Piratology: The Deep Seas of Open Code and Free Culture, Armin Medosch


Armin Medosch is a writer, curator and artist. He co-founded the on line magazine "Telepolis" in 1996 and co-edited it till summer 2002. With "Telepolis" he won the European online journalism award 2000 for investigative reporting and the Grimme online award 2002 for media journalism. He curated the online exhibition "Shopping Windows" (2001) and organized the free networking meeting Berlon (2002). Current work includes the book and CD ROM dive for "Kingdom of Piracy" and a forthcoming book on free networks.


Armin Medosch, Vienna, London

What we propose with the exhibition and online project Kingdom of Piracy (KOP) and its different parts and elements – the installation and web interface BURN, the talks and live DJ/VJ sessions, the DIVE CD-Rom and finally this booklet – is that you dive into – immerse yourself in, familiarise yourself with and further explore – the deep seas of open code and free culture. What we are talking about does not have one name but many, which all cover different aspects, slightly different attitudes, distinguished areas of activity: the programmers who develop free software and Open Source software, lawyers who create licences for a creative commons, artists, writers working on copyleft initiatives, free media activists, free networkers. With their combined efforts they change the conditions for creation, innovation and cultural production, contributing to openness and freedom. They don't do so by criticising the existing world or mainstream institutions and opinions and they do not draw their energy or their legitimation from any kind of opposition. Instead a growing number of people work constructively on an expanding shared space of freely available information, tools, platforms, infrastructures. Some of the activities that are part of this collective effort are sometimes falsely condemned as piracy. It is not within our powers to stop such name-calling, and trying to stop it would probably be a waste of time. But since the industry-led discussion about intellectual property and fair use rights has become so dominant lately it might be useful to give it some consideration. How has this term 'piracy' been used in the past and how is it presently instrumentalised to cast in antagonistic lights a battle of good against evil, of legitimate copyright holders and malicious pirates?

The Roots of Piracy

Piracy does not simply exist because there are bloody-minded people who don't care for the rules and laws of the civilised world. It tends to emerge whenever there is a hegemonic power that asserts itself by establishing a trade monopoly. A monopoly, by its very nature, cuts out competition by other traders and destroys existing means of trade. People deprived of their traditional way of making a living resort to criminal activity. The hegemonic power, itself not averse to using violence to force others into submission, considers itself to be the law and defines others' activity as piracy. This is, in short, the lesson we can learn from historic accounts of piracy.

A Historic 'War on Piracy'

Between 1750 and 1850 the British Empire, expanding eastwards from India, had to fight the pirates in the Malayan archipelago. It was only towards the end of this century-long undeclared war, when Britain had gained technological supremacy, namely steamships with metal-clad hulls and powerful long-range guns, that the pirates were indeed defeated. But why had this region become so notorious for piracy in the first place? According to Owen Rutter, who wrote a semi-scholarly account of those battles, 'it was largely European intercourse with the East that made them so'. (1) Large-scale piracy did not exist in the region before the eighteenth century. 'What was it then that caused these people and their neighbours to revert from peace to piracy? The answer is: the greed of the European powers who traded in the Eastern seas.'

According to Rutter, foreign trade in the region had always been in the hands of Chinese traders who also had a positive impact on local craft and agriculture. The local population and their rulers profited from Chinese trade and skilled craftsmen. Then came the colonial powers of that time, who 'created a system of monopolies, and by treaties with Malay rulers were able to command the produce at their own rates'. As a result, the Chinese traders were driven out of business and important sources of income for the local population, the 'bread and butter line', fell away. European trade could not compensate for this loss, because 'they took all and gave as little as they could'. Not only trade was affected, but also manufacturing and transport, 'so that thousands of natives were bereft their normal occupations' (p.27). 'Not content with this they poked their fingers into the internal affairs of the Malay governments and fomented dissensions for their own ends, until they destroyed the authority of the rulers and disorganised the commercial enterprise of their people.' Looking for new sources of income, the Malayan rulers 'turned their ways to piracy and plunder. If one may regard that metamorphosis through their eyes, one may see, in the attacks on European ships that followed, acts of retaliation against those interlopers from the West, until in course of time this guerrilla warfare by sea developed for many into an habitual mode of life, more lucrative and certainly more exciting than their former ways of peace' (p.27).

