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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 [1993]), 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.

Further readings

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).


Admiralty and Maritime Law; Computer Crime; Hijacking.


n. the crime of robbery of ships or boats on the oceans. Accusation, trial and punishment of pirates may be under international agreement applicable anywhere, or under the laws of the particular nation where the accused has been captured.

See: pillage, robbery, spoliation


1 the taking of ships or persons or property from ships. Piracy is punishable wherever the pirates are found. It is defined by the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas and the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea as any illegal act of violence or depredation that is committed for private ends on the high seas or outside the territorial control of any state.
2 used colloquially to describe the appropriation of the INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY of others, e.g. ‘pirate video’.

PIRACY, crim. law. A robbery or forcible depreciation on the high seas, without lawful authority, done animo furandi, in the spirit and intention of universal hostility. 5 Wheat. 153, 163; 3 Wheat. 610; 3 Wash. C. C. R. 209. This is the definition of this offence by the law of nations. 1 Kent, Com. 183. The word is derived from peira deceptio, deceit or deception: or from peiron wandering up and down, and resting in no place, but coasting hither and thither to do mischief. Ridley's View, Part 2, c. 1, s. 3.
     2. Congress may define and punish piracies and felonies on the high seas, and offences against the law of nations. Const. U. S. Art. 1, s. 7, n. 10; 5 Wheat. 184, 153, 76; 3 Wheat. 336. In pursuance of the authority thus given by the constitution, it was declared by the act of congress of April 30, 1790, s. 8, 1 Story's Laws U. S. 84, that murder or robbery committed on the high seas, or in any river, haven, or bay, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, or any offence, which, if committed within the body of a county, would, by the laws of the United States, be punishable with death, should be adjudged to be piracy and felony, and punishable with death. It was further declared, that if any captain or manner should piratically and feloniously run away with a vessel, or any goods or merchandise of the value of fifty dollars; or should yield up such vessel voluntarily to pirates; or if any seaman should forcible endeavor to hinder his commander from defending the ship or goods committed to his trust, or should make revolt in the ship; every such offender should be adjudged a pirate and felon, and be punishable with death. Accessaries before the fact are punishable as the principal; those after the fact with fine and imprisonment.
     3. By a subsequent act, passed March 3, 1819, 3 Story, 1739, made perpetual by the act of May 15, 1820, 1 Story, 1798, congress declared, that if any person upon the high seas, should commit the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, he should, on conviction, suffer death.
     4. And again by the act of May 15, 1820, s. 3, 1 Story, 1798, congress declared that if any person should, upon the high seas, or in any open roadstead, or in any haven, basin or bay, or in any river where the sea ebbs and flows, commit the crime of robbery in or upon any ship or vessel, or upon any of the ship's company of any ship or vessel, or the lading thereof, such person should be adjudged to be a pirate, and suffer death. And if any person engaged in any piratical cruise or enterprize, or being of the crew or ship's company of any piratical ship or vessel, should land from such ship or vessel, and, on shore; should commit robbery, such person should be adjudged a pirate and suffer death. Provided that the state in which the offence may have been committed should not be deprived of its jurisdiction over the same, when committed within the body of a county, and that the courts of the United States should have no jurisdiction to try such offenders, after conviction or acquittal, for the same offence, in a state court. The 4th and 5th sections of the last mentioned act declare persons engaged in the slave trade, or in forcibly detaining a free negro or mulatto and carrying him in any ship or vessel into slavery, piracy, punishable with death. Vide 1 Kent, Com. 183; Beaussant, Code Maritime, t. 1, p. 244; Dalloz, Diet. Supp. h.t.; Dougl. 613; Park's Ins. Index, h.t. Bac. Ab. h.t.; 16 Vin. Ab. 346; Ayl. Pand. 42 11 Wheat. R. 39; 1 Gall. R. 247; Id. 524 3 W. C. C. R. 209, 240; 1 Pet. C. C. R. 118, 121.

PIRACY, torts. By piracy is understood the plagiarisms of a book, engraving or other work, for which a copyright has been taken out.
     2. When a piracy has been made of such a work, an injunction will be granted. 5 Ves. 709; 4 Ves. 681; 12 Ves. 270. Vide copyright.

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