What’s in a name?

A lot, really. Take the issue of “piracy”—most commonly used in Internet circles to refer to unauthorized distribution of other peoples’ intellectual property. Its use in that sense actually pre-dates the Internet by a considerable length of time (see video at bottom). For a long time, a debate on whether this is an appropriate use of the term has raged.

Representing those who do not think the term is properly used, the Free Software Foundation has this to say:

Publishers often refer to copying they don’t approve of as “piracy.” In this way, they imply that it is ethically equivalent to attacking ships on the high seas, kidnapping and murdering the people on them. Based on such propaganda, they have procured laws in most of the world to forbid copying in most (or sometimes all) circumstances. (They are still pressuring to make these prohibitions more complete.)

If you don’t believe that copying not approved by the publisher is just like kidnapping and murder, you might prefer not to use the word “piracy” to describe it. Neutral terms such as “unauthorized copying” (or “prohibited copying” for the situation where it is illegal) are available for use instead. Some of us might even prefer to use a positive term such as “sharing information with your neighbor.”

Of course, saying that the Free Software Foundation tends to think intellectual property is a bad idea in general is on the order of calling the Pacific Ocean “slightly damp,” but in a way this illustrates the point: those most inclined to protest the use of the word often tend to be those most inclined to favor the practice, or at least not believe it to be as bad as the content industry thinks. (Similar issues surround the word “theft”.)

For my part, I try to avoid or at least quotate “piracy” when discussing it simply because I feel getting into an argument over terminology muddles the real issue—the unauthorized distribution of other peoples’ intellectual property itself. But in a way it is unavoidable: there just isn’t another suitably pithy name that we can use to describe it.

Now it turns out that some in the content industry are starting to agree that “piracy” is an inappropriate term, but for an unexpected reason: they think it makes illicit content sharing “too sexy.”

Agnete Haaland, the president of the International Actors’ Federation, believes consumers need to be made more aware of the damaging economic and social impact of their illegal activity.

"We should change the word piracy," she told reporters at the unveiling of the report on Wednesday.

"To me, piracy is something adventurous, it makes you think about Johnny Depp. We all want to be a bit like Johnny Depp. But we’re talking about a criminal act. We’re talking about making it impossible to make a living from what you do," she said.

Mike Masnick at TechDirt, where I first noticed this report, has some pointed words for that description, including that in most cases of “piracy”, the copyright violation in question is actually a civil offense. (Of course, she was likely using “criminal” in the looser, “morally reprehensible” sense rather than the strict justice system sense, but even so.)

However, Ms. Haaland is at least a few decades too late to stop the use of that term. I don’t know its exact history (though I did download Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates when the University of Chicago Press offered it free and look forward to reading it), but I know it has been used to refer to unauthorized commercial copying of content for decades. And it is unlikely any suitable replacement term can be found.

I guess the piracy wars will continue.

It’s worth remembering that the content industry has taken issue with “piracy” for decades…but back when it was limited to strictly commercial operations, there was a time when they could still laugh about it…

Related: Review:The Pirate’s Dilemma by Matt Mason