views updated May 14 2018


Piracy is highway robbery at sea, and pirates are thieves afloat. Since ancient times pirates have thrived as parasites on legitimate maritime commerce. After 1450, however, the volume and value of certain types of seaborne trade grew dramatically. Criminal gangs of seafaring men, along with a few women, soon seized upon this new bounty. Some were spurred by vengeance, but most it seems by the hope of gain. Some sea raiders preferred to steal from religious or political enemies, occasionally as licensed "corsairs," or "privateers," in wartime. Licensed reprisal was an ancient custom of the sea. In other cases coastal fishing folk revived or developed new piratical tendencies as opportunity arose. All three forms of piracy—freelance criminal, politico-religious, and culturally endemic—have persisted to the present day, particularly where states are weak and commercial traffic is heavy. Geographically, piracy has flourished mostly near narrow straits, isolated archipelagos, and rugged coasts. Pirates have always needed land bases and markets for stolen goods.

The great prizes of the early modern period, which included vessels as diverse as carracks, caravels, dhows, galleons, junks, frigates, and giant outrigger canoes, carried gold, silver, gemstones, silk, fine porcelain, sugar, spices, and slaves. Freightage costs were so high at first that only compact valuables got shipped long-distance, whether in eastern or western seas. With such concentrations of liquid and attractive plunder at stake and with such weak maritime law enforcement the worldwide norm, true pirates did not discriminate. Their victims included Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish, Mughal, Venetian, Javanese, Dutch, Gujarati, French, Ottoman, Danish, and many other shippers. Indeed, the temptations were such that sailors and merchants of these and other ethnicities and nationalities frequently turned pirate or renegade. In lieu of international accord or a concerted naval campaign, piracy was nearly unpunishable.

For much of the early modern period, Iberian Catholics were the principal targets of piracy in the Americas and East Atlantic. The considerable mineral wealth of the Indies proved irresistible, and even Columbus was victimized by French corsairs. Meanwhile, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian pirates of varying regional origins preyed upon numerous trading states and merchant communities in the Mediterranean. Most famous among these were the Barbary corsairs, whose ransoming and extortion rackets persisted into the early nineteenth century. Farther east, the vibrant commercial economy of Venice appears to have been undone in large part due to piracy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, thanks to the Uskoks of Senj and other entrenched parasites. On the other hand, Venetian, Spanish, Chinese, Mughal, French, English, Portuguese, and Ottoman naval officials all regarded "culturally endemic" pirates a useful paramilitary scourge on occasion. Weak states needed all hands.

Chinese and Southeast-Asian shipping proved highly vulnerable to Japanese pirates, or wako, who raided both commercial fleets and significant land targets in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Ming state's response was mostly to relax monopoly trade strictures in the later sixteenth century, with aggressive sea action appearing only after the Manchu succession. By the mid-seventeenth century, Taiwan was regarded as strategically critical to both pirates and their enemies. By this time Madagascar was emerging as an international Indian Ocean pirate base, frequented by such famous characters as William Kidd. Indigenous pirates of varying faiths and ethnic affiliations also flourished in the heavily traversed Arabian Sea and neighboring waters, particularly the straits on either side of the Arabian Peninsula, some until the early nineteenth century. The main targets were first Muslim pilgrims, and later Hindu and other non-Muslim merchants.

In the Americas, the Spanish had it worst. This was to be expected for two reasons: 1) the enormous extent of thinly patrolled littorals and poorly defended shipping lanes claimed by Spain; and 2) the frequent movement of bullion in Spanish bottoms. As a result, piracy and privateering cycles recurred in both Atlantic and Pacific Spanish America from 1500 to the 1820s. Throughout the period, formal war with Spain back home simply excused a range of thefts and raids already under way.


The early cycles of piracy were French (1500–1565), Elizabethan English (1568–1603), and Dutch (1599–1648), with the respective arch-pirates—at least from the Spanish perspective—Jacques Sores, Francis Drake, and Piet Heyn. Despite some great losses in the Atlantic, most notably Piet Heyn's 1628 seizure of a treasure fleet along the northern coast of Cuba, Spain's annual silver ship to Manila proved remarkably resistant to pirate attack.


One of the most famous pirates during the early 1700s, Edward Thatch, or "Blackbeard," roamed the waters of the Caribbean and eastern coast of the United States, seizing more than forty vessels during his career. This fearsome legendary figure, who was thought to be of English descent, began his pirating career in 1713 aboard a Jamaican sloop commanded by Benjamin Hornigold. In November 1717 the two men captured a French slave ship, the Concorde.When Hornigold decided shortly afterwards to retire from pirating, Blackbeard took control of the ship, renaming it Queen Anne's Revenge. After continually preying upon merchant ships involved in New World trade, Blackbeard was tracked by the Royal Navy to Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, where he was killed in a bloody confrontation on November 22, 1718.

Ryan Peacock

The next cycle, lasting from the 1650s to about 1700, gave rise to the archetypal buccaneers of the Caribbean. Some were escaped slaves and indentured servants, others renegade sailors and even merchants. Buccaneer gangs were typically heterogeneous and prone to turn on unwary sponsors. For this reason the Caribbean buccaneers were perhaps the first multiethnic, freelance pirates to draw substantial, albeit largely ineffective, retribution from distant European states. Some outstanding raiders, such as the Welshman Henry Morgan, were nominally punished by their "mother" states, then rewarded with political office and knighthood. Spanish diplomats were understandably outraged, but in the absence of strong navies, state ambivalence toward piracy prevailed.

Piratical interest in Portuguese vessels concentrated for a time on East Indiamen, but eventually the volume of the Brazilian sugar, tobacco, and slave trades also drew takers. The principal maritime scourge of the Portuguese were the Dutch corsairs, who through company-sponsored privateering raids eviscerated a worldwide Lusophone trading empire in the first half of the seventeenth century. Portuguese slaving posts in western Africa were major targets, and piracy and privateering continued to intersect with the African slave trade throughout early modern times. Indeed, the first Africans to reach Jamestown, Virginia, were taken by Dutch corsairs from Portuguese slavers in 1619. The discovery of gold and diamonds in Brazil in the 1690s also drew an immediate response from pirates, particularly those plying Caribbean and West African waters.

