The act of violence or depredation on the high seas; also, the theft of INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, especially in electronic media.
Piracy is a crime with ancient origins. As long as there have been ships at sea, pirates have sought to steal from them. Internationally, laws against piracy have ancient origins, too, but U.S. law developed chiefly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The power to criminalize piracy originated in the U.S. Constitution, which was followed by the first federal law in 1790 and crucial revisions over the next sixty years. Additionally, the United States and other nations cooperated to combat piracy in the twentieth century. This resulted in a unique shared view of jurisdiction: piracy on the high
seas can be punished by any nation. In the late twentieth century, the term piracy grew to include COPYRIGHT violations of intellectual property such as music, films, and computer software.
The Constitution addresses piracy in Article 1, Section 8. It gives Congress "the Power … To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations." Generally, the definition of pirates meant rogue operators at sea—independent criminals who hijacked ships, stole their cargo, or committed violence against their crew. But standards in all areas under the law changed in response to judicial rulings and to historical incidents, forming by the mid-1800s what became the basis for contemporary law.
In 1790 Congress enacted the first substantive antipiracy law, a broad ban on murder and ROBBERY at sea that carried the death penalty. In 1818, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law was limited to crimes involving U.S. citizens: U.S. jurisdiction did not cover foreigners whose piracy targeted other foreigners (United States v. Palmer, 16 U.S. [3 Wheat.] 610). A year later, in 1819, Congress responded by passing an antipiracy law to extend U.S. jurisdiction over pirates of all nationalities.
By the mid-nineteenth century, two other important changes occurred. Penalties for certain piracy crimes—revolt and mutiny—were reduced and were no longer punishable by death. Then the Mexican War of 1846–48 brought a radical extension of the definition of a pirate. The traditional definition of an independent criminal was broadened to include sailors acting on commissions from foreign nations, if and when their commissions violated U.S. treaties with their government. The Piracy Act of 1847, which established this broader definition, marked the last major change in U.S. piracy law.
Today, the primary source of antipiracy law is title 18, chapter 81, of the United States Code, although numerous other antipiracy provisions are scattered throughout the code. Additionally, international cooperation has shaped a unique form of jurisdictional agreement among nations. Significant in bringing about this cooperation was the GENEVA CONVENTION on the High Seas of April 29, 1958 and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The primary effect of such agreements is to allow pirates to be apprehended on the high seas—meaning outside of territorial limits—by the authorities of any nation and punished under its own law. This standard is unique because nations are generally forbidden by INTERNATIONAL LAW from interfering with the vessels of another nation on the high seas. It arose because piracy itself has never vanished; in fact, since the 1970s, it has appeared to have undergone a resurgence.
Apart from its traditional definition, piracy also refers to copyright violations. Committed both in the United States and abroad, this form of piracy includes the unauthorized storage, reproduction, distribution, or sale of intellectual property—for example, music CDs, movie videocassettes, and even fashion designs. The term has been applied, in particular, to the piracy of computer software, which is highly susceptible to theft because of its ease of duplication. Estimates of the cost to copyright holders ranges in the billions of dollars annually. U.S. law protects copyright holders under the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C.S. § 109 ), and a 1992 federal law makes software piracy a felony (Pub. L. No. 102-561, 106 Stat. 4233, codified at 18 U.S.C.A. § 2319 [1988 & 1992 Supp.]). Since the 1990s, a number of international treaties and conventions, as well as diplomatic initiatives, have sought to forge greater cooperation among nations to combat such piracy.
Menefee, Samuel Pyeatt. 1990/1991."'Yo Heave Ho!': Updating America's Piracy Laws." California Western International Law Journal 21.
Short, Greg. 1994."Combatting Software Piracy: Can Felony Penalties for Copyright Infringement Curtail the Copying of Computer Software?" Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal 10 (June).