‘Piracy’: The terminology debate

What’s in a name?

A lot, really. Take the issue of “piracy”—most commonly used in Internet circles to refer to unauthorized distribution of other peoples’ intellectual property. Its use in that sense actually pre-dates the Internet by a considerable length of time (see video at bottom). For a long time, a debate on whether this is an appropriate use of the term has raged.

Representing those who do not think the term is properly used, the Free Software Foundation has this to say:

Publishers often refer to copying they don't approve of as “piracy.” In this way, they imply that it is ethically equivalent to attacking ships on the high seas, kidnapping and murdering the people on them. Based on such propaganda, they have procured laws in most of the world to forbid copying in most (or sometimes all) circumstances. (They are still pressuring to make these prohibitions more complete.)

If you don't believe that copying not approved by the publisher is just like kidnapping and murder, you might prefer not to use the word “piracy” to describe it. Neutral terms such as “unauthorized copying” (or “prohibited copying” for the situation where it is illegal) are available for use instead. Some of us might even prefer to use a positive term such as “sharing information with your neighbor.”

Of course, saying that the Free Software Foundation tends to think intellectual property is a bad idea in general is on the order of calling the Pacific Ocean “slightly damp,” but in a way this illustrates the point: those most inclined to protest the use of the word often tend to be those most inclined to favor the practice, or at least not believe it to be as bad as the content industry thinks. (Similar issues surround the word “theft”.)

For my part, I try to avoid or at least quotate “piracy” when discussing it simply because I feel getting into an argument over terminology muddles the real issue—the unauthorized distribution of other peoples’ intellectual property itself. But in a way it is unavoidable: there just isn’t another suitably pithy name that we can use to describe it.

Now it turns out that some in the content industry are starting to agree that “piracy” is an inappropriate term, but for an unexpected reason: they think it makes illicit content sharing “too sexy.”

Agnete Haaland, the president of the International Actors’ Federation, believes consumers need to be made more aware of the damaging economic and social impact of their illegal activity.

"We should change the word piracy," she told reporters at the unveiling of the report on Wednesday.

"To me, piracy is something adventurous, it makes you think about Johnny Depp. We all want to be a bit like Johnny Depp. But we’re talking about a criminal act. We’re talking about making it impossible to make a living from what you do," she said.

Mike Masnick at TechDirt, where I first noticed this report, has some pointed words for that description, including that in most cases of “piracy”, the copyright violation in question is actually a civil offense. (Of course, she was likely using “criminal” in the looser, “morally reprehensible” sense rather than the strict justice system sense, but even so.)

However, Ms. Haaland is at least a few decades too late to stop the use of that term. I don’t know its exact history (though I did download Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates when the University of Chicago Press offered it free and look forward to reading it), but I know it has been used to refer to unauthorized commercial copying of content for decades. And it is unlikely any suitable replacement term can be found.

I guess the piracy wars will continue.

It’s worth remembering that the content industry has taken issue with “piracy” for decades…but back when it was limited to strictly commercial operations, there was a time when they could still laugh about it…

Related: Review:The Pirate’s Dilemma by Matt Mason

12 Comments on ‘Piracy’: The terminology debate

  1. I’ve never made a living from piracy. I do it on the side! And, as Spain has shown, if you do it for no profit, it’s legal!

  2. According to, pirate has been used to refer to copyright infringement since at least 1913 ( It’s a terminology everyone recognizes and is commonly used. Yes, no surprise the Free Software Foundation doesn’t like it. I’m not huge on it either, but it does the job.

    Rob Preece

  3. I’d love to have a better term. If you come up with one that does the job, I’ll use it! I don’t think prohibited copying will do so, though. It’s a little too unwieldy.

    As for whether the copying is legal without profit, that’s ridiculous. It may not be criminal, but it’s certainly not legal.

    More, I think you have a moral responsibility to abide by that author’s decision about whether a book should be shared for free, or only sold. You may be right that you’re not hurting him or her, but the decision isn’t yours to make.

