Arr, me Hearties…

Piracy has been in the news a lot recently, mainly concerning blokes in Somalia armed with AK47s running around attacking cargo ships. However, as some regular readers of this blog (if such there are) may be able to guess from the subtle hints I regularly drop in, the pirate news I have been most interested in recently concerns Assassin’s Creed, and the recent announcement of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. This is the first AAA game that I’ve ever heard of set in the ‘golden age of piracy’, and so I thought a post on this period of time might be in order. Plus, I think a 200th post deserves a cool topic.

When people think of piracy, the mental image conjured up is always of Caribbean piracy during these days; swashbuckling men in fancy hats & coats, swanning around in large ships with flintlock pistols, cannons and oversized cojones. Captain Jack Sparrow, basically. Specifically, they refer to the situation in and around the Caribbean from around 1650 to the early 1800s, peaking during the first 30 years of the 18th century. These were the days of colonial wars in this area; 200 years earlier the Spanish-sponsored Christopher Columbus had discovered the New World and Spain, which was at the time the richest and most powerful nation on earth, smelt an opportunity. Newly unified into one nation after pushing out the Moors and uniting the powerful crowns of Aragon and Castile through marriage, 16th century Spain was finally able to utilise the great wealth that centuries of war had been unable to use productively, and swept across the Atlantic (and, indeed, much of the rest of the world; theirs was the first Empire upon which ‘the sun never set’) armed to the teeth. The New World offered them vast untapped resources of gold and silver (among other things) that the local tribes, had not extracted; these tribes were also lacking in gunpowder, and were totally incapable of dealing with the Spanish onslaught that followed. Even small raiding parties were able to conquer vast swathes of land, and Spain pillaged, raped and murdered its way across the land in a fashion eerily preminiscient of the ‘rush for Africa’ that would follow a few hundred years later. America was rich, it was untapped, it was (relatively, compared to, say, India) close enough to be accessible, and Spain got there first. Seemed like a great deal at the time.

However, cut to a couple of hundred years later, and Spain was in trouble. The ‘Spanish Golden Age’ was on the wane, and Spain found itself at near-constant war, either with France or from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, whose Barbary pirates (the first time piracy enters this story) would frequently trouble Spain’s coastal possessions. In the colonies, things were just as bad; Britain and France had established their own empires in North America and fought frequently, if not with each other, with Spain for its colonies in Florida and Central America, constantly attempting land grabs in and around the Caribbean area. Spain simply did not have the ability to maintain a military presence across such a vast area, especially when a succession war started and all parties started fighting over the future of Spain as a country and an empire, making the game of ‘who’s on whose side’ even more complicated. The whole area turned into one chaotic mess of sporadic fighting, where law was impossible to enforce,towns were frequentl either destroyed or changed hands, and honest trade such as farming became an unreliable source of income when your crops kept getting burnt. However, at the same time, there were still lots of goodies being sent around all over the place for trade purposes so the various  countries involved in the conflict could make some money out of the whole mess, wherever possible. So, let’s have a sit rep; we have large amounts of very valuable goods being shipped all over the Caribbean & the high seas, frequently alone since all powers had so few ships to spare for escorts, nobody is able to reliably enforce the law and we have a lot of men unable to make a living from practicing an honest trade. Rocking up in a large ship and stealing everything has never seemed such a productive strategy, particularly when some towns turned lawless and became pirate ports.

