Knowledge Pirates

This essay is available in french here. However, the video at the end of the essay is accessible only on this page. 


Article from Wired Magazine, March 2013

The brutality of the storm took everyone by surprise. When the troughs ceased, everyone started to recover the broken glass, the broken dishes and to wash the vomit of the new members, unaccustomed to such shocks. The vessel, a refitted former japanese school ship built in the eighties coated in a deep black painting,  has seen worse. Without flinching, she hit walls of water as hard as concrete for more than six hours.
The captain, Philip, led «Le Courageux» (formerly named Daitan Futekina Maru) in the international waters along the chilean coast, and asked his first mates to go check the damages on the deck.
Tom, the telecommunications engineer, had spent the duration of the storm in the communications room,  in a state of nausea, trying to read on the computer screens despite the big shakes. The connection held. Forty thousand kilometers above their heads, the satellite had continued to direct the requests of thousands of users in the warm confort of their homes or offices, unaware of the hurricane threatening their precious access to the servers Le Courageux housed. The Courageux’s servers are the property of a Swedish nonprofit, Fri Tillgång, which bought them thanks to a crowdfunding campaign on the internet.
Le Courageux is owned by an american nonprofit, the No Limit Knowledge Foundation, which financed her repurchase from the Japanese government and her refit with the donations of wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who spent more than two million dollars to well equip the ship. The No Limit, as it’s known by its members, financed the launch of an internet satellite in geostationary orbit too, allowing the Courageux to have an internet connection not within the reach of any regulation by governments. The satellite was put in orbit by SpaceX, whose CEO is one of the donors helping the No Limit. Flying, for reasons of convenience, the panamanian flag, Le Courageux’s home port is Brest, France. However, since her maiden travel two years ago, she hasn’t come close to any dock, staying at sea three hundred sixty five days a year, in the international waters.

And the Courageux has some good reasons to stay away from the coasts. The servers she hosts are full of copyrighted material Fri Tillgång’s sharing freely on the web. A highly illegal activity which could put the whole crew in jail if the Courageux was to sail in territorial waters.

It all started in 2011 when Timothy Gowers, a mathematician sickened by the intolerable prices scientific editors are charging for their journals, called for a massive boycott of every publisher refusing to put its publications for free on the internet.
Then, an ingenious scheme began. In America, the No Limit’s goal is to finance a platform protected from every government, and its internet access (Le Courageux and her telecom satellite, nicknamed Prometheus). In Sweden, Fri Tillgång equipped the ship with servers. The No Limit then bought, legally, every paying publications from the biggest academic publishers, Elsevier, Springer, Nature, and saved them in the Courageux’s servers. The No Limit also downloaded every articles available for free (in «Open Access») from big editors like PLOS.

Anyone with an internet connection can now reach the website and search and download any of the more than thirty million books and articles available in the Courageux’s servers.
Obviously, everything isn’t accessible yet. The No Limit estimates that offers about forty percent of every scientific publications ever published. The users are welcomed to upload the missing publications. Hundreds of thousands are added each year, and the more time passes, the more openknowledge looks like an enormous Universal Library of Science.
Open Knowledge’s impact was enormous. The number of scientific publications published each year has suddenly augmented (the work of researchers has been made easier thanks to the free access in one place the website offers). Publishers saw their profits melt. They are furious and want to stop at any cost the knowledge hemorrhage Open Knowledge caused. But everything is run by volunteers, and no profit is generated, making a lawsuit difficult. Moreover, the No Limit isn’t legally liable of what Fri Tillgång is doing of the servers onboard the Courageux. It doesn’t consider itself liable to prosecutions, as it doesn’t own the incriminated servers and donated their content (the publications) to the Fri Tillgång just after having bought them. The volunteers are running the ship, the satellite, and are adding content online.
Some volunteers were trialled for copyright infringement, but it does not dissuade anyone to download. Researchers are delighted, their publications have a global diffusion and they can read what they want for free.
The demand to download is so big that the No Limit has ordered two new telecom satellites to handle the traffic and make the connection redundant if there’s a problem with the Prometheus.

So the Courageux’s always at sea. Every 3 months or so, a tanker comes to refuel and resupply the ship and transfer new crew members or bring some back home. When Le Courageux will need some dry dock repairs, her servers will be transferred to another ship temporarily, so that the Courageux won’t sail to a port with illegal material onboard.

