Just a quick note or two after reading the BBC story “Microsoft Steps up Piracy Fight”.

First, on the political economy of digital production. Pace declarations that “a third of software worldwide is fake” or “counterfeit,” in that these are digitally exact replicas of the “original” software, charges of “fakery” are ungrounded. This is not a product that is constructed to resemble what Microsoft sells. This is what Microsoft sells. I take it that the rhetoric of the “counterfeit” is invoked to suggest that “pirated” software is in some way inferior to the “real” thing. But this goes against the whole logic of the digital mode of production.

Second, on the political economy of piracy. I find it interesting that over the past thirty years or so there has been an almost exact reversal of the relation of pirates to the process of production. Classical piracy involved the disruption of distribution networks. Indeed, a common charge against sixteenth and seventeenth-century buccaneers was that they were parasitic and unproductive. Today’s software (and CD and DVD) piracy, however, is stigmatized because these pirates, freed from the start-up costs of R&D, from the requirement to invest in the fixed capital of the recording studio, from the obligation to pay wages (royalties) to the artists and designers, and from taxation and other levies imposed by the state, etc. etc., are producers who enjoy unfair comparative advantage because of their overall lower unit costs.

Of course, the political economy of piracy is complicated by the political economy of digital reproduction: most people would probably suggest that pirates copy, rather than produce. But copying is an essential part of the digital production process, in a manner quite distinct from traditional production processes. In Fordist industrial production, for instance, it is not that you first produce one car and then copy that car; rather you produce moulds for the various car components, which are then assembled to construct a car. (Here a counterfeiter would produce his or her own moulds, perhaps relying on inferior technology or materials to construct a product that resembles or is a replica of the original product.) Digital production, however, involves exact duplication. It is as though the “pirates” now have the exact same moulds as the “legitimate” producers (and, as I said, their product is indistinguishable from the legitimate product). They are therefore producers no more and no less than Microsoft (or Time Warner or whoever), albeit that they have abbreviated (rationalized?) the production process.

At the same time, the political economy of classical piracy is also more complex than appears at first sight. There are two main, apparently dichotomous, approaches:

1) Pirates disrupted trade routes, forced extra costs (above all protection costs) on capitalist producers, and also often destroyed the goods that they seized. When this is taken into account along with their prevalent ideologies of freedom from state and other authority, they should be regarded as essentially anti-capitalist, perhaps even proto-communist.

2) Pirates forced open trade routes, introduced competition in the face of monopolized distribution networks, and also often sold on much needed goods to make up for the inefficiencies of over-restricted markets. When this is taken into account along with their prevalent ideologies of freedom from state and other authority, they should be regarded as essentially capitalist, perhaps even proto-neoliberal.