  4. When you read the history of deep sea piracy you discover they often operated on the edge of the law. If they performed the same actions under a Letter of Marque they were a privateer sharing the bounty with the government.

    They had complex “shares” contracted to split the bounty with investors.

    They had documented compensation for the workers on the ship with payouts for the loss of specific body parts.

    They were actually much closer to the large corporations that are shouting “pirate” then a teenager downloading Avatar in his basement.

    It’s childish name calling.

  5. I wonder why the term “piracy” took over from the more accurate “bootleg” that was used in previous decades. Was it just because the kids decided pirates were cool?

    Websters definition:
    bootleg – 2 : something bootlegged: as a : moonshine b : an unauthorized audio or video recording

    “Unauthorized” copying seems to hit the mark, exactly.

  6. All of this is just an attempt to P.C. the debate, and as such, isn’t worth the debate. Piracy is a perfectly understandable and recognizable word to use for the unauthorized obtaining of goods. Use it.

  7. I don’t know, speaking as an expatriate Georgian, I have a soft spot for ‘bootlegger’. :) My late uncle was… no, never mind. I think I’ll go ‘leg me some major publisher ‘shine. Where did I put that scanner? (sotto voce: “…copper kettles sittin’ side-by-each, copper coil, cuppa’ Georgia peach…”)

    Jack Tingle

  8. Being an Ozark hillbilly, I’ve got moonshiners in my ancestry, too. And a blood feud, for that matter, but that’s another story. :)

  9. Daniel Udsen // March 21, 2010 at 5:51 am //

    I suspect the term piracy in relation to actually software comes from the so called pirate radio stations common in the 50-60ies in europe, Pirate radio stations were normally ship based operating in the safety of international waters just off shore, The terms were as far as i recal my history the term pirates were adopted by the iligit broadcasters to signal their “rebel” status. (they of cause did not pay royalties either)

    This is probably the reason piracy and not bootlegging became the word to descibe napster and successors.

  10. Wikipedia’s entry on “copyright infringement” has changed my mind on the use of the term “piracy”. I didn’t know it had such a long history:

    For electronic and audio-visual media, unauthorized reproduction and distribution is also commonly referred to as piracy (an early reference was made by Daniel Defoe in 1703 when he said of his novel True-born Englishman : “Its being Printed again and again, by Pyrates”). The practice of labeling the act of infringement as “piracy” actually predates copyright itself. Even prior to the 1709 enactment of the Statute of Anne, generally recognized as the first copyright law, the Stationers’ Company of London in 1557 received a Royal Charter giving the company a monopoly on publication and tasking it with enforcing the charter. Those who violated the charter were labeled pirates as early as 1603.

    There may be excessive negative connotations to using “piracy” for ebooks that infringe copyright, but the precedent is 453 years old. And it’s far from the only English word that varies in weight and meaning depending on context. People don’t really think an ebook “pirate” raped and pillaged to get that file on their reading device. 😉

  11. Correction: “the precedent is 453 years old” should be “403 years old”. I mistakenly went from 1557 instead of 1603.

  12. Then how about bandit? Bandit is an Indian (as in from India, not Native American) word for thief. Most of these bandits, or pirates, or whatever they’re called, would probably rather be known as Valjeanists, for the protagonist in “Les Miserables” who was obsessively pursued by Inspector Javert for the “crime” of stealing bread to feed his family. Then again, they might see bandit as cool and rebellious and anti-establishment too, since it conjures images of Ali Baba and kick-ass swordfighting in the desert, or Aladdin getting everything he wanted as a wish without having to actually work for it. (Hm, maybe Obama is a genie out of the lamp?)

    Plunderer connotes violence on the high seas too. Gangster, well, that’s just too hip-hop and Snoop Dogg (as in “gangsta”) or bootlegger fashion plate a la Capone and Dillinger. I don’t think these kids would see it as “uncool” to associate themselves with a bunch of dudes who shot up G-men while in pinstripe suits. Plus there’s the fact that they essentially beat the government, that is if they actually read into history and know the history of Prohibition. It basically all goes back to making something forbidden only makes it more popular. See also: conservatives/church and sex.

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