March 3, 2015


Fuzzy Language, Fuzzy Thinking

One of the things I’ve learned in working with lawyers is that the language you use to describe something can powerfully shape your listeners’ ideas about it. Unless you’re very careful, you can fool yourself in the same way.

Many have remarked upon the rhetorical trick of using the word “piracy,” which denotes a type of violent crime long hated and feared – and still too common – to describe a lesser infraction. Calling infringement “piracy” makes it sound worse than it is.

But the use of “piracy” hides yet another rhetorical trick. The meaning of “piracy” is vague and expansive, while the more accurate term “infringement” has a precise and limited meaning. “Piracy” is often used even when no infringement is taking place; in these cases “piracy” really just means “any activity that makes a copyright owner unhappy.”

All right then; you may admit that “piracy” is an inaccurate term. But it is a colorful term, and like it or not, it is in common use. So, you might ask, what’s the problem with using it?

The problem is that fuzzy language leads to fuzzy thinking, and you may be fooling yourself by using fuzzy language. Fortunately, there is an easy way to tell if you’re falling into this trap. Try expressing your ideas using the precise term rather than the fuzzy one (e.g. using “infringement” rather than “piracy”). If your ideas still make sense, then you’re in good shape; but if your ideas sound weak when expressed in this way, then the fuzzy term has clouded your thinking.

This method works, but it’s a hassle to keep applying it to yourself. There is an easier way – use precise language. Don’t say “piracy,” say “infringement.”

[More posts on inaccurate terminology to come.]


  1. “downloading isn’t stealing”

    … My primary concern in this discussion is Fuzzy language leading to fuzzy Thinking: Primary culprit is Aaron who is popularizing the term “downloading” for copyright infringement. …

  2. DVD-CCA claims CSS is Copy Protection

    But CSS can’t be a copy protection. We have been through that. CSS purpose is enforcement of the terms of a cartel/monopoly. [...] So a kind reminder: Beware of Fuzzy Language!