Interestingly, all the colonial powers at one time or another made some acts of piracy legal; ‘privateers’ were sailors (such as Sir Francis Drake) employed by a country to ride around all over the place and disrupt other countries’ trade. All the other nations, of course, considered them pirates and put ‘dead or alive’ prices on their heads, but these people are pretty boring when compared to some of the genuine pirates who terrorised the Caribbean. In many ways, pirates were the first professional celebrities; reasoning that the whole ‘piracy’ business would be a lot easier if everyone would just shit themselves upon sight of them and hand over all the gold without a fight, they put a lot of effort into building up their reputations so that everyone knew who they are. This is one of the reasons why pirates are so famous today, that and the fact that they were simultaneously mental and amazingly charismatic. Consider Blackbeard, probably the most famous real-life pirate and a man who spread rumours about satanic powers and would stick flaming sticks in his beard so he smoked like a demon. Consider Captain John Phillips, whose version of the pirate code (because even criminals have honour of a sort; Phillips’ is one of just four surviving) included an article stating that any man who kept a secret from the rest of the crew was to be marooned on a desert island with nothing but a bottle of water, a pistol, gunpowder and shot. Just to let everyone know who’s boss. And what about Charles Vane, a certified arsehole even by piratical standards whose three-year career netted him the equivalent of around two and a half million US Dollars, which is made doubly impressive by the fact that he never lead a ship with more than twelve guns. For a more expanded (and rather hilarious) look at a few pirates and their stories, I refer you here.

After 1730, the age of the pirates was largely over; the Royal Navy in particular was exerting far more control over the seas and ports, and small pirate vessels were unable to sustain a living. The trade attempted to move overseas, but proved unsustainable in other colonies such as India. The law was finally organised enough to catch up with pirates, and they retreated back into history, leaving only their fearsome reputation and charisma behind. Pirates as we in the west think of them were many things; brave, violent, aggressive, borderline mental, and not the kind of people you’d want to invite to dinner. But one thing that they undoubtedly were, and always will be, is effortlessly, earth-shatteringly cool.

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In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…

I read a lot; I have done since I was a kid. Brian Jacques, JK Rowling, Caroline Lawrence and dozens of other authors’ work sped through my young mind, throwing off ideas, philosophies, and any other random stuff I found interesting in all directions. However, as any committed reader will tell you, after a while flicking through any genre all the ‘low hanging fruit’, the good books everyone’s heard of, will soon be absorbed, and it is often quite a task to find reliable sources of good reading material. It was for partly this reason that I, some years ago, turned to the fantasy genre because, like it or loathe it, it is impossible to deny the sheer volume of stuff, and good stuff too, that is there. Mountains of books have been written for it, many of which are truly huge (I refer to volumes 11 and 12 of Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’, which I have yet to pluck up the courage to actually read, if anyone doubts this fact), and the presence of so many different subgenres (who can compare George RR Martin, creator of A Game of Thrones, with Terry Pratchett, of Discworld fame) and different ideas gives it a nice level of innovation within a relatively safe, predictable sphere of existence.

This sheer volume of work does create one or two issues, most notably the fact that it can be often hard to consult with other fans about ‘epic sagas’ you picked up in the library that they may never have even heard of (hands up how many of you have heard of Raymond E Feist, who really got me started in this genre)- there’s just so much stuff, and not much of it can be said to be standard reading material for fantasy fans. However, there is one point of consistency, one author everyone’s read, and who can always be used as a reliable, if high, benchmark. I speak, of course, of the work of JRR Tolkein.

As has been well documented, John Ronald Reuel Tolkein was not an author by trade or any especial inclination; he was an academic, a professor of first Anglo-Saxon and later English Language & Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford, for 34 years no less. He first rose to real academic prominence in 1936, when he gave (and later published) a seminal lecture entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving works of English literature, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem from around the 8th century AD detailing the adventures of a warrior/king named Beowulf, and Tolkein’s lecture defined many contemporary thoughts about it as a work of literature.

However, there was something about Beowulf that was desperately sad to Tolkein; it was just about the only surviving piece of Old English mythology, and certainly the only one with any degree of public knowledge. Tolkein was a keen student of Germanic mythology and that of other nations, and it always pained him that his home nation had no such traditional mythology to be called upon, all the Saxon stories having been effectively wiped out with the coming of the Normans in 1066. Even our most famous ‘myths’, those of King Arthur, came from a couple of mentions in 8th century texts, and were only formalised by Normans- Sir Thomas Malory didn’t write Le Morte d’Arthur, the first full set of the Arthurian legends, until 1485, and there is plenty of evidence that he made most of it up. It never struck Tolkein as being how a myth should be; ancient, passed down father to son over innumerable generations until it became so ingrained as to be considered true. Tolkein’s response to what he saw as a lamentable gap in our heritage was decidedly pragmatic- he began building his own mythological world.