The Current 'War on Piracy'

As this narration shows, piracy in this region was the product of the destruction of traditional trade routes and of the creation of European monopolies of trade. It is easy to see how analogies can be made with today's 'war on piracy' in the area of intellectual commodities. Brand names, patents and copyright work together to create regional and global monopolies. Western cultural hegemony uses international law, trade agreements and the threat of sanctions to assert itself. Third World countries are reduced to being sources of cheap labour to produce copyrighted and branded goods for the West, goods the workers themselves can never afford.

Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 provides the United States with the authority to enforce trade agreements, resolve trade disputes and open foreign markets to US goods and services – what is, on US terms, called to 'levelling the playing field'. Whiteg Weng shows how the use of Section 301 has eroded traditional import routes for Western books, music and movies in Taiwan. (2) Local importers have been replaced by American chains. At the same time, trade in pirated goods thrives in Taipei's Guang Hu market, a pirate haven not only for software and music CDs but also for generic computer chips. The need for cheaper versions of copyrighted goods has led to the creation of grey markets in Asian metropolitan areas.

In downtown Bangkok, Thailand, a big modern department store called Pantip Plaza is almost entirely dedicated to software, film and music piracy. The multi-storey building is filled with many small shops and stalls that offer large selections of goods. On display are only the CD covers in laser or bubble-jet print-outs. The customer writes down the numbers of the CDs or DVDs she wants, gives the list to a staff member, pays the equivalent of US$2 or $2.50 and waits 15 or 20 minutes until the CDs are brought in from storage outside the building. The whole affair is conducted entirely in the open, and, it seems, no one is afraid of any official crackdown. American officials from the Department of Trade call at regular intervals for stronger government measures to clamp down on this sort of activity. But nobody seems to have told that to the young Thai people and foreigners who gloat over CD covers of commercial software, games, expensive modelling applications and professional music editing suites. What Western companies define as piracy might from a local point of view be an act of economic retaliation, which may explain in part the leniency of the Thai government.

The copyright industries, sometimes also called the 'data lords', are no longer satisfied with a crackdown on industrial-scale piracy. Recently they have begun to use the word 'piracy' differently. Alarmed by the success of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, they now brand every individual who participates in file sharing via the internet a pirate. (3) What is new here is that 'piracy' is no longer connected to a profit motive, but is used as a catch-all term for all uses of content that are not explicitly sanctioned by the copyright holder. The phonographic industry has won a court case about access to user information from a particular ISP. If this verdict remains unchallenged then ISPs will have to hand over user information to record companies on the mere suspicion of one of their customers being involved in file sharing. In a parallel development, new legislation has been prepared in the US that would give companies the power to break into individuals' computers to check whether they are participating in file sharing. These are unprecedented powers for private companies, which go even beyond police powers and make the companies appear to be somehow above the law, because their commercial interest coincides with the national interest of the USA. The European Union Copyright Directive parrots the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act except for a few sub-sections.

'Piracy' is a question of the power of definition, which currently clearly lies with the data lords. Hollywood film studios, software giants and multi-national record companies have chosen to use the term 'piracy' to cover all kinds of copyright infringement. This might turn out to backfire. As Bernhard Günther points out (4), Hollywood has produced numerous pirate movies where audience sympathies were usually with the somehow more 'human' pirates, rather than with the captains of the navy frigates. People on the street tend to favour the underdog. By chosing the term 'piracy', Hollywood has maybe failed to understand its own propaganda of an earlier age. Is it pure coincidence that one of the most successful Open Source softwares is called 'Apache', an indigenous North American tribe that was mercilessly slaughtered almost to extinction by white settler cowboys?

