Piracy (Maritime Law) Legal Definition:

Violence or depredation on the high seas or in the air, for private ends, using aircraft or vessels.

Related Terms: Piracy Jure Gentium , Bootlegging , Piracy (Intellectual Property) , Pirate

See also Legal Definition of Piracy (Intellectual Property Law).

In the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, at §101, piracy is defined as follows:

"Piracy consists of any of the following acts:

  • "Any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft (or) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any state;
  • "Any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
  • "Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described (above)"

This is essentially the same definition as at Article 15 of the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas.

Piracy is a criminal offence but it is also a component of transportation law as pirate ships were subject to seizure and transfer of ownership to the jurisdiction of the seizing ship.

Historically, piracy was a crime that was committed upon the ocean only.

In his 1897 Bouvier's Law Dictionary, American jurist John Bouvier defined piracy as:

"Piracy: a robbery or forcible depredation on the high seas, without lawful authority, done animus furandi, in the spirit and intention of universal hostility.

"It is not necessary that the motive be plunder or that the depredations be directed against the vessels of all nations indiscriminately. As in robbery upon land, it is only necessary that the spoilation or intended spoilation be felonious, that is with intent to injure and without legal authority or lawful excuse."

Since, there have been two significant developments in the definition of piracy. The first was established by In re Piracy Jure Gentium.

The distinction between piracy and piracy jure gentium was described by Wheaton as follows:

"Piracy under the law of nations (jure gentium) may be tried and punished in the courts of justice of any nation, by whomsoever and wheresoever committed. But piracy created by municipal (domestic, state) statute can only be tried by that state within whose territorial jurisdiction, and on board of whose vessels, the offence created was committed.

"There are certain acts which are considered piracy by the internal laws of a state to which the law of nations (jure gentium) does not attach the same significance."

At issue in Re Piracy Jure Gentium was a Chinese pirate ship that was intercepted and captured just after it had got off a few rifle shots but before it was able to overcome its prey. The old common law definition had focused on robbery yet in this case there had been no robbery; it had been stopped just before it occurred, though there had been violence.

Justice Sankley for the House of Lords rendered the decision. While it skated around and ultimately declined to define piracy, the court nonetheless made two points that shaped international law. The first:

"Actual robbery is not an essential element in the crime of piracy jure gentium. A frustrated attempt to commit a piractical robbery is equally piracy jure gentium."

Secondly, Justice Sankley pointed out that robbery on a sea liner by one passenger upon another is not piracy.

The second significant development was the ancient restriction that piracy occurred on the high seas; upon the ocean. This did not accommodate the development of air transportation and the acts of piracy that occurred using aircraft. This was resolved by the advent of UNCLOS, as set out above.

Piracy was the first international crime and still today is held by jurists to be:

"... the true international crime."1

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