Welcome, pirates, say I!
But wait – the word has had a somewhat ballooning course through Western culture – to what pirates do I refer? Certainly it is not to the ones lurking about and around the Somali high seas. Though they have the most ready claim to the title “pirate,” used with its original intent, their choice of outfit (namely, the machine gun and necklace of bullets) forces me to consider the likely possibility that these individuals may make unruly guests.
Then, do I refer to their distant relatives, perhaps; the brigands and blaggards of the seven seas? The fifthly yet loveable, villainous yet soft-hearted, scurrilous yet charming characters now popularized by Disney and Johnny Depp? No – I happen to belong to a very small group of stodgy and boorish critics that thought all Pirates of the Caribbean films (not just the sequels) were …well, stodgy and boorish. And I am afraid the reputation of the loveable pirate has so far been unable to recover.
In fact, I welcome to the table and political conversation a group of enterprising Swedes. Frustrated by the complicated and restrictive nature of copyright and privacy laws in Europe, a small group of Swedish citizens formed the Pirate Party to offer an alternative political voice. The group, led by Rickard Falkvinge, began ambitious but small. From their founding, which was the first day of the year in 2006, till April 17th, 2009, the fledgling political party could only claim about 10,000 members. Then, due to the well covered and much debated trial and verdict against a popular Swedish website called “The Pirate Bay” – where anyone was enabled to download copyright protected content free of charge – the Pirate Party experienced exponential growth.
As of May 28, 2009, the group’s membership was documented at 48,000, making it the third largest political party in Sweden. Additionally, and not surprisingly, the group is highly popular with a young demographic and claims membership of its youth organization to be over 20,000 (which, if accurate, would make it the largest youth group in Sweden). Consequently, the Pirate Party is thinking big. Their eyes are not rested by the languid stalls of Swedish parliament, but are set on the growing European divans. They have taken their support and with it won a seat in the European Parliament (a 785 member legislative body within the European Union). A moderate beginning for the average independent political party, but for one with a name that defined is “theft,” this is momentous.
So what does it take to be a Swedish pirate?
As it happens, like most shrewd and PR savvy pirates, these Swedes have a manifesto. It has three tenets, all of which trend along a theme. First, the Pirate Party would reform copyright law. In their words:
“All non-commercial copying and use should be completely free. File sharing and p2p networking should be encouraged rather than criminalized…The Internet could become the greatest public library ever created.”
File sharing and p2p (or peer-to-peer) networking is a system, usually created and orchestrated by a computer program, whereby data, which can include audio and video files, is freely available for download from members’ computer hard drives. Famous examples of this system are Napster, Limewire, and a slew of torrent websites (“The Pirate Bay” being once among them). Obviously, as can be observed from the treatment of Napster and others, governments have a low tolerance for copyright infringement; and the companies that own those copyrights even less so. The Pirate Party takes the view that this restricts “the very thing which [companies] are supposed to promote” – i.e. culture and knowledge. Five years, they offer, is more than plenty time for a copyright to allow a company or individual to profit commercially from their product. After five years, all aesthetic work should be made freely available. Of course, for non-commercial use it should be free from the outset.
The erosion of copyright law is conjoined in this case with the creation of privacy law. After 9/11, says the manifesto, European governments succumbed to paranoia and grossly overstepped their permission. The panicked “reaction to try to end all evil by increasing the level of surveillance” with post 9/11 surveillance laws, they argue, will lead to government “control over the entire population.” The group, offering an uncanny imitation of paranoia and panic, is befuddling on this point. Though, this is not just because one may not share their baleful apprehensions. This particular portion of their manifesto seems hastily tacked on and, unlike other sections, does not contain alternative proposals. I can imagine those quoted few sentences being added with the appeal they might have to a reactionary youth audience firm in mind. After all, these are first and foremost pirates. Online piracy is still a long way from being legal. And so perhaps privacy laws are for these buccaneers what the skulls, eye-patches, and wooden-legs were for the pirates of yesteryear.
Whatever their feelings on online file sharing and copyright laws, the popularity of this single issue group has been, and will be, a jolt for major party politicians. After the 2006 elections in Sweden, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt announced his support for legal and free file sharing. In 2008, seven members of Sweden’s governing moderate party called for the decriminalization of file sharing. Pirate Parties are spreading across Europe, forming in countries such as Germany, Spain, Austria and Denmark. There is even an unofficial Pirate Party in the United States. If the groups continue at their current momentum, the pirates will soon compose a real political power base (if you will pardon the paranoia). And despite the singular focus of its members, the Pirate Party does straddle an enormously salient debate on the future of the internet. Net neutrality, online privacy, data mining, copyright protection, file sharing – these are huge issues that are only just beginning to find a place in the public conscience. In the next five to ten years, these terms will comprise the day’s major hot-button issues – and, who knows, you may find yourself a pirate.