Gimme the Loot: A History of Digital Piracy
What the history of digital piracy tells us about intellectual property, copyright law, and the digital pirates of today.
Piracy, the appropriation of private property in the form of copyright infringement, threatens this economy, just as Atlantic pirates threatened slave-capitalism in the early 18th century.
Illustration By Monkeyblue
In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in [piracy], plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking.
—Pirate captain Black Bart Roberts, circa 1720
Just pirate it.
—Game designer Notch’s advice to Minecraft fans who can’t afford the full version, 2012
Once the heroes of nations, pirates went from being state-sponsored champions to tolerated annoyances to the basest sort of criminals. Henry Morgan was knighted after plundering Panama in 1674. Fifty years later hundreds of pirates were dangling from the gibbet at remote trading posts along Africa’s Gold Coast.
The change wasn’t so much what pirates did as the context in which they found themselves: a global market economy with England at its head. England went from a plucky backwater to a capitalist empire in a century, and as its fortunes changed—or more specifically, as the way it made its fortunes changed—so, too, did the way the state treated piracy.
It was one thing when looted Spanish gold filled the Queen’s meager treasury; it was quite another when pirates threatened to disrupt the increasingly disciplined circulatory system of the Atlantic Ocean, which had become the center of the British economy. Sugar, tobacco, slaves—these commodities needed to move and be exchanged as smoothly as possible. Pirates represented a dual threat to the Atlantic Ocean factory of early capitalism. They were not only thieves; they were also free.
Pirate ships were under worker control. Captains weren’t absolute rulers, but elected leaders who commanded only during battle. Day-to-day operations were handled democratically by the entire crew. Loot was divided equally and immediately, and pirates ate—and drank—better than their law-abiding contemporaries. This was the major reason pirates were feared: it was easy to convince exploited sailors to join up with them. And join up they did.
Pirate crews were a polyglot, multiracial multitude that included oppressed Irishmen, escaped slaves, French heretics, and members of Caribbean indigenous groups. Pirates hailed from all over the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and included a high proportion of blacks and mulattos, who often had leadership roles. Marcus Rediker notes in Villains of All Nations that 60 members of Blackbeard’s crew of 100 were black.
Pirates didn’t just plunder ships; they enforced their own brand of justice across the Atlantic. Upon boarding a ship, pirates interviewed the crew to determine how their captain commanded. If he were said by his crew to be cruel, the pirates might beat or execute him; if he were fair, they treated him well and sometimes they sent him off with a bit of money of his own. Sometimes their justice was poetic, such as when pirates commandeered a slaver, armed the captured Africans with knives, then sent the hapless captain back on his merry way. Pirates also held grudges, assaulting trading posts and towns where authorities had executed their comrades. After a fellow pirate captain was executed at a Portuguese slave fortress, Walter Kennedy stormed the castle, captured it, and burned it to the ground. Not for nothing did so many pirate vessels contain the word Revenge in their names.
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