By , December 08, 2010.

There’s this idea that online piracy is somehow “different” from real-world or traditional piracy. It’s like nothing the world has ever seen before — a paradigm shift that fundamentally changes how content is created and consumed and calls into question the very notion of copyright law.

Online piracy is defended by many and even celebrated by some. Terms like “innovation” are applied frequently to those who discover faster and easier ways to ensure everyone benefits from content except those who spend the time and money creating it. In November, for example, music blog Hypebot asked, “Does litigation drive innovation in music piracy?

On a sidenote, it’s important to distinguish between real innovation and “false innovation.” An airline might be able to cut costs by foregoing maintenance, but we wouldn’t call that move “innovation.”

It’s not hard to find examples of this sort of revelry in “piracy 2.0.”

Last month, a group released a “Pirate Edition” of the file-sharing program Limewire after a court injunction shut down the original version of the software. Those responsible celebrated both the difficulty the content industries have in enforcing their copyrights and the ease in which pirates can recover from any setbacks.

“A horde of piratical monkeys climbed aboard the abandoned ship, mended its sails, polished its cannons and released it FREE to the community to help keep the Gnutella network alive,” say the coders.

“Speaking for myself, the motivation is to make RIAA lawyers cry into their breakfast cereal. I hope the other monkeys have nobler intentions,” says the project leader.

The idea that piracy is a noble cause now that it has moved online, or that this new generation of pirates are more clever than the bootleggers of the past for figuring out ways to evade the law and take all the benefits of the copyright incentive for themselves is silly.

As long as there has been copyright, there has been copyright infringement. And though dissemination of creative works has moved from print to digital, pirates use the same techniques to stay one step ahead of the law.

Nothing illustrates this better than the following selection from Edward Cutler’s 1905 book, A Manual of Musical Copyright Law. (I previously posted a different section in Enemies of Monopoly of Brain-product). Cutler describes a particular method of piracy seen in England over a century ago:

The piracy in recent years of copyright musical compositions and the musical anarchy which, unfortunately, still reigns in this respect, form a disgraceful epoch in the history of English jurisprudence.

Abuses have arisen which would be impossible in any other civilised state, and which hold Great Britain up to derision throughout the civilised world.

In the closing years of the last century some unscrupulous person invented a scheme for robbing the proprietors of copyright (whether composer or publisher) of their just gains.

Wretchedly-got-up versions of songs, carefully chosen from among those which have gained popular favour, are secretly printed and secretly stored in cellars. A few copies are handed out to irresponsible hawkers and are offered for sale by them at a penny or twopence a copy in populous thoroughfares. If interfered with, the dozen or so copies which each hawker has with him are given up. The loss to the thief is inconsiderable. Another hawker in the next street renews the stock and the same game is played out daily.

Another form of the fraud is the house-to-house distribution of lists of pieces of music, from which the householder can choose, and the supply of the pieces chosen at low prices. No printers name or address is found on any of the pieces sold. The people who are responsible for the transaction remain in the background, and in this way many thousands of copies of any popularised pieces of music are got rid of and the legitimate sale of the publication almost, if not entirely, ceases. There appears to be an idea in many people’s minds that these pirates deserve some sort of questionable credit for their ingenious evasion of the law, thereby defeating a vicious monopoly. It is time to undeceive them in this respect. Audacious lying; concealment of addresses, and scuttling away are the laudable means by which these street buccaneers carry out their ends. Ingenious evasion or device there is none, and their boldness would not have succeeded but for the supineness of the Government, the unreasoning sympathy which appears to exist in the minds of a few short-sighted politicians, and the dishonesty of purchasers who knowingly buy the spurious articles. The effect of this wholesale robbery is disastrous.

The publishers (leaving out of the question the most wealthy and old established houses, whose capital enables them to stand the brunt of the competition on unequal terms) are many of them hardworking tradesmen who have invested their small capital in getting together a business, and in purchasing the copyright of one or two songs which offer a probability of success, and they are ruined wholesale. They pay singers to bring their songs before the public, and advertise very largely, only to find that they have been spending their money for the benefit of a pack of thieves, who filch the whole of their profits and entirely stop their sales. Unfortunately the votes of these deserving, but politically insignificant, sufferers can be treated as a “quantité negligeable.”

The parallels between what Cutler is describing and the recent targeting of the domain names of infringing websites are particular acute. Under the DMCA, a website dedicated to infringing activities can continue to operate while each individual copyright owner who finds her work on the site is limited to requesting removal file by file or link by link. The loss to the site is indeed “inconsiderable.”

Executive efforts like Operation in Our Sites and legislative efforts like COICA are more effective at disrupting these types of sites. Obviously, they won’t put an end to piracy: just as people were infringing during Cutler’s time, they will find ways to infringe 100 years from now. And absolutely the content industries must continue to adapt to technological changes and rely primarily on the quality of their work and the attractiveness and convenience of the services they offer.

But, as with every industry, the law plays a necessary role. It’s silly to think the law shouldn’t evolve along with technological changes in order to remain effective against widespread, consumptive infringement.

Special bonus: the next section of Cutler’s book is eerily reminiscent of the events surrounding COICA:

The copyright bill discussed before Lord Monkswell’s Committee contained a clause inserted by the writer conferring upon the owner of copyright power to seize pirated copies of his works. It also gave him power, without applying to any Court, to authorise a police constable to seize the pirated copies which might be taken before a Court of summary jurisdiction and destroyed.

The writer’s clause also contained words enabling the Court to act ex parte; (that is, on the evidence of the complainant alone, without the necessity of summoning the alleged infringer); to make an order for destruction in the absence of the latter. The clause also contained a Provision inflicting a penalty for every piratical sale. Had these two last provisions been allowed to remain, the whole mischief caused by the street pirates would have been remedied; but the words inflicting penalties and giving power to make ex parte orders were struck out, and the Bill eventually became law in a form which is useless. The Statute in question is printed verbatim in the appendix. In consequence of the utter failure of this admirable effort of the Legislature, a Bill was prepared and put into the hands of a private member containing clauses necessary to remedy the abuses. The measure was stifled by the efforts of a member for a Scotch district, who utilised the technicalities of Parliamentary procedure to throw the matter over another session. After endless efforts on the part of those who wished to see justice done, a Parliamentary Committee sat upon the matter, the Scotch member being nominated as one of the members; and again the real merits of the case were stifled, both in the proceedings before the Committee and before the House of Commons. In the latter place the procedure which stops short of the application of closure to a Private Members’ Bill enabled the matter in question to be thrown over to yet another session.


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  2. So, you would defend multi-million dollar verdicts against individual file-sharers as just applications of the law? You think the statutory damages were made with these types of infringers in mind? What happens if the RIAA decides to go after damages for more than the 30 works they tend to sue on? Is the liability unlimited?

    You’re right that infringement has always gone hand-in-hand with copyright (can’t have one with out the other), but it’s naive to say that the current statutory regime is perfectly suited for today’s context. Copyright laws have a history of adapting with technological advances, they need to do so again.

  3. Link to statutory damages

    At least one reason why the current copyright laws will never be respected.

  4. Great article Terry! There is a lot of misinformation spread online regarding the novelty of piracy, whether copyright should be deemed property, and the history of the phrase “intellectual property” in US society. If you haven’t already, I think you’d really enjoy this law review article, which traces the development of these misconceptions and others in glorious detail:

    • Thanks for the kind remarks and for the link to the paper. It is indeed a great examination of many of the misconceptions one finds in debates about copyright — I recommend it to anyone reading this site.

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  6. Lorena Lechliter

    That was certainly to the point. Thanks.