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Avast! or, Language and Behavior

It’s not controversial to note that the meaning of words changes over time. Within the same language, different groups and cultures use the same words to different ends, or different words to the same end. It is widely noted (as so often happens when there is a linguistic shift) that Digital Natives not only alter the meaning of pre-established words but also change more basic elements of language like sentence structure, spelling, and capitalization. While many self-appointed defenders of language bemoan IM and SMS shorthand, 1337 culture, and LOLcat macros, I think that they demonstrate not the intellectual laziness but the creative depth of online culture. Creating new, highly phoneticized spellings for words is not an abuse of language but a respect for the medium and playfulness with it.

So what to make of the usage of “pirate” and “piracy”? Once conveying bloodthirsty terror, “pirate” to most Americans today evokes images of lovable rogues. Holders of copyrighted materials have used pirate to describe infringing users for at least a few hundred years, with mixed results. Pirate radio of the 1970s was largely stamped out as buccaneers of the Main were — with the force of governments — but piracy in software and media is proving more difficult to address. There are a variety of reasons for this, and the term “pirate” itself is changing in ways that were difficult to predict. Physical piracy in software and media (that is, where DVDs or CDs are produced to imitate [usually poorly] the real thing) in developing countries is difficult to the point of near-impossibility, given that (i) a “legal” license for Microsoft Vista can run to several months’ wages for most workers, and (ii) the copyright holders are often half a world away. Some governments at the behest of media and software companies have begun to crack down on the mass piracy of those materials, but realistically stand little chance of doing anything more than diverting current distribution channels to more distributed ones. Rich countries, with more enforcement resources, do not have the same problems with counterfeit physical goods.

Rather, the North has a booming trade in online piracy. Media organizations such as the MPAA have, as readers will be aware, propagated a maximalist definition of piracy:

Movie pirates are thieves, plain and simple. Piracy is the unauthorized taking, copying or use of copyrighted materials without permission. It is no different from stealing another person’s shoes or stereo, except sometimes it can be a lot more damaging.

Many – Digital Natives especially – are unconvinced, and might respond “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” At the top of that list would have to be Rickard Falvinge, founder of the Pirate Party in Sweden. He talked about this explicitly in a 2006 interview with Wikinews:

The name “Pirate Party” seems to identify the party with what is currently defined as a crime: piracy of software, movies, music, and so on. Will a name like “Pirate Party” not antagonize voters, given that the label is so negatively used? How about potential allies abroad who argue for a more balanced copyright regime, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Creative Commons?

Oh, it is a crime. That’s the heart of the problem! The very problem is that something that 20% of the voters are doing is illegal by punishment of jail time. That’s what we want to change. Where the established parties are saying that the voters are broken, we are saying it’s the law that is broken.

Besides, it’s a way of reclaiming a word. The media conglomerates have been pointing at us and calling us pirates, trying to make us somehow feel shame. It doesn’t work. We wear clothes saying “PIRATE” in bright colors out on the streets. Yes, we are pirates, and we’re proud of it, too.

Well-crafted public relations campaigns can have enormous influence on public attitudes and behavior, but campaigns of linguistic meaning are a trickier business. Meaning is constructed in practice, and the ultimate success of either the MPAA or the Pirate Party will be based not just on what they convince the public piracy “means” but on the value judgments that the public places on that meaning and their own behaviors.

So – are you a pirate?

Jacob Kramer-Duffield