We were all wearing eye patches, there were toucans, and we were all singing. Even the toucans joined in. Amy Claire Kingston’s 12th birthday party may not have been in the Caribbean, nor on a sailing vessel, but for a day we were all pirates and she, our pirate queen.
The toucans were actually cockatiels or some such domestic bird, but they played their parts well. There was grog of a sorts (Hawaiian punch mixed with club soda), booty (chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil) and an honest to Davy Jones treasure hunt in the back yard. We were each given a map and tasked with charting a course around elephant ear plants, monkey grass and the big elm in the corner to find the giant X marked on the map, under which (we hoped) would lay every pirate’s dream: a sunken chest.
Amy Claire’s father escorted us below decks three by three, where we, blindfolded, met with The Old Pirate Ghost. He told us the tale of how he lost his leg and his life fighting a Spanish Frigate off of Hispaniola. We each held his ruined eye (a peeled grape), touched his exposed brains (bowl of spaghetti) and shook his cold, lifeless hand (Mr. Kingston’s ice-cooled hand in a glove). After the treasure hunt, Amy Claire’s award-winning fondue and a round of “Pin the Tail on the Pirate” (and more grog), it was time to go home, although we all wore our eye patches out the door and, in my case, for several hours afterwards.
We know a lot about the life of pirates on the Spanish Main, and it wasn’t always as much fun as Amy Claire’s birthday party, nor as romantic as the stories we see on TV and in the movies, but nothing ever is. We know that most pirates were murderers, rapists and thieves, and that aside from the act of stealing a ship in the first place (a crime punishable by death) most had records as long as their wooden legs, and lived brutal, short and miserable lives, often dying as they lived by – the cutlass, pistol, or cannon, if they weren’t captured and hanged first.
We also know that piracy on the high seas didn’t cease with the conquering of The New World; that it, in fact, continues to this day. Armed gunmen aboard stolen yachts and cigarette boats patrol the waters off the African coast, boarding luxury liners, stealing whatever isn’t nailed down and occasionally taking hostages. And that’s not the only form of piracy alive and well in the 21st century. Digital pirates are far more numerous and claim residence on almost every shore, downloading bootleg copies of songs, movies and games without paying a doubloon to the proper rights holders.
Few of us haven’t dreamed of sailing the seven seas in a stolen ship, casting off all bonds of lawfulness and responsibility to be the captain of a merry band of pirates, seeking romance and adventure wherever the wind may take us. Likewise, few of us haven’t downloaded a song, copied a movie or bootlegged a game, taking our enjoyment without paying for the privilege. But most of us realize this is nothing but a dream. That the first star on the right will always be farther away than we can sail and that the X, more often than not, marks an empty hole in the ground. We realize that rules also apply to us, that stealing isn’t a victimless crime and that the merry band of pirates will be just as likely to slit your throat as any one else’s.
Being a pirate, in real life, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s still fun to pretend, still fun to put on the eye patch and drink grog, fondle the wenches and order the lubbers off the plank. And the issue of digital piracy is one that won’t be settled overnight.
In Issue 93 of The Escapist, Mur Lafferty wonders whether pirates are an idea past their prime, Allen Varney and Shannon Drake interview men who are living their own pirate dreams, and making games in which you can do the same, John Holowach looks at the Digital Rights Management (DRM) debate from the consumer’s point of view and Leonardo Pose shares his amazing story of third world game piracy.