Sweden's swashbucklers

 

FEATURE:NOT SINCE the Jolly Roger fluttered from masts and Blackbeard terrorised the Caribbean have pirates been causing as much trouble as they have this year. But to judge from the headlines, it is not the Somali bandits hijacking cargo and oil-laden ships off the Horn of Africa who pose the greatest threat to 21st-century commerce. That comes from a different type of pirate altogether, one hailing from that most orderly of societies, Sweden, writes DAVIN O’DWYER

Scandinavia’s breed of buccaneers have developed alongside the Pirate Bay site, the world’s largest torrent-tracking site. The site allows filesharers to search for torrent files with which they can download music, movies, software and pretty much anything that can be converted into 0s and 1s.

The Pirate Bay site has made plenty of enemies among music labels, film studios, book publishers and games developers, who have seen their bottom lines take a nosedive as their traditional business models have been rendered obsolescent by the spread of filesharing. In a Swedish court in February this year, the founders of the Pirate Bay site were convicted of copyright infringement.

But the force of the law may not be enough to stop them. Were the people behind Pirate Bay just a bunch of freeloading IT geeks – just another Napster, say – then the “entertainment industry” could probably crush them with their favoured tactic, a torrent of litigation.

But these IT geeks have more than technological trickery up their sleeves – they boast a finely articulated ideological stand against not just the bullying of the record labels and movie studios, but against the entire concept of copyright as it stands. They are also opposed to the online surveillance that goes hand-in-hand with preventing modern online piracy.

And how are these twin ideals of piracy and privacy being advanced? Through the formation of a political party, of course. The Pirate Party and the Pirate Bay website are separate entities, but with a common past.

“The Pirate Bay was originally part of the Piratbyrån [Piracy Bureau] movement, who were an art group concerned with copyright issues, as one of their art projects, and it eventually became its own thing,” says Anna Troberg, a member of the Pirate Party’s board.

Formed in 2006 with a similar ethos as the Piratbyrån, the party achieved notable success earlier this year when it won two seats in the European elections, as well as becoming the third-largest Swedish party in terms of membership.

“The Pirate Party and the Pirate Bay both advocate freeing up copyright, but they’re technically two separate organisations,” says Troberg, though they have some members in common as well as some shared goals.

“Though we’re not technically related, of course, we gave the Pirate Bay trial a lot of attention, and as a result, we had 40,000 new members in two weeks.

“We don’t want to steal culture,” Troberg insists, eager to dispel the larcenous associations that cling obstinately to the movement. “We want to reform copyright, not abolish it ... We also work on right to privacy, which is connected to the issue of filesharing, because to stop filesharing, you need to look at everything everybody does online. This is more important than filesharing for the party now. While filesharing and copyright were our original issues, the topic of online privacy is now more important, because it affects people whether they’re five or 95.”

Many would say that the rights of musicians and film-makers are being damaged by the rise in filesharing, but Troberg works in publishing and has written books herself, under the pseudonym Rosetta Sten, so she is not insensitive to the needs of content creators to have their work rewarded.

“There are quite a few artists who don’t agree with us, because they feel they will lose their livelihood, but any business in a time of change has to adjust,” she argues. “Within this discussion we reveal how the contracts actually reward people, and quite a few writers and artists don’t realise how things have worked up to now. The money from the Napster trial eight years ago, for instance, not a single penny [of that] has gone to the artists. Once you tell them all these things, they start to change their opinion. More and more are coming over to our side.”

There is increasing recognition that copyright reform needs to be discussed as a matter of urgency – the speed of technological progress necessitates as much – and the rapid proliferation of associated Pirate Parties around the world that indicates these issues are moving into the mainstream.

The German Pirate Party attracted significant media attention in the country’s recent general election, after winning two council seats in Munich and Aachen.

The decision by Eircom to prevent its customers accessing the Pirate Bay has put Irish filesharing in the spotlight, and in the past few months, an Irish Pirate Party has been formed.

Founding committee member Ed Galligan, a mechanical engineering student in UCD, says the membership is about 70 or 80 so far.

“We have humble goals in the immediate future,” he says. “Our core aim at the moment is to increase membership – we need 300 members to become an officially registered Irish political party, at which point we can begin with serious activism ... We’re an unconventional party, so we do see us attracting membership from people who otherwise might not have an interest in politics.”

Troberg also acknowledges the pros and cons of operating outside the traditional political standards. “We are a focus party, which is both our strength and weakness,” she says. “A strength because we have members from across the political spectrum, which makes it easier to work and reach out to other parties. It also makes it complicated, as we found before the EU elections, because of course politics is much more than our issues, so it is easy to criticise us. So it remains to be seen whether we stick to these issues related to integrity, or expand it to other issues. That is to be seen in the next three, four, five years.”

  • Anna Troberg talks to Irish Timesmusic critic and blogger Jim Carroll at 1pm tomorrow in the Maldron Hotel, Smithfield, Dublin 7, as part of the Darklight Festival. For more, see www.darklight.ie
Pirate Party Manifesto

THE AIMS:“The Pirate Party wants to fundamentally reform copyright law, get rid of the patent system, and ensure that citizens rights to privacy are respected.”

COPYRIGHT:“All non-commercial copying and use should be completely free ... The monopoly for the copyright holder to exploit an aesthetic work commercially should be limited to five years after publication.”

PATENTS:“Privatised monopolies are one of society’s worst enemies, as they lead to price-hikes and large hidden costs for citizens. Patents are officially sanctioned monopolies on ideas.”

PRIVACY: “When the government routinely put its citizens under surveillance, it invariably leads to abuse of powers, lack of freedoms and injustices.”