Finally, the famous era of Anglo-American piracy crested in the early eighteenth century, yielding such memorable characters as Blackbeard, "Calico Jack" Rack-ham, Ann Bonny, and Mary Read. These pirates, whose energies were as often directed against English as against Spanish or Portuguese targets, were effectively snuffed out by the English Royal Navy in the 1720s. Rising British sea hegemony and a new "zero tolerance" policy would subsequently dampen but never eliminate world piracy. A great piracy cycle associated with Latin American independence in the 1810s and 1820s is a case in point. A second was a massive piratical eruption in the South China Sea between 1790 and 1810. The former gave rise to the legendary pirate practice of walking the plank, the latter to history's greatest woman pirate, Cheng I Sao, commander of a giant fleet.


Other responses to piracy included assembling merchant vessels into convoys and fortifying port cities with massive stone bastions. In most cases it became the responsibility of merchants, colonists, their offspring and slaves, and native inhabitants to defend themselves and their territories against piratical onslaught. Militias were formed, along with networks of coastal, mostly indigenous, spies. An unexpected consequence of this policy was the formation of interethnic regional identities and disillusionment with the mother country—precursors to independence. Meanwhile, the risk to merchants was sufficient to foster a thriving marine insurance business in major metropolises. Still, elevated costs deriving from losses and defense taxes were usually passed along to less capitalized factors—and of course to consumers. As is true today, storms, reefs, and sandbars remained much greater risks than piracy.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, world piracy was mostly kept under control by competing European imperial powers, with the United States playing a minor but growing role. Merchant ships also became bigger and more difficult to attack, but new imperialist strategies, all of them expensive, included farflung coast guards, naval bases, and a general desire to control straits and other vulnerable "choke points." Technological advances in shipbuilding, weapons manufacture, and communications also enabled more efficient interdiction. Finally, diplomacy and stepped-up enforcement of international agreements played key roles. Nevertheless, in wartime and at the fringes, piracy was apt to flare. These predatory outbursts were nothing like those of early modern times, but seafaring opportunists could always be found at the margins of state power.

Piracy in the twentieth century popped up in the interstices amid the chaos of the World Wars and other conflicts, but only in more recent times have genuine piracy cycles of some significance emerged. Leaving politically or religiously motivated hijackings, kidnappings, and terrorist acts aside (these having mostly other than pecuniary aims), there have been at least three distinct trends. First, and most traditionally piratical, have been attacks by criminal gangs on cargo and leisure vessels. The Strait of Malacca and seas off the southwest Philippines have been worst hit, but attacks of this kind have grown worldwide since the 1980s, including in the Lesser Antilles, in coastal and riverine Brazil, and in West Africa. State atrophy has followed the Cold War and decolonization in many regions, emboldening criminal networks on land and at sea. Also, tax- and liability-evasion strategies among shippers have exacerbated problems of prosecution. Second is the preying of pirates upon political refugees and migrant workers, a phenomenon first noted in Southeast Asia in the early 1970s but continuing subsequently in the eastern Pacific, Mediterranean, and elsewhere. Last is piratical poaching on the illegal drug trade, a phenomenon not easily studied or quantified given its secret nature, but likely the most murderous of current forms of maritime predation.

SEE ALSO Empire, British; Empire, Spanish; Gold and Silver;Labor, Types of;Privateering;Ships and Shipping.


Andrews, Kenneth R. The Spanish Caribbean: Trade and Plunder, 1530–1630. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Bialuschewski, Arne. "Between Newfoundland and the Malacca Strait: A Survey of the Golden Age of Piracy, 1695–1725." Mariner's Mirror: The Journal of the Society for Nautical Research 90 (May 2004): 167–186.

Bracewell, Catherine W. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Bradley, Peter T. The Lure of Peru: Maritime Intrusion into the South Sea, 1598–1701. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Burg, Barry. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates. New York: Random House, 1996.

Creighton, Margaret S., and Norling, Lisa, eds. Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700–1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London: Methuen, 2003.

Esquemeling, John. The Buccaneers of America. Williamstown, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1976 [1684].

Galvin, Peter. Patterns of Pillage: A Geography of Caribbean-Based Piracy in Spanish America, 1536–1718. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

Gerhard, Peter. Pirates on the West Coast of New Spain, 1575–1742. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1960.

Goslinga, Cornelis. The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, 1580–1680. Gainsville: University of Florida Press, 1971.

Hoffman, Paul E. The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean, 1535–1585: Precedent, Patrimonialism, and Royal Parsimony. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Pyrates. London: J.M. Dent, 1972 [1724].

Lane, Kris. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500–1750. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.

Marley, David F. Pirates and Privateers of the Americas. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

Murray, Diane H. Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790–1810. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Pennell, C. R., ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader. New York: NYU Press, 2001.

Ritchie, Robert C. Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

So, Kwan-Wai. Japanese Piracy in Ming China during the 16th Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975.

Starkey, David. British Privateering Enterprise in the Eighteenth Century. Exeter, U.K.: Exeter University Press, 1990.

Thompson, Janice E. Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Wilbur, Marguerite Eyer. Raveneau de Lussan: Buccaneer of the Spanish Main and Early French Filibuster of the Pacific. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, 1930.

Wolf, John B. The Barbary Coast: Algiers under the Turks, 1500–1830. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

Kris Lane


views updated May 23 2018


PIRACY. Piracy was a prominent feature of the Mediterranean world up through the nineteenth century. The relative poverty of the soil, the inviting expanse of the sea with its lively commercial life, and the many hiding places provided by the islets scattered across the areaparticularly in the Aegeanensured that the coastal inhabitants would always be tempted by the life of the pirate. Such low-level raiding, as constant and predictable as it was, is almost an environmental given rather than a phenomenon that begs the attention of the historian. At times, however, piracy spilled beyond such narrow limits and became a vital instrument of state building or state destruction. At such times in the Mediterranean, any explanation of historical change must include piracy in the narrative.

The early modern period in Mediterranean historyroughly the fifteenth through the eighteenth centurybegins with the tapering off of one such period of piratical recrudescence. The final crumbling of Byzantine maritime power in the fourteenth century encouraged fierce competition between Latin Christians and Turkish emirs for control of the Aegean and its vital trade links. Both sides built up their navies, raided each other's territory, and preyed on each other's shipping in pursuit of supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. Both sides recruited pirates (conveniently called corsairs once they were serving a legitimate political entity) to help them achieve their goals. The Knights of St. John, for instance, captured the island of Rhodes in 1308 with the help of a Genoese corsair (Inalcik, p. 186). The eventual victor in this fierce competition was the Turkish side, specifically the Ottoman Turks whose original base was inland but who eventually expanded outward to become a maritime power of the first order. With the conquest of Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans became masters of the vital commercial routes that linked the Black Sea and the Aegean. In 1522 they vanquished one of their most persistent naval competitors when Suleiman the Magnificent captured Rhodes and forced the departure of the Knights. Venice continued to have possessions in the eastern Mediterranean, but the Ottomans steadily eroded her power as well.

