The real pirates?

April 27, 2008

Today’s Guardian has an interesting piece on Somali pirates (the ones that use boats and guns). Although the story gets off to a slightly melodramatic start, it eventually reveals a fascinating bit of legal reality that makes the actions of the “pirates” slightly less nefarious: turns out, they are providing an unauthorized policing service to their country:

as bizarre as it sounds, there is some truth in the pirates’ claim that they are acting as a coastguard. Under international law, a country’s ‘exclusive economic zone’ – where it has sole rights over marine and mineral resources – extends 200 nautical miles out to sea. Foreign ships are allowed to pass through these waters, but not to fish without a permit.

Yet at any one time there are up to 500 foreign-registered boats fishing in Somalia’s rich waters, according to the Seafarers’ Assistance Programme. European boats catch tuna or shrimp; vessels from the Far East catch sharks for their fins. Almost all are fishing illegally. Often, pirate attacks are not even reported to maritime authorities: the ransoms paid are regarded as legitimate fines, both by the pirates and the ship-owners.

Sure these guys use unjustifiably violent means to extract rents from their targets/victims, but it’s still important to recognize that their actions are not inherently “evil” or beyond the law. In the absence of an effective state infrastructure of legal enforcement, you might think of the “pirates” as a somewhat undesirable variety of entrepreneur. Like the author says, all of the parties involved regard the fines as legitimate.

On a related note, it never ceases to amaze me that trademark, copyright, and patent owners have managed to convince much of the world that unauthorized copying of informational goods is equivalent to material forms of piracy, such as those practiced by these folks in Somalia. The metaphor is deeply flawed for a number of reasons, but most importantly because informational or intangible goods posses fundamental differences from tangible goods.

It is one of the tragedies of recent political and industrial history that many countries have been stuck with legal systems that do not recognize this difference. As a result, private companies and government officials have begun to treat unauthorized information reproduction as just another form of theft. The beauty of informational goods is that they make sharing possible on a global scale.
Thus, they provide a great opportunity to re-think the legal, economic and moral institutions that have structured modern commerce and industry. If nobody pushes back against the vision currently promoted by many trademark, copyright, and patent-dependent firms, we’ll lose this chance.

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