Pirates get bad press, or so Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne conclude in their short history of the profession. Pirates are not marauding egotists who prize only bullion and rum, argue the two French professors; they are in fact heroic risk-takers who defy the excesses of capitalism and the tentacles of state control. Modern Blackbeards are hackers and gene-tinkerers. They will come to change capitalism for the better, Durand and Vergne think, as pirates often do.
Pirates have a long history, from plunderers of the Barbary coast to modern Chinese cybercriminals. St. Augustine reported a convicted pirate's testy exchange with Alexander the Great: "Because I have only one rickety ship, I'm called a bandit, and because you have a large fleet, you are called an emperor." Defenders of Internet freedom make similar stands.
Piracy arises in the same way. Territory is discovered, be it the New World or the World Wide Web. The state seeks to impose laws and take ownership. Pirates resist. In doing so, the authors argue, they are fighting for a public cause. When the British granted a subcontinent to the East India Company, pirates raided ships to end the monopoly. Cyberpirates want an Internet for everyone, and so-called biopirates ignore laws on DNA manipulation with the aim of beckoning in genetic engineering for all. Some pirates are recruited by the state: Sir Francis Drake pilfered for England, and the Pentagon employs past hackers. But in the end, the state loses its monopoly. The pirates win.
Durand and Vergne make a point of welcoming the victory of pirates. This is surely wrong. Buccaneers were not freedom-fighters with eye-patches, but petty robbers. Is all piracy to be welcomed? Terrorists who fight the state monopoly on nuclear weapons are pirates by the authors' logic, but nukes for all may be a bad idea. Nevertheless, this is a stimulating book filled with new ideas. Philosophically minded land-lubbers will enjoy it just as much as barnacle-backs.