"Pirates" Get Political

A lot of politics comes down to making a point through colorful theatrics and stories. By that reckoning, Sweden’s Pirate Party deserves an Oscar for the edgiest, most innovative and dramatic advocacy since Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie Party ran a pig for president in 1968. This time, however, the -- pirates -- are actually electing their own to serious positions.

The story starts with a website that inspired the Pirate Party, “Pirate Bay”: a frankly subversive file-sharing website. If you want to download Hollywood movies, recorded music and -- oh yes, some legitimately free content -- Pirate Bay is the place to go. Based in Stockholm, the site itself does not contain illicit material, but it does provide indexes that let Internet users track and locate BitTorrent files containing copyrighted digital content. In this respect, Pirate Bay resembles Napster.

According to Wikipedia, Pirate Bay has 3.6 million registered users and reaches over 25 million -- unique peers -- per month. The site supports itself by selling advertisements for its indexed content, bringing in an estimated $100,000 to $150,000 a year, depending upon whose estimates you believe. What’s remarkable about Pirate Bay is the scale of its operation, its technical sophistication, its ability to evade copyright prosecution, and its sheer panache.

Naturally, Pirate Bay is anti-copyright and brazenly in favor of "piracy." Just as some homosexual groups have embraced the word "queer" to neutralize its stigma, so Pirate Bay has embraced "piracy" to question the very legitimacy of the term. It insists that the site is about advancing freedom of speech, cultural sharing and individual privacy. It thumbs its nose at the right of copyright holders to control the flow of digital films, music and other content. Peter Sunde, a spokesman for Pirate Bay, says that rights-holders should not be chasing "pirates"; they should be developing new business models for generating revenue from file-sharing.

Say what you will about piracy, Pirate Bay, in its defense of cultural freedom, shows a lot of enterprise, style and 'tude. In 2006 it sought to buy the micro-nation/island Sealand as a base for its operations. (The deal failed.) In 2007, Pirate somehow gained legal possession of the domain name ifpi.com, which had been owned by a leading nemesis, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Pirate Bay prompted re-named IFPI as the "International Federation of Pirates Interests." (The "real" IFPA later regained control over the domain name; more at Wikipedia.)

There have been many other skirmishes between Pirate Bay and its adversaries -- in court and in arcane code warfare. For example, the MPAA once allegedly sought to "pollute" the Pirate Bay torrent database in order to disable it, a claim that the MPAA had denied but which leaked emails appeared to confirm.

Naturally, the major film studios and record labels have long been outraged at the effrontery of this digital Robin Hood. Besides a raid on their servers in 2006, Swedish authorities in 2008 brought a legal case against Pirate Bay for assisting copyright infringement. In April of this year, four Swedes associated with the site were found guilty, sentenced to one year in jail and fined approximately US $3.6 million.

While the verdict is being appealed, the Pirate Bay servers continue to function as usual. Peter Sunde said in a recent interview that an appeal of the court’s verdict could take as long as five years.

Clearly, the authorities thought that the Pirate Bay defendants would settle the case once they realized their cause was lost. Instead, the case has elevated the Pirate Bay renegades into international celebrity-martyrs, who continue their defiant bravado. Sunde is utterly unfazed by the prospect of spending a year in jail.

Even in defeat, the Pirate Bay wins. After a raid on Pirate Bay servers in 2006, the number of registered users grew from one million to 2.7 million and the number of peer-servers soared from 2.5 million to 12 million.

And now, following the conviction of the Pirate Bay Four? “Defeat” is turning “piracy” into a movement. "Piracy" is going political!

First, the founders of Pirate Bay recently sold their site to a Swedish gaming company for about US $7.8 million, a deal expected to be consummated in August. The gaming company hopes to go legitimate with the site, just as the new owners of Napster did. (Doesn’t strike me as a brilliant strategy, but....) The founders of Pirate Bay plan to use the profits from the sale to support “freedom of speech, freedom of information and the openness of the Internet.”

They played a role in helping protesters in Iran after the recent elections, for example. And they are developing a new website, Video Bay, that is still in itsextremely early stages. The new site plans to incorporate the next generational of web markup language, HTML5, for effects that will presumably be daring and innovative.

The most surprising turn of events, however, is that Pirate Bay has become the inspiration for a new political movement in Europe.

The Pirate Party — inspired by but separate from Pirate Bay — seeks to elect legislators to advance the "pirate" agenda of Internet freedom. The party, launched in 2006, initially attracted about 15,000 members and staged a few demonstrations and events in its early years. But following the conviction of the Pirate Bay founders, the Pirate Party’s membership has soared to more than 49,000 Swedes.

The Pirate Party is now the third-largest political party in Sweden. Its membership is larger than Sweden’s Green Party, the Left Party, the Liberal Party, the Christian Democrats and the Centre Party.

In the 2006 elections for Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag, the Pirate Party won only 0.63% of the vote; it needed 4% of the vote (or 225,000 votes) to win a seat in the parliament. But that is likely to change in the years ahead. There are an estimated one million-plus file-sharers in Sweden, which makes it entirely plausible that the Party could gain several seats in the Riksdag.

The real shock came a few weeks ago, when the Pirate Party won 7.13% of the Swedish vote in elections for the European Parliament. This entitled it to one seat in the Parliament. (The party could win a second seat if the so-called Lisbon Treaty is ratified.)

Now Pirate Parties are forming all over Europe, and starting to mobilize. There are officially registered Pirate Parties in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Poland and Spain. There are active but unregistered Pirate Parties in Denmark, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the Ukraine and ten other nations. According to Pirate Party International, Pirate Parties are forming in Brazil, Colombia, Switzerland, New Zealand, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland.

More than a fluke, the parties seem to have some serious political potential. In Germany, the Pirate Party recently won 3.4% of the vote for the European Parliamentary elections despite little serious campaigning. Much of the interest in the party was sparked by proposed legislation in Germany to require technical controls on the Internet to fight child pornography -- a move that the pirates see as a stalking horse for curbing Internet freedoms more generally. (For more, see this article in Der Spiegel.)

It’s hard to predict how the international "piracy" movement will evolve. It will certainly be interesting to watch pirate leaders advance their agenda in legitimate arenas while still trying to maintain credibility among their eclectic constituency, many of whom seem to live on the fringe of conventional politics.

In any case, the mere presence of Pirate Parties is likely to alter political debate in their respective countries. Suddenly, politicians will have to take copyright law reform, Internet policies and privacy more seriously or risk losing electoral support. A party that can snare 5, 10 or 15% of the vote could be a pivotal player in parliamentary systems.

What’s also remarkable is how the Pirate Party bears some resemblance to the counter-culture societies of "pirates" of the 17th Century. After fleeing wage slavery, indentured servitude, impressment onto ships, and outright capture and slavery, many commoners formed their own egalitarian, democratic pirate communities on board ships. The appeal of the Pirate Parties today is based on the same spirit of freedom and desire to escape from (cultural) servitude to global capital. The most interesting question is whether politics will change the Pirate Parties or whether the Pirate Parties will change politics.

international, copyright law, Internet, Germany