Le Courageux in some heavy seas

The crew members of the Courageux are all in their twenties, except Philip, a jovial bearded of sixty years, including forty spent in a physics lab. The youngest just turned eighteen. All of them are geeks fighting for free access to knowledge; they acquired their sailor’s experience by navigating. The mechanician learned his job online, by browsing the Mitsubishi manuals of the Courageux’s engines. The six first months were laborious, but they found their cruising speed.
The atmosphere on board is really good, and reminds of the kind of atmosphere inside the pirate radios hosted on old tubs off the British coasts in the late sixties. Rock music is interspersed by reggae and techno, cannabis is grown on board. The forty crew members live a true libertarian ideal, where only individuals are masters of their decisions – including growing pot-.
Everyone participates in the great enterprise of «piracy», maintaining the ship, the servers, cooking… Everyone has its own personal project, and the mess hall has been transformed into a hackerspace, equipped with every needed tools, including a 3D printer.

What about the security of the servers on board? Sam, the network engineer, shows me the servers room, immersed in a nitrogen atmosphere preventing fires. The access door is armored and watertight. His workstation is in a glass cabin overlooking the servers, allowing him to come and go to his office without having to enter the data center – so he doesn’t have to wear a pressurized suit to have some oxygen. He controls everything from his computer, from the room’s temperature to the destruction of the data «in case of an emergency».
And what if a government decides to intervene in the international waters, to board the ship?
Philip shows me the sharp steel pikes surrounding the hull as well as the two fifty caliber machine guns at the bow and at the stern. Le Courageux is also equiped with four very powerful water cannons. And every crew member owns a firearm. Tom shows me his, a semi automatic AR15: «I took some shooting lessons before joining the crew». According to Philip, who also owns a rifle, Le Courageux can fight without troubles any interception frigate.

What is the ultimate goal of this enterprise? According to the No Limit and Fri Tillgång, to force publishers to release scientific publications in a totally free way, and thus accelerate scientific research, allowing researchers to add their contribution to knowledge faster. And make Open Knowledge a universal library. «We maybe have forty five or fifty percent of the total thanks to the community. But we really want to get to a hundred percent.» Sam tells me. What about the Courageux’s future? Philip is a bit baffled by the question:

«It’s hard to tell. We love this ship, but a submarine would be even better. And it’s not the ideal way to provide such an essential service as access to knowledge. A base on the moon, or a server in orbit could do the job very well and the No Limit is more than game for these kinds of projects. I would love of course to not have to spend most of my time at sea.»


Tom put his iPad on his cabin’s desk, satisfied to have read an article doing justice to his commitment as a knowledge pirate.
The life on board never was monotone. Philip was making sure that nearly every new publication added to Open Knowledge was celebrated by the crew. A way to break with the monotony of the journey. A journey without a destination, with the ocean as sole horizon. Whereof get bored quickly. But music, the onboard theater and the hackerspace made the trip enjoyable.

This night, a few meters away from the servers’ purr, the crew voted to screen the last Star Trek movie. Many crew members were trekkies and couldn’t wait to see the last episode of their favorite saga on the big screen.

The next morning, the sea was quite heavy, hollows two meters high disrupting the fifty meters of steel of the Courageux.
Tom was alert again, anxiously checking the state of the connection with the Prometheus, praying it would continue to work.

Michael, a 25 years old mathematician who enrolled on the Courageux after having used Open Knowledge for the bibliographical searches on the thesis he was redacting, came to provide company to Tom, whose days in bad weather are synonyms of isolation in front of an internet connection status screen.

«-Hey, I brought some cookies and coffee from the kitchen, I thought that with this shitty weather you would need a break?
-Yes, excellent, thanks!
Michael took his laptop from his bag and put it on a corner of the desk.
-Wanna see a movie?
-Yes please! I have nothing I haven’t seen on my computer, so I’m rooting here looking after our connection…
-A serie ? I downloaded all episodes of Futurama. Do we start from the beginning?

Philip, on the bridge, was monitoring an even more serious danger than an internet connection loss: the Courageux was sailing in Southern Pacific, and icebergs were common. Philip wanted to avoid a collision, and the rain and the mediocre visibility were making him nervous. Célya, a young neurobiologist who was on watch, was observing the horizon with binoculars to guide him.

In the kitchen, the two cooks, John and Kaila, were busy preparing the lunch. John was a 22 years old coder who dropped out of Stanford University the day he saw a documentary by Vice magazine on the No Limit and Fri Tillgång’s project. On board for 6 months, he found his spot as a cook. It allowed him to have enough time to program personal projects between the rushes of midday and 8pm. Kaila was a 19 years old swedish coder. She decided to skip college when she saw the Courageux as an opportunity to be a part of a gigantic project without having to have any degree.