Can the negativity associated with piracy be turned around? Maybe it does not need to be. It was not us who chose the term. It was ascribed to activities that we sometimes might be involved in; even so, we don't feel that we are committing a crime, and as ordinary people are usually not inclined to get involved with something illegal. We don't need to find consolation in tales of romantic pirate utopias. A fundamental change is happening right now at the centre of relations of productive forces that will render the question irrelevant.

There is an alternative

'They have stolen our revolution, now we are stealing it back.' NTK newsletter

The essence of any digital operation is copy and paste – or open file, transform file, save file. German hacker legend Wau Holland has called computers and the Internet 'a giant information reproduction and dissemination machine'. If the source material of any such digital operation is copyrighted then any act of copy and paste or open and save is illegal. The intentions of the copyright industry are opposed to the inherent logic of digital technology. They have to bend and twist the technology – with inventions of new copy control mechanisms and the strong arm of the law – in order to get people into the position where they want to have them: as customers, end users of a product resulting from an industrial process. How long can those artificial barriers hold out against technological and social progress?

There are economic and technological trends at work that conspire to reduce scarcity and create abundance. And without scarcity of resources the whole piracy discussion falls flat. Many people have heard of Moore's Law, an observation made by the co-founder of Intel that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented. (5) The processing power of computer chips and digital storage space continue to grow while prices go down. The Internet and other telecommunications services make it ever easier, faster and cheaper to communicate. During the New Economy boom huge bandwidth capacities have been created by fibre-optic cable and satellite. Since expectations of soaring demand for commercial broadband services have not been met in reality, many of these capacities are now underused. In theory, if markets really followed the laws of the invisible hands, bandwidth would now have to be almost free.

While it is a myth that the Internet is absolutely decentralised and non-controllable, it nevertheless allows point-to-point communication without a central command and control institution. This principle, realised on many different technological and social levels, aids the creation of new transversal structures – communities, movements, interest groups, campaigns, discussion boards, file-sharing communities – which do not depend on the permission of any authority to group, disperse, regroup, bifurcate. This social dynamism, based on new types of technologically supported collectivisations, has serious economic and political implications.

Critical Mass

Open Source software (OS) and free software (FS) suffered for a long time from the myth that they were of use only for serious computer geeks. Now most common tasks that everyday users would want to perform on computers can be done as easily and reliably in an OS/FS environment as with any proprietary software. This movement has now become so broad and deep that it is challenging proprietary software in many ways. At this point in time it is not only stand-alone applications for individual users, web servers and collaborative platforms on the web for which OS/FS provide better alternatives, it is also on the much more fundamental level of programming languages and development environments, the toolkits of innovation, where OS/FS are about to gain an advantage.

'But what about the digital divide?', someone could legitimately ask, 'what about that large part of the world population that does not have access to a telephone, not to mention computers? Who are illiterate, starving, dying of disease?' Indeed, it is always legitimate to ask those questions. And if the only question addressed was one of how to develop better software, then Open Code (a neologism used by some as a shorthand to link OS and FS together without denying that there are differences) would not be worth our attention. An increase in ease and speed of communication for an info elite in the West and their Third World counterparts may contribute in some ways to social progress but cannot address the root of the problems that we face. After all, Open Code won't protect any Afghan or Iraqi villager from cluster bombs.

But this is no longer 'only' about software. The work done by Open Code developers is complemented in a number of other areas: the fledgling free networking movement that puts people in control of their own technologically mediated communications; free media initiatives such as the grassroots network Indymedia; networks about networks such as the recently created meta-network by the World Social Forum, which tries to bring various political activists together on a global scale; the project Creative Commons, which provides different licence models for creative work; artists and writers who deliberately put their work in the public domain; pressure groups for freedom of information, transparency and accountability in government.

