Copyright and Copywrong: The Story of Freebooting

This week we’re looking at a new meaning for an old word with the term “freebooting”:

If you’re not familiar with the word, there’s been a recent buzz about copyright infringement of YouTube videos by downloading and re-uploading them to either online newspapers or social media, in particular Facebook, and since the word evokes the Golden Age of Piracy, which has also gained much traction in recent years with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and International Talk Like a Pirate Day, the time seemed right to have a look at the history of the word, as well as the history of copyright law and the history of pirates in popular culture. This video is, in a way, a followup to my previous one on the word “Bug”, which discussed the other major form of intellectual property protection, patents. It also dovetails nicely with that earlier video, which also discussed the term computer bug, not only because freebooting has come to refer to a type of online copyright infringement, but also because it discusses the expression “to boot up a computer”.

It’s interesting to think that we have the Protestant Reformation, when many northern European countries broke away from the Roman church, to indirectly thank for copyright, literally the right to make copies, as a result of all that religious and political censorship. Queen Mary actually didn’t remain on the throne long after granting the publishing monopoly to the Stationers’ Company, but the censorship continued for nearly 150 years. John Milton, who was a strong supporter of the Puritan-led government of Oliver Cromwell in the interregnum, argued vociferously against pre-publication censorship in his tract Areopagitica, arguing among other things that censorship was really a Catholic thing to do — nothing gets Puritans more riled up than comparing them Catholics. But it wasn’t really until after the Glorious Revolution when William and Mary jointly took the throne, and the spectre of a Catholic monarch ever returning to the throne was banished, that censorship became a non-issue. Interesting to note though that Milton’s most famous work, Paradise Lost, was one of the big inspirations for the Byronic hero character type, as the Romantic poets admired Milton’s ambitious and rebellious Satan figure, and took him as the true hero of the story. I guess Satan is the ultimate bad boy.

I’ve got a few more details to fill in about the etymologies. In discussing the word element “free” I mention the perhaps surprising shift from the sense “to love” to our modern sense of free with this suggestion that it has to do with the members of a household, the beloved relatives versus the non-free slaves. The Latin word liber, which means “free”, shows a similar kind of development, as the plural of the word, liberi, means children. The sense of the Proto-Indo-European root *leudh-ero- which lies behind this word, by the way, probably meant something like “belonging to the people”. The Germanic goddess who gives her name to Friday, Frigg in Old Norse and Frige in Old English, is similar to, and sometimes confused with, another goddess named Freyja, goddess of love and beauty. Well, you can see why they might be identified with each other, and it has been suggested that they might originally have referred to the same goddess. Interestingly, the name Freyja comes from a Proto-Germanic root that means “lady”, a root that also leads to modern German Frau, but this Germanic root goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *per (1) meaning “forward”, which gives us the word “privateer”, and probably lies behind those other Proto-Indo-European *per- roots, one of which *per- (3) “to try, risk” gives us the word “pirate”. So in a funny sort of way, the goddesses Frigg and Freyja are brought together in our discussion of freebooting and piracy. As for those other *per- roots, by the way, which probably descend from *per (1) meaning “forward”, they give us a number of other relevant words here, including both "print" and "press" reminding us of the importance of the printing press in this story. Oh, and the word “fear”, which surprisingly enough isn’t related to “afraid”, which as we’ve seen comes from that *pri- root related to “free”.

When thinking about the etymology of the word “freebooting”, though "booty" in its more common modern sense, probably derived from "bottom" or "body" (or maybe influenced by "butt"?), is unrelated to the word “booty” meaning treasure, given that “free” comes from a root meaning “to love”, it’s hard to resist making a reference to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song “Baby Got Back” which famously starts with the line “I like big butts and I cannot lie”. Funnily enough, the song was at the centre of a famous copyright infringement controversy. When the TV show Glee used the song in 2013, they appear to have lifted uncredited the arrangement, original melody, and backing tracks of Jonathan Coulton’s 2005 cover version. The TV network’s lawyers claimed that no law was broken since Coulton’s version was a cover and thus not protected by copyright, and that in any case Coulton should be “happy for the exposure”, a frequent excuse used by freebooters of YouTube videos.