Sam was keeping an eye on the servers and parrying any issue from his glass cabin. He was moderating the discussions on the No Limit’s forums, answering questions many people have on the life onboard the Courageux. That way, he served as the public face of the Courageux’s crew. He was spending most of his time on social networks, while checking the control screens of the servers. This morning, one detail caught his eye while he was checking his emails. One email was indicating GPS coordinates « 38°20’16.40’’S / 93°34’46.91’’O ». The person sending the email, under a false name, claimed that he worked for the US Navy and that the Courageux’s position was precisely known by them. Sam called the bridge for confirmation: was the Courageux at this position when the mysterious guy sent his email? No doubt, the bridge told him.
The rest of the message scared the shit out of Sam. A raid from the US army was under preparation. The publishers had made an enormous work lobbying authorities to attack the Courageux and close the website.
The guy was working for the Navy, and probably knew what he was talking about. A coast guards frigate was underway to arrest them. And it was heavily armed.

Sam went to report the situation to Philip. All the crew gathered to propose some methods to get off the hook, like shutting down all communications with the outside: radar, internet; explaining to users the need to close the website temporarily because of the threat the Courageux was facing. This proposition wasn’t very successful, since what the authorities wanted is for the site to be shut down. If they only needed to threaten the Courageux with a raid, how would the project evolve in the future?
The only solution that was found was to stay on track, and to be prepared to fight the cost guards if the anonymous informant was right.
The tension was palpable during the lunch and the dinner. The crew was tired-looking, the faces closed, and the discussions much more formal and trivial than the other days. The raid was scheduled for the next day.

At 4:30AM, before the first rays of sunshine, Philip woke the whole crew up (or forced the night shift team to stay awake). Everybody gathered on the deck. The bullet proof vests, reserved for extreme emergencies were handed to each crew member, helmets and lifejackets too. It would be a long day on the deck. A dress rehearsal started at 5:00AM. Water cannons were turned on, orders were given to the crew to protect the ship, etc. The crew members responsible for making the ship work – the captain, the mechanics – were the only ones not in fighting position. But even Tom and Sam, whose functions are essential to the website maintenance, were in position on the deck. A statement was published on Facebook, Twitter, and quickly propagated on the web. An attack was imminent. Multiple webcams onboard were streaming live on the internet so that everybody could witness a potential battle.

Sam sat at the stern machine-gun, which was loaded during the dress rehearsal. The crew  counted the number of bullets they had, and they were encouraged to use them as little as possible.

The hours passed… the crew was kept warm by their suits and by the hot coffee the captain was handing out. Philip was always in contact by satellite phone with the headquarters of the No Limit in San Francisco and the headquarters of Fri Tillgång in Stockholm.

At 11:30AM, a point was spotted on the radar. Then a silhouette on the horizon. The frigate was approaching quickly.
A radio contact was made between Philip and the frigate’s captain.
Philip refused to stop the ship, and said the coast guards have no right to intervene in the international waters. He summoned them to stay away from the Courageux, at least 3 miles away, or he’d be forced to keep them away using force.

The frigate kept a good distance. But two rubber boats were launched to get a closer look at the Courageux. Tom and the other crew members turned on and took their positions at the water cannons. The small boats remained at a safe distance of the powerful water streams.
With a megaphone, a helmeted soldier asked again the captain to stop Le Courageux.

Noticing the captain’s refusal, the rubber boats got closer. The water cannons poured streams of freezing water at super high pressure on the soldiers, who were literally pushed to the ground of their frail crafts. One of the soldier shot in the ship’s direction, missing a crew member. Sam shot a burst next to the rubber boat where the bullets came from, to prevent the soldiers from shooting again. It worked, since the two small boats and their soaked crew returned to the frigate, which stayed at a short distance of the Courageux for the rest of the day.

The evening, the crew celebrated its first victory against the soldiers trying to destroy their enterprise of global knowledge sharing.
Philip nonetheless invited the night shift crew members to be extremely careful and to look closely at the horizon to detect any stealthy approach by a rubber boat.

The days passed with repeated intimidation tries. The frigate was getting closer and closer to the Courageux, then cutting her off (benefiting from its powerful engines allowing it to have a cruise speed nearly twice as fast as the Courageux’s). All the events since the first attack were streamed live and were making the headlines. The donations to the two nonprofits arrived by the thousands, mainly in Bitcoin, the nearly untraceable encrypted currency which was allowing anonymous donations and removing the risk of being accused of complicity of copyright infringement. The coast guards were ridiculous, incapable of stopping a band of scientific-pirates. Wired had nicknamed them the « Knowledge Pirates ».
The coast guards were violating the international navigation laws, by doing dangerous maneuvers and attacking a panamanian-flagged vessel without any mandate or, of course,   any war declaration against Panama!

However, as the days passed, Philip was more and more nervous.  When the Courageux was moving, the coast guards weren’t trying much. But what would happen when the Courageux would need to refuel ? Refueling at full speed with a tanker full of petrol was way too risky for the crew as well as for the environment.

