Admiralty & Maritime Law

Piracy Without the Plank: The Modern Definition of Piracy

Pop culture would have us believe that all pirates have an eye patch and a trusty parrot with them as they create terror on the high seas. However, it is not the accessories which make a person into a pirate but rather the actions of the person which are defined as piracy by national and international laws.

Acts of piracy have been part of recorded history since at least the times of the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans. However, the world enjoyed a decline in piracy after the so called “Golden Age of Piracy” which occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet in recent years, the world has suffered from a resurgence of piracy on the high seas.

How is Piracy Defined?

Not all ship hijackings or acts of terror on the sea are defined as piracy. Different organizations, international laws and national laws define piracy in different ways. Two commonly accepted definitions of piracy include those set out by The International Maritime Bureau and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The International Maritime Bureau, which is part of the International Chamber of Commerce, does not have the authority to create binding laws but does provide guidance to countries on the safety of the seas. The International Maritime Bureau outlines very specific criteria that must occur for an act to be considered an act of piracy. Those criteria include:

  • The pirates must board another vessel;
  • The pirates must have the intent to steal or commit another crime; and
  • The pirates must have the intent or capacity to use force in order to commit the crime for which they boarded the vessel;

The definition provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is similar and defines piracy, in part, as any act that:

  • Is illegal and committed for private ends by those on a private ship. The actions must be directed against those on another vessel on the high seas or any waterway outside the jurisdiction of a sovereign nation.

It should be noted that while most countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States has chosen not to ratify it.

It is important to recognize that most definitions of piracy, including those provided above, require that:

  • The pirates must have their own vessel nearby and involved in their actions (absent this requirement, the crime of boarding a vessel to commit a crime is considered hijacking and not piracy);
  • That pirates commit or have the intent to commit illegal acts; and
  • That pirates must act for private purposes and not for political purposes or on behalf of a nation.

United States Law

United States law permits punishment for the crime of piracy as that term is defined by the “law of nations”. Federal law, 18 USC Section 1651, provides that anyone who is in the United States and who has been found to have committed the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations shall be imprisoned for life. The law does not define which law of nations should be relied upon when trying a person for the crime of piracy. However, any actions which meet the elements described may be considered to be piracy by a U.S. Court.

Today, pirates exist in places other than Hollywood and children's imaginations. The actual pirates that exist on the world's waterways are subject to the anti-piracy laws set forth by international groups and sovereign nations so that together, as a world community, the problem of piracy can be addressed.

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