Getting back to the subject of etymologies, a number of other origins for the expressions "Davy Jones" and "Davy Jones’s Locker" have been suggested, but none with much evidence to support it. Some have tried to identify a historical David Jones, such as a pirate, and one intriguing suggestion of a pub owner who would lock up drugged or drunken sailors in the ale locker in his pub, and they would then be press ganged into service on ships. Another suggestion is that Davy comes from duppy, a Jamaican creole word, ultimately from an Africa origin, meaning “ghost, spirit”. The earliest citation for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), which clearly identifies the figure as the spirit of the deep according to sailor mythology, but our friend Daniel Defoe earlier used the term more ambiguously as a threat in The Four Years Voyages of Captain George Roberts (1726). There have been a number of other suggestions for the term "Jolly Roger" too. One is that it comes from French joli rouge meaning “pretty red”, but as the OED says, the flag is generally black not red, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for the French phrase being used for this. Another unlikely suggestion is that the term came from eastern pirates with the expression Ali Raja. What is clear is that the 'jolly' nicely reflects the apparently grinning skull on the flag with a sort of grim humour.

As for our quintessential pirate actor Robert Newton, there’s another interesting connection for him. Early in his career Newton appeared in a production of Alicia Ramsey’s biographical play Byron, though not in the role of Lord Byron himself, but as John Murray, Byron’s publisher, who notoriously burned Byron’s memoirs for fear it was so scandalous it would ruin his reputation — another act of censorship, I suppose. As for Newton establishing the cliche pirate accent, there may be a precursor to the stereotypical “arrr!” Apparently actor Lionel Barrymore, who played the role of Billy Bones in the earlier 1934 film adaptation of Treasure Island, says “arrr!”, though I haven’t been able to verify this. For the most part Barrymore just sounds American, and certainly not West Country like Newton.

One influential author I left out of the discussion is Raphael Sabatini, who wrote a number of famous pirate novels (and other adventure stories) in the early 20th century, including The Sea Hawk (1915) and Captain Blood (1922). Sabatini’s treatment of the pirate figure is more of the swashbuckling patriotic type, often portrayed on screen by the likes of Errol Flynn, and this also plays a part in our modern pop culture image of the pirate.

I briefly alluded to The Pirates of Penzance and a copyright battle. At the time US copyright law didn’t protect the work of foreign authors (not cool 19th century America), so there were numerous unauthorized productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s previous operetta H.M.S Pinafore, which earned no money for the writers. Therefore The Pirates of Penzance, which was probably a bit of a jibe at these pirated productions, was premiered in the US rather than England in order to beat the infringers to the profits.

The stories about Baron Munchausen (who by the way at one point rides a cannon ball, so I guess that’s a bit of a connection to pirate Bootstrap Bill Turner) also have something to tell us about copyright and authorship. The author Rudolf Erich Raspe, who was also know for his scientific writing, was a bit of a shady disreputable character himself, involved with a bit of mining fraud. As he based his most famous fictional character on the real life German aristocrat Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen who was indeed known for telling tall tales, Raspe kept his authorship a secret fearing some sort of libel suit (or worse), and initially the character’s name was printed only as M-h-s-n. When the name was revealed, the real-life Münchhausen was not at all pleased and tried to have the book suppressed (don’t forget, copyright started out as efforts at censorship). Raspe himself lost control over the copyright of the book, which was reprinted by other publishers with various embellishments and new material added. This all seems like a good object lesson for our modern loose attitudes to copyright and authorship. And in a final twist, in a 2012 German TV adaptation of the Baron Munchausen stories, actor Jan Josef Liefers’s performance seems to have been inspired by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. But I guess we all kind of like pirates, don’t we.