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Don't fear the pirates

Illegal downloaders of music and movies are at the forefront of technology—and it's time the industries caught up.

Globe and Mail Update

In 1701, Daniel Defoe wrote the satirical poem The True-Born Englishman, and it was a sensation. It was the bestselling poem of its day, but a large number of those sales didn't put any money into Defoe's pockets. This was a shame, because Defoe really could have used the cash. He had had money problems for a long time and was just managing to climb out of a bankruptcy as an estimated 80,000 unauthorized copies of his poem were being distributed. As far as we know, the people who made those copies and sold them in the streets are the first intellectual property thieves in history ever to be referred to as "pirates."

As charged with meaning as the word "pirate" is today, it held a bit more power in Defoe's time: 1701 was also the year that Captain Kidd was tried and hanged in London for murder and piracy on the high seas. His body was placed in a steel cage and hung over the Thames for two years as a warning to other would-be pirates. (Obviously the Recording Industry Association of America has nothing on the English Crown when it comes to intimidation.)

Defoe, however, was not very upset by the piracy of his work. In 1703, he published a corrected edition of the famous poem, and in the preface he wrote: "I should have been concerned at its being printed again and again by pirates, as they call them, and paragraph-men; but would that
they do it justice and print it true according to the copy, they are welcome to sell it for a penny if they please."

Even though the pirates hadn't made Defoe rich, they had done him a huge favour: They made his words available to the general public much more cheaply than the publishing monopolies of the day would allow. This wide readership helped establish his literary reputation, making him one of the most famous men in England and assuring that his future works would find an audience. Even the King befriended him. For much of the rest of his life, Defoe would refer to himself simply as the author of The True-Born Englishman.

There's a lot we can learn from Defoe's example. While it's definitely not right that someone should have their intellectual property stolen or used without their permission—especially so that someone else can profit off of it—history teaches us that we generally stand to gain as much from piracy as we stand to lose. Yet almost without exception, movie, software, recording and publishing companies are gripped by an irrational fear of piracy that leads them to make decisions that are bad for their customers and, ultimately, destructive to themselves.

The history of media innovation for the last hundred years is essentially a history of gadgets that have been considered at one time or another to be "pirate" technologies. Time after time, these technologies have been opposed by the status quo and embraced by consumers. In each case the consumers have won, and in each case the more efficient and convenient distribution of media has been a financial boon to the industry as a whole.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has been among the most vocal proponents of extending copyright laws and expanding the powers of law enforcement to track down file-sharers. Yet, one doesn't have to look very far back to discover that the motion picture industry itself was born of piracy—and we're not just talking about Errol Flynn movies. In fact, the primary reason that the movie industry settled in southern California was so that it could be beyond the reach of Thomas Edison and his patent lawyers. In the early years of the 20th century, Edison controlled almost all of the patents for movie-making technologies, including raw film. But Edison was headquartered in New Jersey, and across the country in California, movie makers could pirate his inventions with little fear of reprisal.

By the time the law caught up with Hollywood, Edison's patents had expired or been cancelled by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the movie industry was thriving.

Perhaps being born of piracy itself, the movie industry is particularly susceptible to fears that other pirates will come along and rob them
of their booty. When video-cassette recorders were first introduced, the movie industry feared for its life. According to the industry, not only did VCRs destroy the movie experience by taking it from the big screen to the small one, they also enabled rampant piracy. Universal sued Sony, claiming that the company should be held liable for enabling the copyright infringement of its users. Universal lost, and the right of consumers to tape programs off of television for their own personal use was enshrined in law. Eventually, of course, the movie industry came to embrace the technology, and movie rentals wound up becoming—and remain—a major profit centre for the industry.

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