PIRATES get a 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. Nor are they simply the hook-handed, peg-legged sea dogs of popular legend. Modern Blackbeards are hackers and gene-tinkerers. They will come to change capitalism for the better, Messrs 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,” says the plucky seafarer. Defenders of internet freedom make similar stands. A 1996 act bringing in anti-indecency rules to the web “attempts to place more restrictive constraints on the conversation in cyberspace than presently exist in the Senate cafeteria,” said John Perry Barlow. Hackers rallied to his cause.