Since he was a linguistic scholar, Tolkein began by working with what he new; languages. His primary efforts were concerned with elvish, which he invented his own alphabet and grammar for and eventually developed into as deep and fully-fleshed a tongue as you could imagine. He then began experimenting with writing mythology based around the language- building a world of the Dark Ages and before that was as special, fantastical and magical as a story should be to become a fully-fledged myth (you will notice that at the start of The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkein refers to how we don’t see much of hobbits any more, implying that his world was set in the past rather than the alternate universe).

His first work in this field was the Quenta Silmarillion, a title that translates (from elvish) as “the Tale of the Silmarils”. It is a collection of stories and legends supposedly originating from the First Age of his world, although compiled by an Englishman during the Dark Ages from tales edited during the Fourth Age, after the passing of the elves. Tolkein started this work multiple times without ever finishing, and it wasn’t until long after his death that his son published The Silmarillion as a finished article.

However, Tolkein also had a family with young children, and took delight in writing stories for them. Every Christmas (he was, incidentally, a devout Catholic) he wrote letters to them from Father Christmas that took the form of short stories (again, not published until after his death), and wrote numerous other tales for them. A few of these, such as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, either drew inspiration from or became part of his world (or ‘legendarium’, as it is also known), but he never expected any of them to become popular. And they weren’t- until he, bored out of his mind marking exam papers one day in around 1930, found a blank back page and began writing another, longer story for them, beginning with the immortal lines: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

This work, what would later become The Hobbit (or There and Back Again), was set in the Third Age of his legendarium and is soon to be made into a  series of three films (don’t ask me how that works, given that it’s shorter than each one of the books making up The Lord Of The Rings that each got a film to themselves, but whatever). Like his other stories, he never intended it to be much more than a diverting adventure for his children, and for 4 years after its completion in 1932 it was just that. However, Tolkein was a generous soul who would frequently lend his stories to friends, and one of those, a student named Elaine Griffiths, showed it to another friend called Susan Dagnall. Dagnall worked at the publishing company Allen & Unwin, and she was so impressed upon reading it that she showed it to Stanley Unwin. Unwin lent the book to his son Rayner to review (this was his way of earning pocket money), who described it as ‘suitable for children between the ages of 6 and 12’ (kids were clearly a lot more formal and eloquent where he grew up). Unwin published the book, and everyone loved it. It recieved many glowing reviews in an almost universally positive critical reception, and one of the first reviews came from Tolkein’s friend CS Lewis in The Times, who wrote:

The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology… The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity that is worth oceans of glib “originality.”

In many ways, that quote describes all that was great about Tolkein’s writing; an almost childish, gleeful imagination combined with the brute seriousness of his academic work, that made it feel like a very, very real fantasy world. However, this was most definitely not the end of JRR Tolkein, and since I am rapidly going over length, the rest of the story will have to wait until next time…

Copyright Quirks

This post is set to follow on from my earlier one on the subject of copyright law and its origins. However, just understanding the existence of copyright law does not necessarily premeditate the understanding of the various complications, quirks and intricacies that get people quite so angry about it- so today I want to explore a few of these features that get people so annoyed, and explain why and how they came to be.

For starters, it is not in the public interest for material to stay forever copyrighted, for the simple reason that stuff is always more valuable if freely in the public domain as it is more accessible for the majority. If we consider a technological innovation or invention, restricting its production solely to the inventor leaves them free to charge pretty much what they like, since they have no competition to compete with. Not only does this give them an undesirable monopoly, it also restricts that invention from being best used on a large scale, particularly if it is something like a drug or medicine. Therefore, whilst a copyright obviously has to exist in order to stimulate the creation of new stuff, allowing it to last forever is just asking for trouble, which is why copyrights generally have expiry times. The length of a copyright’s life varies depending on a product- for authors it generally lasts for their lifetime plus a period of around 70 years or so to allow their family to profit from it (expired copyright is the reason that old books can be bought for next to nothing in digital form these days, as they cost nothing to produce). For physical products and, strangely, music, the grace period is generally both fixed and shorter (and dependent on the country concerned), and for drugs and pharmaceuticals it is just ten years (drugs companies are corrupt and profit-obsessed enough without giving them too long to rake in the cash).

