The Paradigm Wars: Open vs. Piracy

research on piracy as a paradigm of domination, in conflict with the open paradigm

“The Piracy Paradigm project is K. Matthew Dames‘ historical critique of U.S. copyright law and policy. Using framing and copyright theory, methodologies such as policy analysis, historical analysis, and narrative; and the foundation of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Dr. Dames argues forcefully theorizes that “piracy” has been the dominant paradigm governing American copyright law and policy throughout its 300 year history. Dr. Dames defines the “piracy paradigm,” and shows how its elements consistently have recurred over time to bound and control copyright discourse.

Finally, Dr. Dames advances the notion that contemporary copyright conflicts result from the emergence of a competing paradigm — the “open paradigm” — that has been developed by non-traditional stakeholders and which adopts non-traditional views about the copyright regime. The author indicates the conflict between the “piracy” and “open” paradigms likely will influence copyright law, policy, and norms for the foreseeable future.”

Dr. Dames explains:


“Few terms have been used more frequently in copyright discourse than “piracy.” It is so pervasive within American copyright discourse that few bother to explain what it means. It is presumed we all understand copyright “piracy” so thoroughly that the word does not require definition, clarification or investigation. A primary reason why “piracy” is so accessible is because it conjures images of theft, immorality and illegality, while simultaneously evoking the celebrated American concepts of exclusivity and propriety.

But “piracy” is not simply a metaphor or rhetoric. Instead, “piracy” is a paradigm: a normative model of copyright that reinforces convictions related to property, control, theft, commoditization, and the presumption that each use of, or access to, a protected work will result in compensation or economic return. While copyright and communications scholars have studied “piracy” as rhetoric or metaphor, this dissertation is the first to theorize instead that “piracy” is a paradigmatic way of viewing what copyright law has been, what it is, and what it should be in the future.” (

2. Opening Statement

“Several scholars have written convincingly about the role rhetoric and metaphors play in shaping contemporary copyright policy. Much of this scholarship explores the use and meaning of the term “piracy.” For example, William Patry’s Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars (2009) provides extensive research on the role of metaphors and their purported effect on copyright policy.

Another work, John Logie’s Peers, Pirates, and Persuasion: Rhetoric in the Peer-to-Peer Debates (2006), employs what the author calls “rhetorical historicism” to pay attention to the speaker and the institutions that are authorizing the discourse,. Logie also critiques the relationships between rhetoric and its broader cultural context.

Adrian Johns’ Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (2010) chronicles the tensions between authorized and unauthorized producers and distributors of information, cultural and entertainment goods in British and American culture from the 17th through 21st centuries. Johns’ primary argument is that piracy, which he loosely defines as the unauthorized use or taking of works that are protected by one or more intellectual property regimes, is not new. Instead, Johns says, scope and an “antipiracy” industry that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s is the difference between the “piracy” of today and the “piracy” of yore.

As thorough as these efforts are, they attempt to analyze language and metaphors in isolation, without a thorough consideration of the political, social, and environmental conditions that influence language and its use. Rarely do metaphors and rhetoric occur in a vacuum; instead, they often emanate from a particular point of view, a way of seeing the world that the speaker holds. Of course, it is possible that a speaker can employ rhetoric disingenuously merely for political or economic; many lobbyists and public relations professionals do this daily. But just as many of those professionals truly believe the causes for which they advocate, and thus are as likely to be genuine in their language than not. This means that much of their language, meant to persuade, may not be insincere.

Any time we discuss rhetoric or metaphors, it is appropriate to explore the ideology, mindset, beliefs and values that support that language. To engage properly and thoroughly, such an exploration requires multidisciplinary historical and cultural research. In studying U.S. copyright law and policy since its inception, I believe the “piracy” meme has little to do with unauthorized “theft” or “taking” of another ’s creative “property.” Instead, “piracy” is the lens through which copyright law’s decision makers view the regime and its boundaries.

I call this lens the piracy paradigm. This project explores that lens.”