Who are You Calling a Pirate?: Shaping Public Discourse in the Intellectual Property Debates
Brandeis University Department of English Eighth Annual Graduate Conference, 2010
10 Pages Posted: 22 Oct 2010
Date Written: October 22, 2010
To describe an activity as “piracy” is to code it as violent, avaricious, and unjustified. The word’s etymology in the Hellenistic Greek peirân, “to assault,” emphasizes the physical force involved. Later usage added the connotation of theft. Today, the term is applied to two groups that could hardly be more dissimilar. One group takes hostages at sea and sometimes harms them; the other, on a home computer, downloads songs and software without paying for them.
This paper argues that the use of the word “piracy” by members of the content industry, such as recording companies, betrays an effort to naturalize a notion of intellectual property that has historically been rejected by courts in the English-speaking world. This notion holds that intellectual property is analogous to any material good and that, as a consequence, acquiring it without the permission of its creator is theft. We contend, in contrast, that this analogy between physical property and intellectual property is troubled for a number of reasons. Moreover, referring to violations of copyright law as “piracy” in public and legal discourse can, by rhetorically invoking the bloody anomie of maritime piracy, promote the unsupported notion that intellectual property protections are as natural as prohibitions of violent theft. This rhetorical legerdemain obscures intellectual property laws’ constructedness and papers over any gaps that exist between the letter of the law and the values of the citizens to whom it applies.
Keywords: Copyright, Music Piracy, Literary Piracy, Literary Criticism, Piracy
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