In the most high-profile action against the US Senate’s ‘Protect Intellectual Property’ Bill (PIPA) and the House of Representatives’ ‘Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Wikipedia has begun an English language black-out of its main site.
As you’ll know if you read here often, I’m in the depths of a book-length piece on piracy. The aim is to look at the multiple forms of piracy – from Somalia to the internet to music to books to historic figures, fictional heroes and children’s fascination with everything pirate – and formulate some general principles that link all of them together.
It’s an ambitious project, but it’s going well, and I do believe that the thesis is not only a good one, but a timely one too. Piracy, and interest in it, is exploding in all areas of culture and commerce. So it seems high time to think intelligently not just about what piratic activity is going on, but why it is happening.
What I find interesting about these cases is that the US have become the world leaders in trying to battle piracy – and protecting their own intellectual property… and yet this is a country which was founded on pirate principles of minimal copyright. Why? Because the founding fathers understood that progress was only possible if the poorest had free access to knowledge – which at the time meant books. For decades the US refused to sign up to international book copyright agreements.
It seems that PIPA and SOPA are laws designed to protect the wealthy. These are people who have enclosed things that many consider should be part of the ‘commons’ – knowledge, code, biology, songs – and are unwilling to allow access that doesn’t go via their paywall. That may be good for their share price, but is no good for, as Henry Hill the book pirate of 1680 put it, ‘the benefit of the poor.’
The key question that has to be asked is this: why is piracy proliferating? Is it because people are naturally tight, and don’t want to pay? I don’t think so. I think it’s becoming so common because people are so fed up with the narrowed and capitalised world that demands taxation and profit at every turn.
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