Having thus established control over the area, the Sultans quite naturally no longer looked with favor upon piracy and punished pirates whenever they were able to do so. Those who could be absorbed into the state apparatusas naval commanders, for exampleenjoyed a new life as Ottoman officials. Independent actors, however, were no longer tolerated. In 1504 the Ottomans seized the ships of a pirate who had served as a corsair in the recent wars with Venice. When he continued his raids in peacetime, he lost not only his ships; the authorities burned his house to the ground and executed seventy of his men (Brummett, p. 99). Ottoman maritime supremacy, combined with the Venetian desire to protect her commercial interests, ensured that the eastern Mediterranean enjoyed a long hiatus from piracy in the sixteenth century.

Farther to the west, in North Africa, the picture was largely similar. The corsairing captains who had raided the Spanish coastland on behalf of the Ottomans now settled down to life as the rulers of the newly acquired territories in North Africa. The high level of hostility between the sultan and the Spanish kings, however, meant that piracy was more tolerated in the western Mediterranean.

Things changed again after the Ottoman defeat at the battle of Lepanto (1571). Revisionist historiography has made it clear that this clash was not the watershed it was once presumed to be. It was important, however, in terms of piracy. The staggering and ever increasing costs of galley warfare convinced both the Ottomans and the Spaniards that it was best to turn their energies elsewhere. The Mediterranean was left to its own devices. The pirates once again took to the seas, and the seventeenth century was the golden age of the pirate republic. The slave markets of Algiers and of Valletta teemed with miserable captives from the other side, as both Muslims and Christians pursued their opponents with equal ferocity.

To a certain extent the pirates of the seventeenth century were operating on their own initiative and were motivated by the issues of economic scarcity that had always figured prominently. As with earlier centuries, however, shifts in the Mediterranean balance of power were working themselves out through piracy. It was in this period that northern newcomersthe Dutch and the Englishput an end to Italian commercial supremacy in the Mediterranean and piracy was a vital instrument in this assault. The English pirate in his berton became a hated and feared figure for the Venetian merchant. This northern invasion is only the bestknown example, however. France backed Catholic piratesparticularly the Knights of St. Johnas part of its ambition to replace the Venetians as the preeminent Catholic power in the eastern Mediterranean, and to hurt her economic competitors. The North African regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers would prove similarly useful for English and French ambitions. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these two powers signed a number of treaties with the North Africans, agreements that were designed both to protect their own merchants from North African piracy and to encourage raids on their competitors' shipping. In the eighteenth century the power of the regencies dwindled as they themselves devoted fewer and fewer resources to such assaults and European supremacy became ever more evident. Nevertheless, remnants of the system were still at work as late as the American Revolution. Once the Americans declared their independence from the British, Lloyds of London discreetly informed the North Africans that American ships were no longer under the protection of the British navy. North African attacks on the merchant shipping of the new republic predictably ensued.

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte captured the island of Malta and took the previously unimaginable step of freeing all the Muslim captives held by the Knights of St. John. His dramatic actions were an illustration of a more prosaic truth. By the end of the eighteenth century combatants in the Mediterranean were strong enough to fight their naval battles and conduct their trade without the help of Mediterranean pirates turned corsairs. Once the state turned its back, piracy never again achieved the international significance that it had enjoyed from time to time in the early modern period.

See also Africa: North ; Mediterranean Basin ; Navy ; Shipping ; Suleiman I .


Brummet, Palmira. Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery. Albany, N.Y., 1994.

Earle, Peter. Corsairs of Malta and Barbary. London and Annapolis, Md., 1970.

Inalcik, Halil. "The Rise of the Turcoman Maritime Principalities in Anatolia, Byzantium, and the Crusades." Byzantinische Forschungen 9 (1985).

Tenenti, Alberto. Piracy and the Decline of Venice, 15801615. Translated by Janet and Brian Pullan. London and Berkeley, 1967.

molly Greene


views updated May 09 2018


Piracy, defined here as larceny at or by descent from the sea, figured prominently in the formative years of the United States. Piracy was associated first with English colonization in an Atlantic world dominated by Iberian powers, then with indiscriminate poaching by colonial outcasts and rebels on the growing plantation economy at large. By the 1660s, Atlantic piracy constituted a seaborne variety of organized crime. Alongside these developments, piracy came to be closely associated with the transatlantic slave trade and with imperial warfare "beyond the line." Some pirates were former slavers, some were former slaves. Nearly all made frequent stops in West Africa in the course of their plundering voyages. With regard to war and legality, the line between piracy and privateering, or state-sponsored paranaval plundering, could be quite thin. A spate of diplomatic incidents related to privateering abuses in peacetime and against allies led not only to disastrous conflicts such as the War of Jenkins's Ear (1739–1743), but ultimately to the formation of professional navies and coast guards throughout the Atlantic.

As the United States came into being in the late eighteenth century, piracy was almost universally regarded as a crime not unlike terrorism in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. No one wished to be called a pirate. As with terrorism, the use of the term piracy in legal and journalistic circles was broadened substantially to help promote a range of causes. These included the early-nineteenth-century suppression of the transatlantic slave trade and the more effective anticorsairing campaigns of 1801–1805 along the Barbary Coast of North Africa.

Reaching back to early colonial times, Elizabethan corsairs were among the first Englishmen to reconnoiter and settle North America's eastern seaboard. Their successors, the seventeenth-century buccaneers, found hideouts, markets for stolen goods, and occasional plunder from Cape Cod to Cape Canaveral. By 1700, ports such as Providence, New York, Norfolk, and Charleston served as prime recruiting grounds for Anglo-American raiders, some of them disgruntled and overworked merchant seamen. The so-called Great Age of Piracy (c. 1660–c. 1720) only ended following a concerted and bloody campaign of extermination prosecuted by English admiralty courts both at home and in the American colonies. Governors of Virginia and Massachusetts figured prominently in this process. Captain William Kidd (c. 1645–1701) of New York was an early casualty, dying by execution, and North Carolina-based "Blackbeard," or Edward Teach (d. 1718), a late one, dying in battle.


