Since the US Navy rescued Captain Richard Phillips in April, many news outlets have been writing about piracy. Historically, piracy has always been a nautical pursuit that was a way of life, an activity once so commonplace that it has been referred to as one of the world's oldest professions. The term "piracy" was codified into American legal language in 1891, when West Publishing Co released the first edition of Henry Campbell Black's A Dictionary of Law. The first primary definition for "piracy" in Black's is robbery or forcible depredation on the high seas, without lawful authority in the spirit and intention of universal hostility. Copyright law was never meant to become a tool only benefiting corporate copyright owners exclusively, but it has become just that, in no small part due to the frame of piracy.
22 InformationToday June 2009 www.infotoday.com some problems with this definition: For ex- Intellectual Property ample, the naval scholar Rubin noted in his book that this definition refers to ille- Why the Frame of ‘Piracy’ Matters gal acts, yet fails to address the law by which illegality would be determined. Still, the UNCLOS definition remains consis- tent with the concept of violent theft at sea. by K. MATTHEW DAMES | of the Caribbean) are inconsistent with booksellers in the 17th century into a com- In the end, the primary definition of pi- the term’s native meaning. plaint about American theft of literature racy always has essentially meant forcible S ince the U.S. Navy rescued Capt. Scholar Alfred P. Rubin’s The Law of from British writers such as Dickens and taking at sea. But how did piracy become Richard Phillips in April, many Piracy, a comprehensive history of piracy, Tennyson in the 18th and 19th centuries. connected to copyright and other forms of news outlets have been writing contends that the practice of piracy orig- At the time America declared its indepen- intellectual property? about piracy. Interestingly, some news inally had a positive (even proud) repu- dence from Britain, many books that cir- outlets have raised an impor- tation. During the 10th and 9th culated in the country were imported, and tant question about “piracy” as centuries B.C. in Greece, small copyright laws were virtually nonexistent Connecting ‘Piracy’ to IP a term: In light of the ongoing groups routinely engaged in until Connecticut passed the country’s Since the first edition of Black’s, “pi- (and newly newsworthy) threat the organized use of force; this first legislation intended to protect an au- racy” also has had a secondary definition of violence on the high seas, was an activity seen merely as thor’s work. Several of the colonial states that synonymizes piracy with IP theft. As should “piracy” continue to be part of citizens’ struggle for followed with their own copyright laws. Henry Campbell Black wrote in 1898, the used to mean theft of works survival rather than anything term “piracy” “is also applied to the illicit that are protected by copyright immoral or illegal. Those who reprinting or reproduction of a copyrighted or other forms of intellectual engaged in piracy seized es- ‘Piracy’ and the Law book or print or to unlawful plagiarism property (IP)? sential goods, but the practice The term “piracy” was codified into from it.” This definition is consistent with Stephen J. Dubner, a co- K. Matthew Dames was not limited to necessities, American legal language in 1891, when the 1798 case Beckford v. Hood, one of author of The New York Times’ since pirates also seized goods West Publishing Co. released the first American law’s first case citations that Freakonomics blog, was one of the first merely for gain. Whether for need or sport, edition of Henry Campbell Black’s A Dic- invoked “piracy” as a proxy for unautho- to pose the question openly. In his April piracy served as a wholly legitimate alter- tionary of Law. Also known from its in- rized copying. In Beckford, the court char- 13 post, Dubner even asked his audience native to Greece’s main gift-exchange eco- ception as Black’s Law Dictionary (or just acterized the case’s primary issue (an to suggest substitute names. When he fol- nomic transfer system. In this way, piracy Black’s), Black’s has long maintained a unauthorized commercial republication lowed up with another post on April 17, was an original underground economy. reputation as the pre-eminent legal dic- of a book) as “an action upon the case for he elected the term “downlifting” as the lin- The word peirato first appeared in tionary for American law. piracy of copyright.” guistic successor to “piracy.” Dubner’s ar- Greek literature about 140 B.C., when it The first primary definition for “piracy” But connecting “piracy” to copyright ticle followed a pithy analysis by blogger was applied to political and economic com- in Black’s is “robbery or forcible depreda- has as much to do with historical develop- Jenny Kakasuleff of the Indianapolis Lib- munities on the Mediterranean seashore. tion on the high seas, without lawful au- ments in this country as the law. Accord- eral Examiner. Kakasuleff’s post was the Rubin claims the peirato formed com- thority … in the spirit and intention of uni- ing to Oren Bracha, a University of Texas first I saw this year that questioned the munities, had religious rites, and handed versal hostility.” Black’s has defined piracy law professor and author of a 2008 study wisdom of using “piracy” within the con- down musical traditions as did many other primarily in the same way through its titled “The Ideology of Authorship Revis- text of IP, and the timeline on her post social and political groups that existed sixth edition. Black’s current editor-in-chief ited,” copyright law began changing in the suggests she addressed this issue 10 hours in that period. Its members saw their ac- Bryan Garner simplified the definition in late 18th century from being a publisher’s before Dubner. Better yet, her lede was tions as proper and legitimate. Further, the seventh edition, but the simplification privilege to being an author’s right in his flat-out entertaining: few other communities considered peirato did not alter the word’s basic, primary or her creative and intellectual work. as outlaws: The term was applied to tra- meaning: violent theft at sea. The eighth, Copyright changed again in the 19th cen- When I heard that “piracy” was ditional Eastern Mediterranean societies and current, edition of Black’s retains the tury, evolving from being an author’s right the latest buzz word to light up the that others had accepted as legitimate for same primary definition as the seventh to being considered a general ownership of world wide web, I thought for sure at least 1,000 years. edition. In the end, the primary definition creative works. This construct of general Lars Ulrich had summoned Con- The Oxford English Dictionary traces of “piracy” throughout the history of Black’s ownership, along with the nascent com- gress to bellyache about how fans the first English appearance of the word Law Dictionary has never meant anything moditization of books, established copy- like Metallica’s music so much that to John of Trevisa, an Oxford-educated but violent theft at sea. This is consistent right as the protective regime for origi- they—gasp—download it for their translator of early encyclopedias. In 1387, with part of the core definiti
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