Today’s English (and, I assume, other languages) is peppered with old words that have been given new meaning, either by marketing campaigns or by the news media. Sometimes the new meanings come from the slang of youth, song writers, or authors.
I’m not sure how or when “piracy” took on its new meaning, but I was pretty sure it was in the last 15 years. I was wrong. According to Wikipedia (here), the term was used in relation to copyright infringement as early as the late 1800s. But I don’t think it was common then.
Piracy is a specific crime, described in various international treaties, and usually referred to as an act of robbery or criminal violence at sea. Now, you’re more likely to see the term in this context: “digitally copying a movie or song”. That’s a vast difference.
Use the word pirate around any elementary-age child and they’ll think of swords and sailing ships, eye patches, and words like “matey” and “Argh!” Maybe even swabbing the decks, or walking the plank. They probably won’t think of scurvy or rape or murder, but that’s involved too.
So someone thought it was a good idea to equate copyright infringement with that sort of lifestyle. The computer/modem is the new pirate ship, pulling alongside another computer with the intent of raiding. The hard drive is the new treasure chest, holding the loot that was taken. The nerd in his mother’s basement is the new pirate, cackling evilly as his software pillages the content that someone else created.
But what is the new sword or gangplank? Nothing. That’s where the analogy falls apart, and why pirate isn’t a good word to use here. Copyright infringers — while certainly irritating to anyone who creates original content — aren’t killing anyone. They’re not taking literal prisoners. They’re not pushing record company execs off a gangplank, where they’ll painfully drown or be torn apart by sharks or freeze to death in wintery waters.
As a photographer, I know how it feels to painstakingly learn a craft and produce a product, only to find that my product has been copied and used elsewhere for someone else’s financial gain. But nothing was “pirated” from me. When a pirate boards your ship and takes your gold, then you no longer have the gold. But when a jerk copies my photo and uses it in his advertising campaign, I still have my photo. I can still use it and make money from it, or enjoy it as I please. It’s irritating, but it’s not theft, and it’s certainly not piracy.