Huge numbers of people are involved in what has been called 'commons-based peer production', i.e. the production of goods and services based on resources that are held in a commons and organised by peers. This type of production has reached critical mass. It is not happening outside the political and economic mainstream, like certain self-proclaimed underground and avant-garde movements of the past, but right in the centre of Western societies, within the most advanced areas of production (6). While most participants would not knowingly subscribe to any one particular ideology, they are making an implicit choice in joining a hybrid of gift-based and service economy rather than producing intellectual commodities. By making this choice they show that they no longer buy into the capitalist philosophy of ownership and scarcity of resources. The refusal to be paid for the best that one has to give is a strong political statement. Neoliberalism wants to reduce us to a Social Darwinist world view. We are made to believe that the only option is to slave away in alienating day-jobs. People decide that they prefer to receive less money for the privilege of being able to define their work themselves. On an intuitive level, people express their desire to be cooperative rather than competitive or, more explicitly, put the common good above individual wealth. This work of love is now done not just by a few from the ranks of art and hacker elites but by millions. Without explicitly formulating itself as oppositional, this nondescript movement of movements slowly but inevitably changes society from within.

What's art got to do with it?

In a certain sense art and culture (here used in a narrow sense, as in 'the area of cultural production') have always been 'Open Source'. Artists nurtured and kept alive cultural heritage by retelling and adapting existing narrations. Without open access to the achievements of the past there would be no culture at all. (7) In this light it is a bit irritating to see the number of Open Source programmer communities – especially if one considers that some of the stars of the OS community are not immune from believing in the cult of their own celebrity and do not show strong signs of being agents of societal change. Yet this should not deter us from recognising potential allies. As wrong as it would be to see Open Code as the ultimate and only positive example, it would be equally wrong to construct separations between artists, coders and other producers.

A small but nevertheless significant number of artists are no longer concerned with image production or self-expression. While images, audio and video might still play some part in their work, they do so in a functional way within a larger project. These artists have joined forces with coders, either by starting to programme themselves or by working closely with programmers to create tools, interfaces, platforms. These artist/coders are now at the heart of a cultural struggle, not because the product of their labour is art but because the code they produce is an expression of culture in the deepest sense. They carry forward the cultural politics of code by supporting the foundations for the preservation and renewal of culture. By creating digital tools that can be used, changed, redistributed and appropriated by everyone for free, the artist/coders liberate culture from the grip of the culture industries. They create platforms for social experimentation by increasing freedom – freedom (that most tricky word) not in a capitalist sense, which is the freedom of elites to trample on the rights of others, but another sort of freedom that increases opportunities for all, that makes another range and set of possibilities available for a greater number of people.

Without trying to categorize, it can be said that some of this work is still clearly distinguishable as art because it does not rely on the functionality of code alone but also on gestural symbolic politics. With clarity and simple efficiency artists bring the characteristics of digital technology to their logical conclusion – for example, the group 0100101110101101.org by copying other digital artists' work onto their hard disk; Vuk Cosic by copying the entire web page of documenta x, the world's biggest art show. Both works are challenging the originality of digital artwork, the cult of authorship and the legitimizing power of institutions. In another experiment called 'life-sharing', 0100101110101101.org have opened up their computer and made all their files accessible to everyone with a web browser over the last three years. 'Privacy is stupid' is their slogan, undermining the perception that we all have to encrypt our files and communications to keep our digital life private. Everything is there all the time, the question just is: who might want to know? It is critical to understand how this simple gesture undermines the surveillance ambitions of state powers for 'total information awareness'.