Though much reduced as a result of this campaign—and with it the general rise of the British navy—Anglo-American piracy and privateering continued throughout the eighteenth century. Privateering, in some ways comparable to the extensive military subcontracting of later times, was an accepted if unconventional means of complementing formal naval power. Admiral Edward "Old Grog" Vernon's failed 1741 siege of Cartagena de Indias, in what would become Colombia, was typical in its blend of formally trained European and colonial paranaval combatants. The policy of commissioning privateers continued through the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) and well beyond, playing a significant role in the American War of Independence (1775–1783) and the War of 1812 (1812–1815). From the merchant-victim's perspective, being robbed by privateers was much like being robbed by pirates.

Hundreds of privateers were commissioned by U.S. authorities during the American War of Independence, and they met with some success. New England–based raiders were particularly active off the coast of Nova Scotia, but others ranged as far as the English Channel. American privateers had an early advantage against their British adversaries, as Parliament was reluctant to issue letters of marque and reprisal against a state that it preferred not to recognize. After 1777, when such letters were issued, British privateers found few vulnerable colonial vessels; most were themselves armed and dangerous. Instead, British predators focused on the tacit—and later open—allies of the fledgling U.S.: France, Spain, and the Netherlands. French shipping suffered most: whereas 183 American vessels taken by British privateers were condemned by London's Prize Court between 1777 and 1783, French vessels numbered 872.

Privateering remained a conveniently cheap buttress to overextended naval forces on both sides during the War of 1812. Outstanding U.S. privateers such as Johnston Blakely and Otway Burns ranged throughout the Atlantic, pillaging and destroying whatever British shipping they could find. British privateers responded in kind. French-born Jean Lafitte, a privateer and smuggler based in the labyrinthine Barataria bayou of Louisiana's Gulf Coast, eventually sided with U.S. forces under Andrew Jackson in the decisive 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Multinational privateers such as Lafitte switched sides often, taking advantage of the chaos generated by Latin American independence movements (1810-1824) and shifting post-Napoleonic alliances. After the War of 1812, Lafitte smuggled slaves, some stolen from Spanish vessels, into the southern U.S.

slave trade

Piracy was also intimately linked to slavery. The same Elizabethan corsairs who had founded Virginia and other colonies first entered the transatlantic economy as contraband slavers, illegally supplying Spanish Caribbean planters with Africans kidnapped and purchased in Upper Guinea. The trend continued; the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 were carried by Dutch corsairs who had stolen them from the Portuguese (who had in turn bartered for them in Angola). The later buccaneers were also familiar with the growing transatlantic slave trade, some as victims, others as professional slavers. Though not known for their scruples, pirates of the Great Age, such as Blackbeard, occasionally freed slaves or incorporated them into their crews. More often they sold them to planters and merchants. An often-forgotten fact is that England's early-eighteenth-century suppression of Atlantic piracy enabled the rapid expansion of the slave trade that marked the post-1760 period.

Yet the same empire that benefited most from the slave trade eventually turned against it. Although economic reasons such as the industrial revolution have been cited, this British turnabout was in large part due to the efforts of prominent religious figures, many of them Quakers. British and U.S. abolitionists of several religious persuasions agreed that the slave trade was an outrage and must be universally suppressed. Interestingly, both U.S. and British legislators chose to elide slave trading and piracy in the first decades of the nineteenth century, making the former a capital crime for the first time. By 1814 the British were able to commit substantial, warhardened naval forces—some fresh from epic battles with Napoleon and his allies—to the cause of slave trade suppression. They requested and received help in patrolling West African waters, albeit intermittently, from the infant U.S. Navy.

The United States formally declared slave trading a variety of piracy in 1820. It is often forgotten that this declaration came amidst a wave of widely reported and vicious Caribbean piracy, mostly executed by Spanish Americans rebelling against their colonial overlords. Although Cuba itself remained "faithful," as the Spanish put it, Cuban renegades-turned-pirates in this era were said to have invented the legendary practice of walking the plank, among other tortures much publicized in the U.S. press. Some such miscreants were also said to be slavers. Still, application of the law proved difficult. Many American jurists regarded the Atlantic slave trade as a legitimate, if unsavory, business, and viewed the 1819 law as part of an emotionally driven, moral crusade to undermine slavery. Defenders of the slave trade were not rare, since slavery itself still figured prominently in the U.S. economy. Throughout the era of suppression, contraband slaves reached southern plantations through ports in Texas and Louisiana.

The crux cases linking piracy and the slave trade, however, involved mostly British interdiction of U.S. and foreign vessels engaged in trading slaves to Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba. Since Cuba was nearest at hand and because it remained a colony of Spain, the U.S. embargo of slaving vessels inevitably produced significant international incidents. Under Pinckney's Treaty (1795) and other agreements, the United States had promised to respect Spanish laws, vessels, and cargoes—and also to help Spain fight piracy. Thus, seizures and mutinies, including those of the Amistad (1839) and the Creole (1841), tested the will of U.S. courts to enforce the letter of the 1819 law. On-board rebellions were particularly troublesome for judges and diplomats. Was slave mutiny aboard a foreign vessel piracy or self-liberation? Ultimately, the latter definition prevailed, but suppression of the slave trade as a form of piracy was never seriously pursued by the U.S. Navy or courts and remained a point of considerable friction between North and South.

barbary wars

Perhaps better known than the West African slave trade's links to piracy during America's formative years was U.S. suppression of the so-called Barbary pirates of North Africa between 1801 and 1805. This campaign, also pursued by the U.S. Navy—and the fledgling marines—aimed to secure U.S. commercial access to the Mediterranean Sea. Pursued at first reluctantly by President Thomas Jefferson, the campaign sought to end the long-established Algerian and Tripolitan practices of hostage taking and tribute extortion in exchange for free passage beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. Despite setbacks, the effort proved mostly successful, and it gained popular support in part from a growing literature alleging enslavement of white Americans, some of them women, in Muslim "pirate" compounds. Once again, matters of captivity and redemption crossed over with changing interpretations of piracy and its suppression.

After 1840, sporadic acts of piracy occurred in U.S.-claimed waters and against U.S. vessels abroad, but no significant cycle of piracy would emerge to match those of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Instead, piracy would become firmly ensconced in U.S. literature and other forms of popular culture. Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Gold-Bug" (1843), is an early example. Since then, the fascination has persisted.

See alsoBarbary Wars; Slavery: Slave Trade, African .


