gershenfeld predicts the coming of an era in which objects once manufactured through industrial methods will be made by craftsmen or even individuals in their own homes. The key elements will no longer be the raw materials or equipment, but the designs, diagrams, and formulas for particular objects. If we fail to learn from the history of copyright law, the development of culture may once again be bogged down with conflicts, witch-hunts, and lawsuits against pirates.
translated by Arthur Barys