Philip and Sam were giving interviews on interviews, requiring the public to protest against the United States’ action. Protests, massive email sendings were underway. The event had created a diplomatic incident between Panama and the US, and Philip was fearing Panama could take its flag back, making the Courageux a true pirate ship – a ship that could be a great target for the coast guards – and the No Limit was trying to find a new flag, just in case. The enemies of the United States were very interested. Even North Korea had shown interest to offer its flag, as well as Venezuela.

The wait was unbearable, and the need to refuel became more and more pressing. A tanker had been chartered, bringing food, fuel and five new crew members, but nobody knew how the resupply would take place.

Philip and Sam called every supporters who owned a ship capable of navigating in the international waters to converge to their GPS coordinates as soon as possible, to protect Le Courageux from the US Navy during the resupply of the ship.
The goal of the coast guards was of course to wait for the resupply to launch a raid, and Philip thought that protecting Le Courageux and her tanker during this moment of vulnerability would be enough to deter the coast guards. But everybody knew that it wasn’t a sustainable situation. The coast guards had the funding to be at sea for months, to relay behind the Courageux, and to wait for the smallest weakness to launch a raid. Even if the users and supporters who owned a boat came to protect them once, it was certain that it wouldn’t last forever…

The fuel level was at a minimum, Le Courageux was sailing for more than fifteen days followed by the coast guards.
The tanker appeared on the horizon on a calm and sunny morning. With it, a whole fleet of middle sized vessels, between fifteen and thirty-five meters, were forming an escort of about ten ships. The supporters had responded to Philip’s call. Many wealthy techies from Silicon Valley had taken their yachts, in addition to the substantial donations they made over the years.

Philip ably led the Courageux, slowing her down as the tanker was approaching. The coast guards’ frigate was keeping its distance. The Open Knowledge’s supporters’ ships, flying the Courageux’s «Open Access » symbol stuck by two sabers, parodying the famous Jolly Roger, took position around the tanker and the Courageux, while acclaiming the crew. The resupply and crew transfer was done safely.

The Guerilla Open Access Flag

While the refueling was about to begin, the coast guards launched their two rubber boats full of soldiers toward the Courageux. Philip asked the tanker to stop refueling immediately and that the Courageux be ready to leave the scene. He ordered the supporters to stay inside their boats and to wait for orders.
The water cannons were turned on, and blasting all the vessels present. The risk was the raid of the supporters’ ships by the very angry coast guards.
The tanker was also bringing firearms and ammunitions, and Philip requested that they were given to the supporters who would give them back after the end of the refueling operations.
But the two rubber boats, like hungry sharks, were circling around the fleet, making any attempt to venture uncovered on the deck of a ship very dangerous.

Sam asked with a megaphone that the coast guards move away and let the refueling take place safely, or they would have to use force to protect themselves.

Tom crawled on the deck to reach the bow machine-gun. He targeted one of the rubber boat and shot a few rounds in its direction. The bullets plunged in the water next to the boat in a deafening noise, generously splashing the soldiers onboard.

They replied by a burst that ended in the Courageux’s bow. Philip yelled on the megaphone that any other shot in the direction of a tanker full of petrol (the tanker was attached to the Courageux) would be answered by a lot more than warnings against the rubber boats.

For a few minutes, which seemed to last hours, nothing happened. The soldiers were probably asking their chief on the frigate what to do. Then one of the rubber boat came really close to the bow. Tom aimed his machine gun at the soldiers, nervously keeping his finger on the Gatling’s trigger. Just as he was ready to shoot, the zodiacs turned abruptly and went back to the frigate. Philip was still waiting to restart the refueling of the Courageux.

After a few minutes, the frigate changed course, and left progressively the Courageux’s radar screen. The crew was nervously checking news sites. The Courageux’s hunt was over. The United States had canceled their raid. In a media statement, the Navy claimed the Courageux’s activities were illegal and violent. The US were asking their allies to take action in order to stop Le Courageux.

Hackers, libertarians opposed to copyrigh, and scientists from around the world celebrated the Courageux’s victory, allowing the Open Knowledge website to stay open. It was a huge victory for research.

But make no mistake. Forever, governments, influenced by the publishers’ lobbying, will try to stop  Le Courageux. Forever, they’ll try to make the use of the Prometheus illegal. They will sue the No Limit and Fri Tillgång. Forever, they’ll try to put knowledge liberation activists in jail. But always, Le Courageux and her successors, on sea or in space, will share knowledge, legally or not. All these publications that used to be expensive will be free. Every scientific work that’s ever been published will be available at The universal library of science will be one of mankind’s most beautiful achievement.

Make all the scientific publications free, and science will be augmented.


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