Butler, Lindley S. Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

DuBois, W. E. B. The Suppression of the Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. New York: Longmans, Green, 1896.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London: Methuen, 2003.

Eltis, David, and James Walvin, eds. The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Origins and Effects in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Kitzen, Michael L. Tripoli and the United States at War: A History of American Relations with the Barbary States, 1785–1805. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.

Parker, Richard B. Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Pennell, C. R., ed. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon, 2004.

Ritchie, Robert C. Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Starkey, David J. British Privateering Enterprise in the Eighteenth Century. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1990.

Kris Lane


views updated Jun 08 2018


Piracy, robbery and other high crimes committed at sea. A practice as old as navigation, it became common in Latin America as soon as the Spanish began shipping precious metals from Mexico and Peru. The term has often been used to connote all the maritime attacks carried on by privateers, buccaneers, and other freebooters against Spanish and Portuguese commerce from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. For the Spanish, all of these marauders were pirates. Historically, however, the word has had a more narrow definition, excluding from its meaning those who sailed under some guise of legality through letters of marque or patents from European or American governments. True pirates were those who held no commission from any lawful authority and who could legally be attacked and judged by the authorities of any sovereign state.

The buccaneers were very similar to pirates in their operations, but they enjoyed impunity in the non-Iberian colonies. Thus they operated freely from British, French, Dutch, or Swedish ports in the Caribbean and North America. Port Royal, Jamaica, for example, was a frequent hangout for buccaneers until it sank beneath the sea in the earthquake of 1692. Many of the buccaneers held deep religious convictions stemming from their origins in Puritan, Huguenot, or other Calvinist colonies. After 1670, however, these attributes became less common, and buccaneering deteriorated into outright piracy. Caribbean-based buccaneering, in fact, was a transition from the earlier Old World-based privateering (French "corsairs," Dutch "sea beggars," and English "sea dogs") to the "golden age of piracy" in Latin America from about 1680 to 1720, when dangerous pirate fleets operated in the Caribbean and along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the American mainland. Like the buccaneers Henry Morgan and Richard Sawkins, many of these pirates came from Wales, although other nationalities were well represented among them. Sawkins, one of the last of the buccaneers, is especially representative of the transition from buccaneering to piracy.

A further distinction between pirates and other maritime freebooters of Latin America, although not an absolute one, is that the earlier freebooters preyed primarily on the Spanish and Portuguese, whereas the pirates attacked the commerce of all nations. In the eighteenth century, the maintenance of larger national navies led to the suppression of high crimes on the seas, although sporadic acts of piracy continued to occur throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially in politically disturbed areas along Latin American coasts. For example, in the 1980s pirates preyed on yachts and other coastal shipping along the Caribbean shore of Nicaragua.

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Caribbean was the haven of many notorious pirates who endangered the commerce of many nations. These pirates depended on light, swift, shallow-draft vessels that could overtake heavier cargo vessels or flee from warships. With the rise of the plantation colonies, many of the ports that had offered sanctuary to the buccaneers became hostile to pirate ships. Therefore, the yet unsettled Bahamas became one of the more important bases for pirates, especially the port of Nassau on New Providence Island, although some pirates still frequented ports in New York and New England with relative impunity. The infamous Captain William Kidd was among the most well known. Like other pirates of this age, he sailed not only in Latin American waters, but also along African, Middle Eastern, and Far Eastern coasts as well.

Widespread use of privateers during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) led to an increase in piracy following the Peace of Utrecht (1714) as many of the suddenly unemployed privateers turned to piracy. New Providence Island became a hotbed of pirate operations. Among the most notable of these pirates was Captain Edward Teach ("Blackbeard"), Edward England, Charles Vane, Edward Low, John Evans, and Bartholomew Roberts (more generally known for his exploits off the African coast). Of considerable notoriety, too, were the female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who sailed with "Calico Jack" Rackham until they were captured in Jamaica in 1720. Daniel Defoe, writing under the pseudonym of Charles Johnson, popularized these and other pirates of that era in his General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724).

The Nassau pirates were eventually suppressed after the British crown named Captain Woodes Rogers, himself a privateer of great fame, as its governor at Nassau in 1718. He immediately issued a general pardon to those who would abandon piracy and then while still in office (1718–1720, 1729–1732) proceeded to suppress most of the remainder. The emergence of British naval superiority in the eighteenth century was perhaps the major factor in eradicating piracy in American waters. The replacement of much of Spain's commerce by British shipping, especially after the Peace of Utrecht, granted the British the slave asiento for thirty years, gave the British a strong incentive to suppress piracy. Many of the pirates who had thrived earlier in the Caribbean or other Latin American waters now moved their operation to African shores, especially the East African coast, where Madagascar became a fabled pirate's nest.

The Napoleonic wars spawned new fleets of privateers, flying the flags of European nations and of the new Latin American republics, some of which were barely outside the definition of piracy. They played an important role in the Latin American struggles for independence between 1815 and 1821, but some degenerated into Caribbean piracy thereafter. Operating from the numerous inlets in Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico, as many as 2,000 pirates preyed upon the growing commerce between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. The United States responded with warships. In a notable encounter off Cape Antonio, Cuba, in 1821, U.S. naval forces captured the notorious Captain Charles Gibbs. When another U.S. force defeated the audacious Cuban pirate "Diabolito" two years later, acts of piracy in the Caribbean dwindled rapidly. The last major act of piracy occurred in September 1832, when the pirate Pedro Gilbert looted and burned the U.S.-registered Mexican en route from Salem to Rio de Janeiro.

Piracy was damaging to the commerce of all nations. But Iberian colonial trade suffered the most depredations, since piracy merely continued the assault on it that Spain's rivals had begun in the sixteenth century. British commercial and naval superiority in the eighteenth century led to its suppression, and in modern times naval technology and firepower have greatly reduced its importance in Latin American waters.

See alsoBuccaneers and Freebooters.


