Opinion

Has the Pirate Party boat sunk?

21.09.10 @ 17:21

  1. By Florian Mueller

In last year's European election, the Pirate Party of Sweden garnered 7.1 percent of the vote, qualifying for one seat in the EU Parliament under the Nice Treaty and two seats according to Lisbon. But in Sunday's Swedish national election, the IP-skeptical platform saw its support reduced to 0.7 percent.

  • 'I wished them luck and hoped that they would raise the profile of IP issues on the political agenda' (Photo: Didier Misson)

That is 90 percent less vote share, or about the level of the Pirate Party's first-ever participation in 2006, and even below the 2.0 percent its German sister party achieved in last year's federal election. In either country it falls far short of the threshold to win any seats (4 percent and 5 percent, respectively). Elsewhere, the party is even smaller.

It is no surprise that the Pirate Party has failed to become a real political force. Three years ago, I had some email correspondence with Rick Falkvinge, the party's founder. I expressed fundamental doubt over the Pirate Party's ability to replicate in our times the rise of the Greens in the 1980s.

A hackle-raising name

The Pirate Party owes to its name both the big-bang attention it received early on and its apparent inability to evolve into a serious political force.

When the party was founded in support of the Pirate Bay, a file-sharing platform under legal attack, that name was its key success factor. The organisation never meant to support piracy on high seas, or the counterfeiting of physical goods. But the notion of a party sympathetic to the illegal copying of software (programs, music, movies) was shocking.

To a lot of grown-ups, this symbolized an unbelievable generational divide: on one side, the law-abiding establishment; on the other, a movement of the Internet generation that appeared to advocate broadband lawlessness.

It was "cool" to be a pirate: a great theme for a costume party and the ultimate expression of anti-establishment protest. This entailed a lot of activism in Sweden and the creation of smaller sister parties in many other countries. Free-of-charge membership accelerated everything.

But this strategy had all the ingredients of a one-hit wonder. Unlike that of the Greens, whose initial environmentalist focus emphasized a rather positive notion.

Software piracy is a serious problem

Many activists believe that the "piracy" term, which the party mocks, is a gross overstatement of the nature of the problem.

I know both sides of the argument. In the early 1980s I "traded" Commodore 64 games with friends, and on a few occasions I even acted as a "cracker," which means that I removed copy protection schemes from commercial software. At the height of my youthful impudence, a friend brought along a new game and I cracked it right away on one of my high school's computers. Several of us went home with a new game and a hilarious memory.

Those were the early years of personal computing. There was clearly a lack of awareness for the ethical and economic dimension of this. My perspective changed rapidly, and fundamentally, when I found myself on the producing side (such as with Warcraft II, a predecessor of today's famous World of Warcraft).

I can say with a clear conscience that I haven't done any illegal copying, let alone "cracking," ever since those Commodore 64 days. Every piece of software I ever used on a PC was properly purchased, or it was (of course) open source. I discarded the rest.

Anti-software-patent activists joined

The Pirate Party's first MEP, Christian Engstrom, was among those who once encouraged me to enter that fray. When I started my NoSoftwarePatents campaign, Christian provided the Swedish translation of its website. When he ran for Parliament, I was confident that he was going to be perceived as a professional rather than a radical.

So despite my fundamental disagreement with the Pirate Party on copyright and security issues, I wished them luck and hoped that they would raise the profile of IP issues on the political agenda. Two weeks ago it was reassuring to hear Christian condemn counterfeiting in a plenary speech.

But I'm afraid that they will remain a fringe party forever. At some point they may realize that they're more of an activist group, or a non-governmental organization. Meanwhile they will probably continue to pursue parliamentary ambitions until possibly being absorbed by the Greens, with whom they already caucus in the Hemicycle.

Those pirates who really want to shape intellectual property policy will be better advised to join the more established parties and try to leave a mark on their positions. But that will require them to fully appreciate the legitimate interest of the knowledge economy in strong intellectual property rights. In name and in substance.

The writer is a software developer and an adviser on competition and intellectual property issues. He is the author of the FOSS Patents blog