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There have been countless anti-piracy strategies deployed over the years and pirates have deployed their own in response. In the end, the parties "at war" aren't so different and may even benefit from the same techniques. The most fundamental ones aren't new either, having been around for at least 2,500 years.
People who run pirate sites and services tend to be pretty interesting individuals. Some are extraordinarily talented and smart, with technical skills that can leave one in awe. Some are funny and insightful too, while others are irritable and almost impossible to deal with.
Surprise. People who work at anti-piracy companies can be pretty interesting individuals too. They also tend to be talented and smart, with technical skills in abundance. In some cases they are some of the nicest people you will ever deal with while some are the nastiest characters around. Like their counterparts, they cover the usual spread of human traits.
In many ways, however, these warring groups of people are very similar, they just approach the same thing from different angles. The aim of pirates is to spread media and the aim of anti-pirates is to stop them from doing so. Put this scenario into a video game and its no different from a team deathmatch. It’s not personal either, it’s just business.
The point is that both ‘teams’ are on the same battlefield and as a result, can benefit from the same strategies. And it can be argued that there has been no greater strategist than Chinese general Sun Tzu, the credited author of The Art of War.
Despite being written 2,500 years ago, the wisdom of this work shines through today. So which of his teachings are most relevant to both sides of the piracy ‘wars’?
Perhaps the most obvious, which underlines the similarities between the factions, is that “to know your enemy, you must become your enemy“. On a basic level, by understanding your adversary deeply, you are able to think how he thinks. Stepping deeper, some ‘pirates’ on pirate sites are not pirates at all, even though they act like them.
“It is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for the purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.”
Perhaps one of the great ironies of starting a pirate platform is that if it fails quickly, the disappointment comes with a gilded edge – the enemy will never come. Great success, on the other hand, almost certainly means the opposite. Not considering this at the very beginning can be a recipe for disaster.
As Sun Tzu said: “The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.”
In 2019 this quote became relevant every time we wrote about small Kodi-addon developers in the UK being targeted by FACT and even the police. The majority of these people seemed to have miscalculated how important their software would ultimately become and, as a result, left a trail of digital breadcrumbs to their front doors.
When the authorities arrive with overwhelming force, a cascade of quotes inevitably follows, all centered around the imbalance of power and the pointlessness of self-sacrifice in an unwinnable battle. Importantly, they know that “supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
That’s what the strongly-worded cease-and-desist letters backed up with a credible threat of civil or criminal prosecution aim to achieve. They don’t want a war, you don’t want to lose, so be sensible and back away now, they say. Or as Sun Tzu put it “build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across” in the hope that the “the wise warrior avoids the battle.“
Of course, there is a valid theory that anti-piracy groups cannot take on the world so if everyone resisted they would be unable to cope with the workload. They know that better than anyone so they pick their fights wisely, in order to project an image of power and present a credible deterrent.
“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill,” Sun Tzu said.
“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
But for some pirates, giving in has never been an option and one needs to look no further than The Pirate Bay to see how Sun Tzu’s teachings have applied again and again. Every single time that site or the people behind it have been targeted, the response has been the same – this will not work and we will never stop.
Host targeted, we have another – and another. Domain targeted, we have a dozen more. Blocked by ISPs, here are a thousand proxies. Or as Sun Tzu wrote, “Convince your enemy that he will gain very little by attacking you. This will diminish his enthusiasm.”
Tying up disproportionate resources in one battle is not prudent, particularly against a resilient enemy such as The Pirate Bay. “If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak,” Sun Tzu taught.
“By reinforcing every part, he weakens every part.”
The Pirate Bay, however, is a unique case. Having lost so many battles, they now operate from a position of strength. The site isn’t invincible but there are many softer targets that produce more bang for content providers’ buck – and less embarrassment when it all comes to nothing – again.
When everything is said and done, setting out to achieve anything significant in piracy is a gamble. Sun Tzu probably has something to say about that too, but a Chinese proverb explains things perfectly. It’s a plan that should never be deviated from, if survival needs to be ensured.
“If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.”
Originally published as “The Art of War: Lessons for Pirates and Anti-Pirates Alike" with the Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0) license
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