Friday, December 05, 2008

Pirates of the Amazon

Habitual and casual readers may have noticed my love of all things piratical. I've been a fan of pirates way before Johnny Depp donned the colourful bandanna and tricorn hat, mostly thanks to the great novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers. Granted, pirates have been getting a bad name recently due to their failure to look anything like Johnny Depp, and their relinquishing of romantic swords and muskets in favour of more deadly and proportionally less romantic AK-47s. Similarly, there is not one single parrot to be found in modern pirate speedboats and zodiac inflatable boats.

One of the welcome developments of the renaissance of maritime pirate activities off the coast of Somalia has been that finally there seems to be a much welcome backlash against the use (and abuse) of the word "pirate" to describe copyright infringement. Nasty-looking men with semi-automatic weapons who hijack oil tankers are in an entirely different league of wrong-doing to teenagers downloading music on torrent sites. In other words, criminal pirate activity tends to put copyright offences into perspective. As David Vaver said once, piracy is nowhere near equivalent to copyright infringement, just try to release a movie called "Infringers of the Caribbean", and not even Keira Knightley will draw the crowds into the cinema.

Why the pirate musings? Well, it seems like not everyone is happy with the state of affairs, and some people seem intent on maintaining the good (or bad, depending of where you stand) name of online piracy. Net Pirates are back with a vengeance as some bright sparks have created a Firefox plugin that adds a large "Download 4 Free" image to the Amazon website. This image is a link to the page in the Pirate Bay where the user can look at the torrent file with which to download the content for free, as advertised.

There are all sorts of opinions about this hack. The overwhelming response seems to be negative, going by the comments in a torrent-friendly site like Torrent Freak. Granted, this is a clever hack, and the authors claim that their application is "artistic parody", although I am lost as to the artistic value of such an act (call me a purist, but I do not think that pickled sharks and urinals are either artistic and/or clever).

Amazon sent a notice of take down to the makers of the plug-in, and they have complied by removing it, although I am reliably told that it can still be found in several torrent search sites. In my opinion, the legality of the issue is rather less straightforward. For example, the add-on does not deface the origianl website in any form, the changes to the way the site looks are done directly inside the user's computer by modifying the downloaded HTML code, an action akin to that performed by other Firefox plug-ins like Greasemonkey. As such, the user is simply modifying locally the way the page looks by adding a link to Pirate Bay. Similarly, I am not sure if this could somehow fall foul of trade mark law, as the actual modification is done upfront by the user downloading an add-on to the browser. It would be difficult to argue that the user who has installed the plug-in would be confused and would believe that Amazon offers links to Pirate Bay. In my opinion, this is a legal grey area, and it would be interesting to get a ruling on the subject.

A more interesting legal question is that of whether users have the right to make local modifications of HTML code. I cannot think of any exclusive right protected by copyright that would be infringed by this action. Given that temporary and cached copies of pages fall under exclusions in various copyright jurisdictions, I believe that such plug-ins are legal.

We are then left with a moral question, and there I agree with most critics. While I admire the chutzpah and impish nature of the plug-in, I agree with many people who have said that this may be counter-productive, and may give ammunition to copyright maximalists.

Please let the image of the Internet pirate go to its well-deserved place in the Recycle Bin of history.

1 comment:

Adi said...
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