TEDPrattles “Piracy” by Jean-Philippe Vergne

In this TEDTalk, Jean-Philippe Vergne spends sixteen minutes proving one thing:  that piracy is the wrong word for mass, digital copyright infringement.  Those who operate torrent and similar sites should never have been called pirates, a word charged with romance and all too easily embraced as a badge of honor and charming rebelliousness. Never mind the fact that even this romantic image of the traditional pirate is entirely based in fiction, there is nothing nearly so intriguing or sympathetic about the digital “pirate,” and the word allows people like Vergne to distract audiences with charming half-truths about high-seas buccaneers and privateers of the colonial 18th century.  Not that I care in this context, but he even gets his naval history wrong in the “documentary” he shows midway through his presentation.  I know a marketing video when I see one.

In fact, if we want to play the “compare to real piracy” game, let’s do it honestly and more thoroughly.  I say a Somali pirate, as dangerous a criminal as he may be, is arguably more deserving of our sympathy than a torrent site owner.  The former is most likely a displaced fisherman who has turned to piracy in an act of economic desperation; the latter is a spoiled, middle-class punk who could get a job with his programming skills but chooses instead to turn the labor and investments of honest workers into his personal cash machine. As a moral comparison, this is a no-brainer.

Those we call pirates in the digital-age sense should instead be called exploiters, which is less catchy and more accurately descriptive of what these enterprises do, which is to exploit the work of others for profit and without permission.  Had this been the kind of language used from the beginning, I doubt for instance, we would see the rise of the European Exploiter Party, and jokers like Vergne wouldn’t have the opportunity to saunter on stage wearing cute eye patches (the props that go with the concept of exploitation are far less dashing).  So, let’s stop behaving like children, shall we?  Because after the purely semantic, and utterly pointless, comparison between digital theft and high-seas piracy, there is still the matter of a massive, criminal enterprise savaging honest, middle-class labor — and it’s not cute no matter what we choose to call it.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • First off, I have to really disagree with his presented views on 18th century piracy. As someone who has studied and been fascinated with that era long before they took an interest in copyright (my Calico Jack flag still hangs proudly in my office) he seems willing to ignore that, while some pirates were privateers, many, if not most, were not or only sought letters of Marque when they found themselves being hunted by everyone.

    Second, if he’s willing to say that Somali pirates are not pirates because the high seas are no longer uncharted, then Internet pirates are not pirates either because there have been numerous international agreements on copyright. If the UN invalidates pirates on the high seas, then WIPO should do the same for pirates on the cyber-seas.

    He may argue that current copyright law is not a force for the “common good” but that enters a completely separate debate. His public good is not the same as mine. I think, on the whole, copyright has been a positive, enriching culture and providing creators with a means for being remunerated for their hard work. Is it a perfect system? No. But it’s better than the alternatives.

    Besides, it’s not like the UN charter got rid of the idea of property on the high seas. It didn’t make plundering ships acceptable. Quite the opposite. The UN charter put more respect for property.

    The arguments are interesting in a historical context but ignore key facts and and try to draw comparisons that don’t work.

    • David Newhoff

      Thanks for following and commenting, Jonathan. I think one must be very careful with TEDTalks. Everyone who takes that iconic stage sounds terribly clever, charming, and progressive; but some of them are really putting on a show with little substance. That’s the case with Vergne as I see it, as well as anyone else who presumes to compare and contrast digital “pirates” with naval pirates. It’s a parlor trick, but after we agree the semantics are flawed, there’s nothing left to discuss.

  • Thanks for your sweet review of my TEDx talk, David, I really appreciate. Please find my review of you blog post at this address: http://www.pirateorganization.com
    Best regards,
    The “Joker”

    • Thank you for the response, and I do apologize unequivocally for the additional ‘l’ in your name. I believe I caught the one typo, but do let me know of any further errors of this nature. Beyond that, if I found anything that sounded like syllogistic structure to your talk, I might then refute it in kind. As it is, your presentation and video are performances designed to make an untenable idea sound progressive and clever. You can spin all the academic sounding notions you like about the vagueness of defining the term “piracy,” but that is as irrelevant to your point and mine as it is semantically facile. Bottom line, you want to find a way to justify mass, criminal profiteering off the labor of other people. There really is no other way to describe what a Megaupload or a Kickass Torrents does in anything other than obfuscating terms akin to your talk and your rebuttal. Cheers!

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