EGMT 1540: The Ethics of Piracy, from the High Seas to Torrents

“…an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized…when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, ‘What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.’”                                                                                                             —Augustine, City of God What is piracy? Can piracy, or theft, ever be ethical? What connects torrent sites like “The Pirate Bay” to the eighteenth-century pirates of the Caribbean or the present-day pirates active off the Horn of Africa and in the Malacca Straits? This course explores the full range of activities that have been described, or denounced, as piracy, from maritime seizures to copyright violations and intellectual property theft, from antiquity to the present day. Whereas some would have (or did) reject the label of pirate, situating their activities within the legal context of warfare and service to faith or state, others have embraced the term—and are celebrated for it in popular culture. Regardless of whether its practitioners have been publicly lauded or criticized, piracy has frequently been deployed in service of empire, whether by England in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Caribbean or by China in the intellectual property realm in more recent years. The phenomenon of piracy raises questions about who gets to decide what is legal or ethical and whether those are indeed the same thing: Do the ends always justify the means? Who has the jurisdiction to prosecute pirates, and who actually should? If we acquire stolen property, music or movies, are we pirates too?