There is a vast popular literature on piracy, much of it dealing with buccaneers and privateers as well as pirates. There are several modern editions of Daniel Defoe's classic General History of the … Pyrates, including those edited by William Graves (1972) and by Manuel Schonhorn (1972). Especially useful for reference on individual pirates is Philip Gosse, The History of Piracy (1932) and his highly useful biographical dictionary of pirates, buccaneers, and other freebooters, The Pirates' Who's Who (1924). Among the general works on piracy see Neville Williams, Captains Outrageous: Seven Centuries of Piracy (1961), and Douglas Botting, The Pirates (1978). Jenifer Marx, Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean (1992), a useful overview of the whole range of foreign interlopers in the Caribbean, also includes several chapters on piracy. George Woodbury, The Great Days of Piracy in the West Indies (1951); Hugh F. Rankin, The Golden Age of Piracy (1969); Frank Sherry, Raiders and Rebels: The Golden Age of Piracy (1986); Clinton V. Black, Pirates of the West Indies (1989) (with biographical sketches of leading buccaneers and pirates from Morgan to Nicholas Brown) all focus on the peak period of piratical activity in the Caribbean. Peter T. Bradley's thoroughly documented The Lure of Peru: Maritime Intrusion into the South Sea, 1598–1701 (1989) is more concerned with buccaneers than pirates, but is useful for its focus on the viceroyalty of Peru. See also the many books on individual pirates.

Additional Bibliography

Corcuera Ibáñez, Mario. El coraje y el fuego: De piratas y corsarios desde Polícrates a Bouchard. Buenos Aires: Librería Histórica, 2004.

Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500–1750. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

Lucena Salmoral, Manuel. Piratas, bucaneros, filibusteros y corsarios en América: Perros, mendigos y otros malditos del mar. Madrid: Editorial MAPFRE, 1992.

                              Ralph Lee Woodward Jr.


views updated May 18 2018


The act of violence or depredation on the high seas; also, the theft ofintellectual property, especially in electronic media.

Piracy is a crime with ancient origins. As long as there have been ships at sea, pirates have sought to steal from them. Internationally, laws against piracy have ancient origins, too, but U.S. law developed chiefly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The power to criminalize piracy originated in the U.S. Constitution, which was followed by the first federal law in 1790 and crucial revisions over the next sixty years. Additionally, the United States and other nations cooperated to combat piracy in the twentieth century. This resulted in a unique shared view of jurisdiction: piracy on the high

seas can be punished by any nation. In the late twentieth century, the term piracy grew to include copyright violations of intellectual property such as music, films, and computer software.

The Constitution addresses piracy in Article 1, Section 8. It gives Congress "the Power … To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations." Generally, the definition of pirates meant rogue operators at sea—independent criminals who hijacked ships, stole their cargo, or committed violence against their crew. But standards in all areas under the law changed in response to judicial rulings and to historical incidents, forming by the mid-1800s what became the basis for contemporary law.

In 1790 Congress enacted the first substantive antipiracy law, a broad ban on murder and robbery at sea that carried the death penalty. In 1818, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law was limited to crimes involving U.S. citizens: U.S. jurisdiction did not cover foreigners whose piracy targeted other foreigners (United States v. Palmer, 16 U.S. [3 Wheat.] 610). A year later, in 1819, Congress responded by passing an antipiracy law to extend U.S. jurisdiction over pirates of all nationalities.

By the mid-nineteenth century, two other important changes occurred. Penalties for certain piracy crimes—revolt and mutiny—were reduced and were no longer punishable by death. Then the Mexican War of 1846–48 brought a radical extension of the definition of a pirate. The traditional definition of an independent criminal was broadened to include sailors acting on commissions from foreign nations, if and when their commissions violated U.S. treaties with their government. The Piracy Act of 1847, which established this broader definition, marked the last major change in U.S. piracy law.

Today, the primary source of antipiracy law is title 18, chapter 81, of the United States Code, although numerous other antipiracy provisions are scattered throughout the code. Additionally, international cooperation has shaped a unique form of jurisdictional agreement among nations. Significant in bringing about this cooperation was the geneva convention on the High Seas of April 29, 1958 and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The primary effect of such agreements is to allow pirates to be apprehended on the high seas—meaning outside of territorial limits—by the authorities of any nation and punished under its own law. This standard is unique because nations are generally forbidden by international law from interfering with the vessels of another nation on the high seas. It arose because piracy itself has never vanished; in fact, since the 1970s, it has appeared to have undergone a resurgence.

Apart from its traditional definition, piracy also refers to copyright violations. Committed both in the United States and abroad, this form of piracy includes the unauthorized storage, reproduction, distribution, or sale of intellectual property—for example, music CDs, movie videocassettes, and even fashion designs. The term has been applied, in particular, to the piracy of computer software, which is highly susceptible to theft because of its ease of duplication. Estimates of the cost to copyright holders ranges in the billions of dollars annually. U.S. law protects copyright holders under the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C.S. § 109 [1993]), and a 1992 federal law makes software piracy a felony (Pub. L. No. 102-561, 106 Stat. 4233, codified at 18 U.S.C.A. § 2319 [1988 & 1992 Supp.]). Since the 1990s, a number of international treaties and conventions, as well as diplomatic initiatives, have sought to forge greater cooperation among nations to combat such piracy.

further readings

Menefee, Samuel Pyeatt. 1990/1991."'Yo Heave Ho!': Updating America's Piracy Laws." California Western International Law Journal 21.

Short, Greg. 1994."Combatting Software Piracy: Can Felony Penalties for Copyright Infringement Curtail the Copying of Computer Software?" Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal 10 (June).


Admiralty and Maritime Law; Computer Crime; Hijacking.


views updated May 18 2018


PIRACY. From the early seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts witnessed extensive acts of piracy against nations engaging in shipping and trade. From New England's earliest settlement, its shipping suffered from coastal piracy. In 1653 Massachusetts made piracy punishable by death, and governors sometimes sent out armed ships to attack offshore pirates. At the same time, however, colonial governors granted "privateering" commissions to sea desperadoes.

The Navigation Acts, passed by Great Britain between 1650 and 1696, halted all foreign ships from trading in the American colonies; this led to colonial smuggling and eventually to piracy. Colonial merchants and settlers bought pirates' stolen goods and thus obtained necessary commodities at a cheap price. New York, Philadelphia, and Newport, Rhode Island, were rivals in this scandalous trade, with Boston, Virginia, and the Carolinas also buying stolen goods. When Richard Coote, earl of Bellomont, became governor of New York and New England in 1697, he was ordered to "suppress the prevailing piracy" causing "so much distress along the coast." Coote found general colonial connivance with pirates, however, especially in New York, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia. One New York merchant secured $500,000 in seven years through promotion of piracy.

