Every Pirate Wants to Be an Admiral IT’S NOT AS though this is the first time we’ve had to rethink what copyright is, what it should do, and whom it should serve. The activities that copyright regulates—copying, transmission, display, performance—are technological activities, so when technology changes, it’s usually the case that copyright has to change, too. And it’s rarely pretty. When piano rolls were invented, the composers, whose income came from sheet music, were aghast. They couldn’t believe that player-piano companies had the audacity to record and sell performances of their work. They tried—unsuccessfully—to have such recordings classified as copyright violations. Then (thanks in part to the institution of a compulsory license) the piano-roll pirates and their compatriots in the wax-cylinder business got legit, and became the record industry. Then the radio came along, and broadcasters had the audacity to argue that they should be able to play records over the air. The record industry was furious, and tried (unsuccessfully) to block radio broadcasts without explicit permission from recording artists. Their argument was “When we used technology to appropriate and further commercialize the works of composers, that was progress. When these upstart broadcasters do it to our records, that’s piracy.” A few decades later, with the dust settled around radio transmission, along came cable TV, which appropriated broadcasts sent over the air and retransmitted them over cables. The broadcasters argued (unsuccessfully) that this was a form of piracy, and that the law should put an immediate halt to it. Their argument? The familiar one: “When we did it, it was progress. When they do it to us, that’s piracy.” Then came the VCR, which instigated a landmark lawsuit by the cable operators and the studios, a legal battle that was waged for eight years, finishing up in the 1984 Supreme Court “Betamax” ruling. You can look up the briefs if you’d like, but fundamentally, they went like this: “When we took the broadcasts without permission, that was progress. Now that someone’s recording our cable signals without permission, that’s piracy.” Sony won, and fifteen years later it was one of the first companies to get in line to sue Internet companies that were making it easier to copy music and videos online. I have a name for the principle at work here: “Every pirate wants to be an admiral.