Then, we encounter the fact that a copyright also represents a valuable commodity, and thus something that can potentially be put up for sale. You might think that allowing this sort of thing to go on is wrong and is only going to cause problems, but it is often necessary. Consider somebody who owns the rights to a book, and wants someone to make a film out of it, partly because they may be up for a cut of the profits and will gain money from the sale of their rights, but also because it represents a massive advertisement for their product. They, therefore, want to be able to sell part of the whole ‘right to publish’ idea to a film studio who can do the job for them, and any law prohibiting this is just pissing everybody off and preventing a good film from potentially being made. The same thing could apply to a struggling company who owns some valuable copyright to a product; the ability to sell it not only offers them the opportunity to make a bit of money to cover their losses, but also means that the product is more likely to stay on the free market and continue being produced by whoever bought the rights. It is for this reason legal for copyright to be traded between various different people or groups to varying degrees, although the law does allow the original owner to cancel any permanent trade after 35 years if they want to do something with the property.

And what about the issue of who is responsible for a work at all?  One might say that it is simply the work of the author/inventor concerned, but things are often not that simple. For one thing, innovations are often the result of work by a team of people and to restrict the copyright to any one of them would surely be unfair. For another, what if, say, the discovery of a new medical treatment came about because the scientist responsible was paid to do so, and given all the necessary equipment and personnel, by a company. Without corporate support, the discovery could never have been made, so surely that company is just as much legally entitled to the copyright as the individual responsible? This is legally known as ‘work made for hire’, and the copyright in this scenario is the property of the company rather than the individual, lasting for a fixed period (70 years in the US) since the company involved is unlikely to ‘die’ in quite the same predictable lifespan of a human being, and is unlikely to have any relatives for the copyright to benefit afterwards. It is for this reason also that companies, rather than just people, are allowed to hold copyright.

All of these quirks of law are undoubtedly necessary to try and be at least relatively fair to all concerned, but they are responsible for most of the arguments currently put about pertaining to ‘why copyright law is %&*$ed up’. The correct length of a copyright for various different stuff is always up for debate, whether it be musicians who want them to get longer (Paul McCartney made some complaints about this a few years ago), critics who want corporate ones to get shorter, or morons who want to get rid of them altogether (they generally mean well, but anarchistic principles today don’t either a) work very well or b) attract support likely to get them taken seriously). The sale of copyright angers a lot of people, particularly film critics- sales of the film rights for stuff like comic book characters generally include a clause requiring the studio to give it back if they don’t do anything with it for a few years. This has resulted in a lot of very badly-made films over the years which continue to be published solely because the relevant studio don’t want to give back for free a valuable commodity that still might have a few thousand dollars to be squeezed out of it (basically, blame copyright law for the new Spiderman film). The fact that both corporations and individuals can both have a right to the ownership of a product (and even the idea that a company can claim responsibility for the creation of something) has resulted in countless massive lawsuits over the years, almost invariably won by the biggest publishing company, and has created an image of game developers/musicians/artists being downtrodden by big business that is often used as justification by internet pirates. Not that the image is inaccurate or anything, but very few companies appear to realise that this is why there is such an undercurrent of sympathy for piracy on the internet and why their attempts to attack it through law have met with quite such a vitriolic response (as well as being poorly-worded and not thought out properly).

So… yeah, that’s pretty much copyright, or at least why it exists and people get annoyed about it. There are a lot of features concerning copyright law that people don’t like, and I’d be the last to say that it couldn’t do with a bit of bringing up to date- but it’s all there for a reason and it’s not just there because suit-clad stereotypes are lighting hundred dollar cigars off the arse of the rest of us. So please, when arguing about it, don’t suggest anything should just go without thinking of why it’s there in the first place.