I’m reading a fascinating book called Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper. It’s a wry and informative look at the field of lexicography, written by a lexicographer at the dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster. One of the most interesting facts I learned from this book is that dictionary definitions are meant to capture the language as it is used at the time the dictionary is published, not the language as someone believes it should be used.
So with that in mind, I looked up “piracy” in three leading American English dictionaries. This is what I found:
- American Heritage Dictionary: “Copyright or patent infringement: software piracy” (definition 2).
- Merriam-Webster: “the unauthorized use of another’s production, invention, or conception especially in infringement of a copyright” (definition 3.a).
- Oxford Living Dictionaries (US): “The unauthorized use or reproduction of another’s work. ‘software piracy’ (definition 1.2).
- Barron’s Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms: “The unauthorized copying of software, which is forbidden by law. See: Copyright; Software License.“
Oh, all right, I’ll use the P-word. But I still don’t like it.
Still, the other definitions impart a very negative connotation to the p-word. One cannot expect its use in reference to copyright infringement to be interpreted as a neutral synonym. Those accused of infringement are at a disadvantage when the court allows the use of terms like “piracy”, “theft”, “stealing”, “misappropriation”, etc., as well as referring to the public domain as something that a work “falls into” rather than simply “enters”. I much prefer hearing copyright infringement referred to simply as copyright infringement.