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Piracy and the Historical Record

A nice piece at The Technologizer on the importance of piracy for the preservation of digital materials.

Like an ant that works as part of a larger system it doesn’t understand, the selfish action of each digital pirate, when taken in aggregate, has created a vast web of redundant data that ensures many digital works will live on.

As the author argues, it turns out that digital pirates are responsible for making a huge amount of material available that would otherwise have disappeared. They are some of the best digital archivists out there. My local colleague, Darren Wershler, has been doing a great project on the archives of comic books built up at the Pirate Bay, another example of the way non-scholars are making enormous, and sadly illegal, contributions to the historical record.

To say that pirates — and piracy — are necessary for the preservation of digital materials is however to miss the larger point — that we still lack, at a major scale, resources and infrastructures for the historical preservation of digital, not paper, records. The law of course gets in the way of this too. We need to think in more nuanced ways about copyright, so that some copying (for preservation) is legal, while others, for commercial gain or even circulation, are not. This really wouldn’t be that hard to code for. But in the current climate it seems completely out of the question. Which is too bad. I love pirates as much as the next person, but I’d rather have a more robust digital archiving practices than we currently have.