Monday, September 20, 2010

Has the Pirate Party boat sunk? IP-skeptical platform decimated in Swedish election

In last year's European election, the Pirate Party of Sweden garnered 7.1% of the vote, enough for one seat under the EU treaty in place at the time (and two seats following an EU reform treaty). But in yesterday's Swedish national election, the IP-skeptical platform saw its support decimated: a dismal 0.7% according to a television station's exit poll.

That's about the level of the party's first-ever participation in 2006. Sweden has a 4% threshold to win any seat in its national parliament, and it appears very unlikely that the Pirate Party will ever surmount it.

Its German sister party achieved 2.0% in last year's German federal election, also far from the relevant threshold (5% in that case). The German chapter has a lot of debate over whether it's too much of a single-issue party and should become more of a general left-wing liberal party.

I'm not at all surprised that the Pirate Party fails to become a real political force. Three years ago, a MySQL executive made me known with Rick Falkvinge, the party's founder, by email, and in the ensuing correspondence I expressed very serious doubt that the Pirate Party was going to replicate in our times the rise of the Greens in the 1980s. I also expressed my concern that the party's approach -- including its provocative name -- might even discredit the cause of reasonable and balanced IP policy.

Nevertheless, I gave the German Pirate Party a signature last year to support their participation in the federal election (though I didn't vote for them in the end because they took an extremely radical anti-security stance shortly before the vote). I kept my fingers crossed for the Swedish Pirate Party in last year's European election. And I liked Christian Engström's clear condemnation of counterfeiting in the European Parliament two weeks ago.

As you can see, this is pretty complicated, so I have to elaborate on my views to be clear.

A hackle-raising name draws attention at the start but bogs you down in the end

I believe the Pirate Party owes to its name both the enormous 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 file-sharing platform, that name was its key success factor. The organization obviously never meant to support piracy on high seas, or counterfeiting of physical goods. But the idea of a party expressing (to say the least) a great deal of sympathy for the illegal copying of software (programs, music, movies) was shocking, and a shocking appearance can be a way to get listened to and talked about.

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 lawlessness by the terabyte.

Not only was the name shocking. It was also cool to be a pirate. It was like a great theme for a costume party. Calling oneself a pirate looked like the ultimate expression of anti-establishment protest, and that resulted in a lot of activism in Sweden and the creation of smaller sister parties in many other countries.

That kind of radically provocative positioning had all the ingredients of a one-hit wonder. Unlike the Greens, whose initial environmentalist focus emphasized a positive notion.

Software piracy is a serious problem

Rick basically argued (as do many other activists) that the word "piracy" was a gross overstatement of the nature of the problem. The party as a whole often tried to portray pirates as freedom fighters, which is a major distortion in my view.

I actually know both sides of the argument. In the early 1980s I had (like many millions of people) a Commodore 64. I previously had an Atari 2600 video game console, and I had to buy (or borrow) every game cartridge I wanted to play. Then some friends told me that a C64 was a better deal because I could get the games "for free". In other words, I could get copies from them. Plenty. Back in those days, I couldn't even count how many games I had. I only counted the number of floppy disk boxes.

There was also a fair amount of software I bought. Sometimes I didn't want to wait until I could obtain a pirated version. Sometimes I really wanted to own the thing, or I needed the manual. But I never paid for most of the stuff I played.

My confession goes even further: on a few occasions I also acted as a "cracker", which means that I removed copy protection schemes from commercial software in order to make it copyable. The funniest incident was in the summer of 1986 when a friend brought along a World Cup game for the C64 that he had purchased and we went to the school's computer room. They had a few C64s there, and it took me only a few minutes to disable the copy protection by effectively skipping the code section that checked on it. So several of us went home with a new game.

What's important to consider is that those were the early years of personal computing. There was clearly a lack of awareness for the illegality of those activities. We all knew that there was a theoretical risk, but we doubted that we were going to get caught. We didn't understand that it was unethical behavior, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't.

Post-C64, no more piracy for me

My perspective on this changed rapidly, and fundamentally, when I found myself on the producing side. After a few years as an author of articles for computer magazines and of ten computer books, I became involved with the business of software publishing.

The piracy problem also affected the sales of some Blizzard Entertainment games (especially Starcraft I and Diablo I) in Germany in the second half of the 1990s. At the time I was Blizzard's German consultant and representative.

I can say with a clear conscience that I haven't done any illegal copying, let alone "cracking", ever since the Commodore 64 days. I threw away those floppy disk boxes at some point. Every piece of software I ever used on a PC was properly purchased, or it was (of course) open source. I'm so careful that I only install a second copy of a program on a portable computer if the end user license agreement (EULA) permits it.

This isn't only the right thing to do, and it's safe not only in a legal sense. It's also one of the reasons for which I've never been hit by a computer virus.

So today, I don't associate anything positive with "piracy". Why did I then lend a signature to the Pirate Party even once?

Anti-software-patent activists joined the Pirate Party movement

There are significant overlaps between the Pirate Party and the anti-software-patent movement.

When I read last year about the Swedish Pirate Party's electoral campaign, I saw that Christian Engström was their top-listed candidate. I immediately sent him a message to wish him luck.

Christian once gave an important impulse that contributed to my decision to fight against software patents. On a mailing list, he saw a question I asked, but he felt that MySQL (the company I was advising at the time) wasn't active enough. He told me that view in a rather rude way: not on the list, but by a private reply. It wasn't my fault that it took MySQL some time to decide on what to do (and MySQL supported the cause like no comparable company did relative to its company size). So I basically agreed with Christian. It was necessary to do more.

A few months later, with MySQL's help, I started the NoSoftwarePatents campaign. Christian provided the Swedish translation. He was by far and away the fastest of all translators, and the feedback I got from native speakers of Swedish was extremely positive.

I felt that Christian was a good choice for his party because he's a professional, not a radical. I was confident that he as a person wasn't going to harm the cause of balanced IP policy.

There are also several other "brothers-in-arms" from the fight against the EU software patent directive who joined the Pirate Party, in Sweden, Germany and other countries. So despite my fundamental disagreement with them on copyright and security issues, I wished them luck I hoped that they would raise the profile of IP issues on the political agenda, and I believe that's what they have already achieved.

But I'm afraid for them that they will remain a fringe party forever. At some point they may realize that they're an activist group, a non-governmental organization, even though they will probably continue to call themselves a party and pursue parliamentary ambitions for some more time (until possibly being absorbed by the Greens, with whom the Pirates already caucus in the European Parliament).

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.

There's much more at stake now than in the heyday of the C64.

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