What you don't know may harm you

Pirates of the high seas were at least identified by the skull and crossbones flag on their sailing ships.

Jan 1st, 2005

Pirates of the high seas were at least identified by the skull and crossbones flag on their sailing ships. But these modern pirates are invisible and and are permeating the very structures we have come to rely on.

Recently, three seemingly unrelated events heralded changes that could alter life significantly. The first was the arrival of guests from the U.K., who were fingerprinted by the U.S. Immigration Service at Boston’s Logan Airport and so became part of an international database. The second was the arrival of a strange e-mail, purporting to be from Microsoft, asking me for personal details, such as my Social Security Number and bank account data. Naturally, I declined to do so. And the third event was the arrival, by snail mail, of a healthy 300-page book, Pirates of the Digital Millennium, by Jack Rochester and John Gantz (FT Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ).

The book is subtitled “How the Intellectual Property Wars Damage Our Personal Freedoms, Our Jobs, and the World Economy.” That’s some heavy-duty verbiage, Jack and John. But wait a minute, guys, digital pirates are at work every day and we don’t even know it. That book you sent me is recorded in Prentice-Hall’s database of reviewers and review copies. The USPS has a record of delivery to my home office. My phone company has a record of the calls I made to Jack Rochester with some queries about the book. Who knows how many people may have legal or illegal ­access to all these databases?

And so it goes. My houseguests are recorded in the annals of the U.S. Immigration Service for all time. And someone is trying to steal my identity! Pirates of the High Seas were at least identified by the Skull and Crossbones flag on their sailing ships. But these modern pirates are largely invisible and are permeating the very structures we have come to rely on for business and social transactions.

Full disclosure: Jack Rochester and I are writing colleagues and personal friends of many years standing. John Gantz is chief research officer of International Data Corp., Framingham, MA, a respected information technology market research firm. Our paths have crossed several times in the past. I shudder to think how much of my past relationships with these two authors is sitting silently in corporate and personal databases just waiting for the digital pirates to sail through.

But, wait a minute! The pirates in this book are us. As author and reviewer Tracy Kidder notes, “The pirates in this book include both teenagers working in their bedrooms and corporate executives in their offices, hijacking the gift of digital technology.” How many of you have downloaded mp3 songs from the Internet without giving the artist a nickel? Okay, so it’s small-scale robbery and nobody gets harmed. But multiply that by the billions that could be collected in such small amounts and “pretty soon you’re talking real money,” as the late Illinois Senator Dirksen used to declaim.

So the “pirates” of the book’s title are the people who violate intellectual property rights, generally by electronic means such as downloading songs in mp3 format from the Internet. The authors ask, “Are You a Digital Pirate?” They go on to define copyrights in this digital age and explain the intentions and results of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. They examine the (mostly ineffective) attempts to stem the tide of digital piracy, and they ask you, the reader, to examine your own conscience.

Finally, Gantz and Rochester formulate some possible solutions to the problem of digital piracy and explain their own philosophies. As a fellow author and writer, I, too, am concerned about the theft of intellectual property but I’m inclined to the view that the marketplace will eventually sort out this problem as, indeed, it is doing so via the ingenious solution of the Apple iPod and Apple’s music store which makes the cost of downloading so reasonable as to thwart much illegal copying.

I am much more concerned about the “pirates” who use data about me and many individuals without our knowledge, despite recent changes in the privacy laws. So I challenge Gantz and Rochester to write yet another definitive book: The New Pirates of the Digital Millennium: How the Data Miners are Violating Our Personal Freedoms, Our Jobs, and Our Economies. How about it, Jack and John?

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

More in Research