Piracy reached a peak during the period 1705–1725, and particularly between 1721 and 1724, when terror reigned on the New England coast. English men-of-war ended this peril, but after the American Revolution piratical attacks on U.S. ships by French "privateers" led to an undeclared war between France and the United States and contributed to the creation of the U.S. Navy. Piratical operations of English men-of-war on U.S. coasts and the high seas, including the impressment of American seamen, hastened the War of 1812. The period 1805–1825 witnessed a resurgence of piracy, which led to the expansion of the U.S. Navy, which was active suppressing piracy and convoying ships. More than three thousand instances of piracy were recorded between 1814 and 1824, half of them on U.S. shipping.

Beginning in 1805 the navy began warring on pirates on the Louisiana and Gulf coasts, a region long plagued by piracy. The Barataria pirates were driven out in 1814, and the Aury-Laffite pirates were purged from Galveston, Texas, in 1817. From 1816 to 1824 the United States

faced the perplexing problem of dealing with the piratical "privateers" of the new Latin American republics. Congress finally was so angered by these freebooters' depredations that in 1819 it passed an act prescribing the death penalty for piracy.

The Spaniards of Cuba and Puerto Rico sent out pirates who captured American ships, murdered their crews, and nearly brought on a war between the United States and the two Spanish colonies. Congress denounced this piracy in 1822, and in 1823 and 1824 it dispatched a strong naval squadron to suppress the pirates. By 1827 piracy had ended on all U.S. coasts.


Bromley, John S. Corsairs and Navies, 1660–1760. History Series. London: Hambledon Press, 1987.

Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500– 1750. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1998.

Marley, David. Pirates and Privateers of the Americas. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

Swanson, Carl E. Predators and Prizes: American Privateering and Imperial Warfare, 1739–1748. Studies in Maritime History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.



See alsoFrance, Quasi-War with ; Navigation Acts ; Privateers and Privateering ; War of 1812 .


views updated May 21 2018

piracy. The oldest profession of the sea, piracy in British coastal waters by Saxon or north German seafarers may have become common by c. ad 400; with the Viking era, from c. ad 800, depredations by Norse adventurers became seasonal events. Essentially, however, piracy was pursued without the sanction of any higher authority unless, as was not infrequently the case, it had a measure of official connivance. This may partly explain why early sea laws in the west, which by implication place piracy ‘without the law’, do not seem to do so explicitly. In England, before the emergence of the Court of Admiralty in the 14th cent. the crown accorded substantial ‘self-regulation’ to the ports of the realm, but it did not do so lightly: in 1343 Edward III forthrightly condemned piracy in Dartmouth, for such abuse of foreign ships injured the royal preserve of relations with other states. An expanding sea-borne commerce, which in volume of shipping seems to have reached its first peak in England in about 1570, made piracy in waters which individual governments might pretend to control difficult if not impossible to counter. The quintessence of this situation lay in the Caribbean archipelagos of Spain's transatlantic empire, where a theoretical dominion was frequently challenged, and sometimes (Britain's treaty with Spain of 1670 is a case in point) with the active concurrence of Madrid. If there was a European precedent for the Spanish monopolistic approach it was in the Hanseatic League, with its self-protective commercial overlordship of northern waters in the 14th and 15th cents. Hanseatic power explains why English piracy flourished in the south-west, whence it reached into Biscay, the chief medieval source of salt and wine, rather than upon the coasts fronting the North Sea.

For all the dexterity and legalism of Elizabeth I's responses to Spanish allegations of piracy, it is inescapable that piracy there was; and that if government was a circumspect backer of Hawkins and Drake it was transparently a gainer from their daring. Elizabethan piracy was essentially a business venture, even if the force of a protestantism determined to challenge the papal award of the western hemisphere to Spain and the eastern to Portugal in 1494 should not be underrated. With the 17th cent. came piracy's great age in the West Indies. The Spanish need to purchase West African slaves from English and other slavers, Spain's extended communications which themselves invited rootless seafarers to prey upon cargoes of fabulous wealth, combined with the loose proprietorial hold on those islands Spain virtually conceded to Britain, such as New Providence in the Bahamas, or had lost to her through war, pre-eminently Jamaica. The heyday of Morgan, Teach (Blackbeard), Avery, Roberts, Kidd, though of hardly more than 50 years' duration, was symptomatic of Spain's equivocal self-defence in central America. Through her reforms at home, and a series of better-structured commercial treaties, institutional piracy did not recur in the later 18th cent., and had little place in South America's 19th-cent. independence movements.

The ‘internationalism’ in modern maritime law may stem from such 17th-cent. jurists as Grotius, but marine technology has so varied that law as to blur ‘old law and custom’. The submarine as a weapon of war in the early 20th cent., independent in operation as well as invisible, unable to afford assistance to torpedoed ships' companies, was plainly seen in some British circles as piracy re-emerging in a fresh and terrible guise. Only in 1917, with Germany's unrestricted U-boat war, did Britain cross the Rubicon and respond in kind.

David Denis Aldridge


views updated May 14 2018


Piracy on the open seas dates back millennia, and was a common plague of merchant shipping in ancient Greece and Rome. Through the Middle Ages, Mediterranean pirates commonly hijacked cargoes as well as individuals, selling them into slavery or holding them for ransom. With small or nonexistent navies, weak central governments could do very little to suppress piracy. In the sixteenth century, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, piracy in the Mediterranean posed even greater dangers. These corsairs, or Barbary Coast pirates, had been operating for centuries using fast, shallow-drafted ships that could outrun any large warship, and take shelter in bays or rivers where military ships could not go. Piracy was an important industry in Tunis, Algiers, and other Barbary Coast cities, where syndicates of wealthy investors sponsored voyages and divided the profits as well as hostage ransoms. The corsairs posed a constant threat to coastal towns in Sicily, Spain, and the southern coasts of Italy, and even raided in the Atlantic Ocean as far north as Iceland. Their piracy was often supported by ruling sultans, who protected the corsairs in port and built holding cells for hostages, who at one point numbered tens of thousands in the city of Algiers.

