Pirates, Treasures, and the Shoulders of Giants:
Copyright in the Digital Age
Pirates, Treasures, and the Shoulders of Giants is an experimental documentary about copyright in the digital age. It takes the form of a personal and poetic essay on what it means to own ideas, using anecdotes, and animation to bring this complex and politicized subject into focus on a human scale. Part meditation, part documentary, part personal essay, it tells a tale of pirates and the fate of the public domain.

What makes it personal is the stylized-autobiographical narrative that structures the film and connects segments, as it tells the tale of my quest to reconcile "piracy" with the laws and practices of mainstream US culture. What makes it documentary is that it's an account -- not of my life -- but of the digital age. Today, more than ever, knowledge is power, and questions about who owns it, who controls it, and who gets to use it hold powerful implications for everyone on our planet. Pirates asks these questions in a dream language, in a mythic landscape where autobiography and history are one.

Collage of copyright and trademark symbols

A meditation on
the economy of expression

At one level, the documentary is about the growing conflict between two great American traditions -- (1) the right to the fruits of one's labor; and (2) the free exchange of ideas (enshrined in our freedoms of speech, assembly, and press). Our legal traditions of copyright, patent and trademark have always been about striking a balance between the rights of creators and rights of public access to cultural resources. But in the last twenty years, that balance has shifted radically and the public domain is threatened by increasing controls on the circulation ideas.

At another level, Pirates is an attempt to compile a primer for citizens of a digital age. That is, to gather the perspectives of diverse communities and generations, illustrating how intellectual property issues play out in everyday life; and showing what's at stake for different people, both as creators and consumers of cultural media. The court order that ended Napster's reign as the king of peer-to-peer content sharing was only one of the more visible battles raging over intellectual property. Deeper battles over ownership, authorship and the free exchange of ideas burn on unseen, threatening the public domain. By looking at these battles from the perspectives of activists, artists, hackers, and fans, diverse in age, class, ethnicity and interest, the film seeks to prime a larger conversation (among the audience) about the vital role of the cultural commons in a free, democratic society.