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.