At the same time, piracy was spreading to the Caribbean and the Atlantic as new colonies were founded in the Americas, and treasure fleets transporting gold to Europe presented tempting targets. As nations competed for colonies and resources, the European monarchies began sponsoring pirates called privateers to undertake raids against the ships of their rivals. One of the most successful was Sir Francis Drake, commissioned a privateer by Queen Elizabeth I of England. Drake raided Spanish ports in the Caribbean and California, and fought in the queen's service during the campaign of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The buccaneers, as they were also known after the French cooking grill known as a boucan, were hired by the governments of England, the Netherlands, and France for the purpose of harassing Spanish shipping to and from Spain's American colonies. The buccaneers formed a powerful military faction in the Caribbean region, and established protected bases in the Bahamas, Tortuga, Jamaica, and later Panama. Under Henry Morgan, pirate bands captured the major cities of Spanish-held Panama, including Portobelo and the city of Panama, a crucial link in the transportation of silver and gold from the Andes region to Spain. Their ranks were often increased by mutineers from British military ships, who escaped a miserable and dangerous existence for the chance to share in captured gold and loot.

Piracy also thrived in Asian waters. The Chinese pirate Pinyin Zheng Zhilong, after leaving the service of the Portuguese at Macau, raided Dutch shipping in the East Indies. Cheng Ch'eng Kuon seized the entire island of Formosa from the Portuguese, using it as a base for a long campaign of piracy in the South China Seaa region that remains a dangerous hotbed of piracy in the twenty-first century.


views updated May 23 2018


Companies Look For Legal Downloading Solutions

In the wake of the June 2005 decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, Grokster Ltd., a company whose file-sharing software had been used to illegally download music and movies via the Internet, agreed in November 2005 to shut down its operations as part of the settlement of the case with the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Music Publishers' Association.

Grokster changed its web site to say that it no longer offered software for free downloads of music and movies, and it referred potential customers to other sites. In a Washington Post article, Marty Lafferty, head of the Distributed Computing Industry Association, a trade group that includes some file-sharing services, said that the settlement is a sign that the file-sharing industry is moving toward making itself legal and that the Grokster action is "part of the conversion from open peer-to-peers to industry-acceptable, sanctioned business methods."

The Grokster brand may survive in the form of a fee-based version of the software that allows users to download files legally, but the status of such a product remains uncertain while the sale of Grokster's assets is pending. However, the cessation of Grokster's file-sharing operations will not prevent customers who have already downloaded the software from using it.

The Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Studios v. Grokster stated that distributors of file-sharing software were liable for secondary copyright infringement associated with the direct copyright infringement demonstrated by the individuals who used the software to illegally download and share music and video files.

In September 2005, several other online file-sharing companies in addition to Grokster reacted to the Grokster ruling by seeking agreements with the recording industry. Grokster has negotiated a tentative agreement with Mash-Boxx, a company sponsored by Sony that is trying to establish itself as a legal file-sharing service. New York Times reporter Saul Hansell wrote that, according to an anonymous source involved in the negotiations, "Mashboxx would make a nominal payment for Grokser, but would share future revenue."

Several file-sharing services, including LimeWire, eDonkey, and BearShare, received letters from the Recording Industry Association of America in the fall of 2005, buoyed by the Grokster decision, demanding that the companies prohibit users of their services from trading copyrighted files. The companies were invited to discuss possible settlements in advance of litigation.

The file-sharing service known as iMesh, which reached a settlement with the recording industry in 2004, has made overtures to purchase other file-sharing services if they would settle their own claims with the recording industry. In the iMesh settlement, the company paid four million dollars in damages and converted to a paid, legal service that will block the trading of copyrighted files without the owner's permission. The goal is less about making money than about helping other file-sharing services avoid litigation, said iMesh executive chairman Robert E. Summer in the New York Times. Summer was quoted as saying that iMesh's potential acquisition of other file-sharing companies would be "good for iMesh and good for the industry."

Although iMesh spent the better part of a year developing itself as a paid service, the recording industry expects an end to free file-sharing as soon as the software is developed. Spokespersons from Mashboxx and iMesh have stated that the companies intend to use technology that reviews downloaded files and compares them with a master list of copyrighted songs from the recording industry. If someone tries to download a copyrighted file, the download will simply be blocked, or the downloader will be asked for a fee, in the manner of the iTunes Music Store established by Apple.

Another twist on the file-sharing issue involves a lawsuit by StreamCast Networks, the company named along with Grokster in the Supreme Court case. StreamCast has sued the online auction company eBay over its use of StreamCast's Morpheus file-sharing technology that allows customers to make phone calls over the Internet. Ebay owns Skype, an online telephone service.

StreamCast is seeking more than four billion dollars in damages, and has asked the court to force compliance. The lawsuit stated that eBay and twenty-one other companies have taken advantage of the technology in "an attempt to steal and wrongfully profit from technology that rightfully belongs to StreamCast." An eBay spokesperson expressed awareness of the lawsuit and declined to comment.


views updated May 14 2018


At the end of the twentieth century the term piracy held two distinct meanings. The first, the more historical meaning, refers to acts of plundering on the high seas. The second, the more modern meaning, refers to the theft of intellectual property, specifically copyright infringements against producers of computer software and entertainment programs such music CDs, movie videocassettes, and books.

Piracy on the high seas were acts committed by criminals against a shipping vessel, including hijacking the ship, stealing its cargo, or taking violent action against the crew. Acts of piracy along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts were prevalent from the seventeenth century into the nineteenth century. The U.S. Constitution made piracy a crime in Article 1, Section 8, and Congress in 1790 first enacted an anti-piracy law. The act banned murder and robbery at sea under the threat of the death penalty. Acts of piracy against U.S. ships off the coasts of Britain and continental Europe from 1803 to 1812 was a major factor leading to the War of 1812 (18121814). Piracy legislation from 1818 to 1847 laid the framework for modern anti-piracy law found predominantly in Title 18, Chapter 18, of the U.S. legal code. Twentieth-century international cooperation shaped unique jurisdictional agreement allowing pirates to be apprehended on the oceans by the officials of any nation and punished under that nation's law.

The second meaning of piracy is copyright violations, both in the United States and abroad. The Copyright Act of 1976 gives to the author the exclusive right to reproduce, display, distribute, and sell his original work. The International Intellectual Property Alliance's annual review of illegal copying of works estimated U.S. losses due to copyright piracy totaled approximately $12 billion in 1998. Computer software businesses suffered the highest loss. The People's Republic of China was a major offender. The Business Software Alliance and the Software and Information Industry Association estimated 40 percent of business applications in use worldwide in 1997 were pirated.

The growth of computer network communications, especially the global Internet, made illegal copying of expensive software easy and nearly untraceable. The Software Publishers Association, from its offices in Washington, D.C. and Paris, France, fights copyright infringement. Also, to combat such piracy, the 1990s saw increased international cooperation through meetings, diplomatic initiatives, and treaties.

See also: Barbary States