Ethical Piracy: A Modest Proposal

Whenever I write about privacy, anonymity, or copyright infringement, I always get lots of email--last month's commentary was no exception. Thanks to all of you for your feedback; it's wonderful to receive so many great insights! But as sure as death and taxes, a small amount of that mail is from folks who seem ready to burst with rage because they're what I call "misguidedly proud pirates."

In case you miss the connection, reducing anonymity on the Internet, which was the topic of last month's commentary, makes stealing copyrighted material over the Internet a bit more risky. I get a lot of mail from these pirates, and most of it contains their justification for stealing someone else's artistic works. My favorite excuse for this theft is NOT that they want to enjoy those works themselves, but instead that this piracy is an act of revolution--and, as a consequence, they're quite proud of their actions. The declared object of the revolution, which ranges from copyright law to Disney, to the recording industry, and beyond, isn't important because the pirates' claimed goal is always the same: to work toward discrediting some group and/or depriving them of income, consigning them to history's ash heap.

I'm not convinced that this plan will work, nor do I agree with the goals inasmuch as I pay much of the electric bill with income from copyrighted works, but I have to admire revolutionaries--provided they truly are revolutionaries. The problem with this kind of revolutionary behavior is that no one knows about it; the freedom fighters can't inspire anyone if no one knows about the freedom fighters' good works. Heck, let's face it: Some people will be small-minded enough to suspect that despite all of the rhetoric, the proud pirates are just using the Internet as a way to anonymously steal things that they simply don't feel like paying for, and they don't give a hoot about revolution.

So, I have a few thoughts about "methods of ethical piracy" for those pirates who really aren't in it for personal gain, but instead are truly trying to make a better world. I say to the ethical pirate, step out from behind that cloak of anonymity and raise your standard. Blog about your buccaneering adventures so that others can follow your lead. Create a Web site and detail what you've downloaded; dare the establishment to make you a martyr. When they became prominent heads of the American Revolution, heroes such as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson knew full well that should their cause fail, they faced not jail time or fines but a hangman's noose. High stakes, yes, but had they remained a few shadowy fellows meeting in taverns and only whispering of freedom, our country's history would be quite different today.

If that seems too extreme to the average ethical pirate--I suspect I might not sleep as well, were I to ring the dinner bell for the Feds that loudly--then why not just demonstrate that easy theft isn't the motivation for the downloads? An ethical pirate might keep track of all his or her downloaded movies and music. Then, by figuring that each tune's worth 49 cents (the iTunes price), and each movie is worth about $5--at least, that's what Movielink seems to charge per legally downloaded video, could give that amount of money to a charity (Katrina folks still need a lot of help!), and get a receipt of some kind. Be sure to ask the charity to verify the receipt in case someone questions its veracity. The ethical pirate could post the donated total on his or her Web site with a scan of the receipt. That way, the pirates needn't list the downloaded material on their sites (which might lead to them running afoul of the law) to show that they're not downloading for the sneaky convenience of it.

Of course, this suggestion isn't perfect--who'd audit the pirate? Well, presumably an "ethical" pirate would want to tell the truth. Besides, if they were posting donations of a paltry sum like $15 a month, I think that neither the incipiently revolutionary public nor the recording industry would give a hoot. The true believers would be posting verifiable charity donation receipts of hundreds of dollars a month. That would show those people who think that information shouldn't be free--wouldn't it?

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