By taking the inherent logic of digital technology to its conclusion, artists are pushing the boundaries of digital freedom. The user of such an artwork is not just a passive 'recipient', but becomes complicit in action that might overstep the boundaries of the law. Some artists have found political campaigning to be their natural habitat and this has forced them to develop a more offensive working style and the appropriate type of code to support this. Over the last decade the Electronic Disturbance Theatre has developed techniques of electronic civil disobedience. Against the monolithic power of the state the EDT sets the 'swarming' power of networked activists. Its tool FloodNet allows protestors on the net, by collective use, to temporarily shut down the web servers of target institutions. It was used against the Mexican government because of the actions of its military against the Zapatistas' revolt in the province of Chiapas, and against the WTO during the Seattle protest. Technically, such an attack on a web server is called distributed-denial-of-service. It can be carried out with maximum efficiency by one person or a small number of people acting in a clandestine manner. But here lies the difference of the actions of the EDT. It invites users to openly declare their support and their willingness to take into account legal risks in order to stand up for what they believe in. It creates a 'theatre of action' in a very public way as opposed to clandestine digital violence.

The parody websites of the Yes Men (8), the media hacks by Übermorgen (9), and the successful Toywar campaign are further examples of actions by artists who sometimes resort to measures that occupy the grey area between the legal and the illegal. Legal provisions cannot foresee all the possibilities facilitated by new technologies and creative thinking. In a democracy worth its name, everything that is not strictly permitted is legal, in a totalitarian state everything is illegal that is not strictly allowed. What these actions have in common is the use they make of the distributed peer-to-peer power of the net and of the willingness of large numbers of people to participate in and stand up for a cause. Most importantly, these actions by artists-as-campaigners 'produce' the notion of the net as a public space. They show that it can be used as an arena for mass political protest like a city square or a street. The privatizations and enclosures which are pushed forward by a neo-liberal network agenda are countered by collectivization of the electronic communication sphere.

More recently, artist-led initiatives using the 2.4 gigahertz frequency spectrum and 802.11 Wi-Fi technology have taken this 'public' agenda to the physical network layer. The broad and loose coalition of the international free network movement encourages people to create their own network nodes, with or without wires, and to patch them together by the use of peering agreements, shared node databases and agreed conventions of file formats and standards on a technical network layer. The ultimate goal is to create a ubiquitous network that bypasses commercial networks by creating its own shared infrastructure, relying on the goodwill and initiative of many individual participants who share some of the bandwidth that they legally own.

This shared netspace, made up of many small nodes that interconnect and permit free transit of data, is continued on an application layer by projects such as Last.fm, Frequency Clock and Nine(9). These are server-based software applications that harvest the power of collective action on the net for purposes of live-scheduling of audiovisual content, peer-group interaction and mapping of social relations. These three projects (which have been included as 'curated links' in KOP's exhibition at FACT) are just the tip of an iceberg of an emerging trend of net art that allies itself with the free software and free network movements. Artificially created scarcity, prohibitous laws and privatised networks are not attacked head-on, but rendered irrelevant by the existence of viable alternatives. This is not piracy, as industry associations want us to believe, but the creation of open spaces in a number of different ways; they facilitate freedom of expression, collective action in creation and political expression and the notion of a public interest in networked communications.

This text was first time published in publication “DIVE, an Introduction into the World of Free Software and Copyleft Culture”, edited by Armin Medosch, Commissioned by VirtualCentre-Media.net, Co-produced by FACT, Liverpool.


1. Owen Rutter, The Pirate Wind, Oxford University Press, 1987.

2. Whiteg Weng, The Right to Copy: A Local Study of Copying as a Carrier of Creations, Taipei, Taiwan. website http://residence.aec.at/kop/writers/html/w1texts.html

3. Janko Röttgers, ‘P2P: Power to the People’ (in this volume).

4. Bernhard Günther, ‘Piraten im Reich der Daten’, in Netzpiraten, edited by Armin Medosch and Janko Röttgers, dpunkt Verlag, 2001.

5. Definition of Moore’s Law by Webopedia, http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/M/Moores_Law.html

6. Felix Stalder, ‘Culture Without Commodities: From Dada to Open Source and Beyond’, Toronto, July 2002, website http://residence.aec.at/kop/writers/html/w3texts.html

7. Raqs Media Collective, ‘Value and its Other in Electronic Culture: Slave Ships and Pirate Galleons’ (in this volume).

8. http://theyesmen.org

9. http://www.ubermorgen.com