When did file sharers suddenly become pirates?

Pirates of the Caribbean cover“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” So wrote George Orwell in his famous essay Politics and the English language. I couldn’t help thinking about this when I read the word “Pirates” suddenly being used to describe file sharers in The Guardian yesterday.

Other UK media outlets have picked up on the trend. Odeo writes “UK file pirates to face the music”. Meanwhile Newser reports “UK file pirates could lose net privileges”. Rewind to before the Pirate Bay guilty verdict and it was quite a different story. “Does legal action against file sharers dissuade others?” read one Guardian headline, “File-sharers want to have your cake and eat it too.” read another. Perhaps The Guardian headline “Online file sharers buy more music” compared to yesterday’s headline “Study finds pirates 10 times more likely to buy music” couldn’t better illustrate the case in point.

Pirates are all the rage nowadays what with hijacking ships in Somalia and the high profile Pirate Bay trial, it’s inevitable that some bright spark would eventually coin the phrase for file sharers. Due to the recent ship hijackings however, the word pirate has taken on increasingly negative connotations. Piracy was a common term to describe any kind of illegal copying but a “pirate” for most of us was a bearded bloke with an eye-patch, one wooden leg and a parrot on his shoulder. Using the word to refer to file sharers tars them with the same criminal brush as the pirates that are currently running amok in the world’s waterways.

The effect is that it will naturally dissuade people from file sharing of any kind. No one wants to be branded as a pirate nowadays after all. Millions of files, folders, audio and video are exchanged every day perfectly legally. The result of the Pirate Bay trial should not be seen as a green light to demonise file sharing on the net. Besides, the result of the trial can hardly be taken seriously now that its emerged the judge was also a member of a copyright lobby group prompting calls for a retrial. That’s a bit like Dick Cheney deciding whether an inmate at Guantanamo is guilty or not.

I don’t believe there is a media vendetta against file sharers. The article using the term pirates in The Guardian was actually highlighting a Norwegian study that found those that downloaded music illegally were more likely than those that don’t to buy music. The point however, as Orwell made, is that use of language is a powerful tool that can shape thought. In an age when a term can spread like wild fire over the internet, that’s more relevant than ever before.

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