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Pirate Party Wants Copyright Laws to “Walk the Plank”!
Owen Nicholas   Jul 24, 2012   Ethical Technology  

In an age where the mainstream media is quick to label any dissenting opinion as controversial, dangerous, and a threat to the natural order, it is perhaps surprising that such an unorthodox, radical organisation as the Pirate Party should have achieved such popular electoral support over the past 6 years.

Certainly the party is never far from media scrutiny and indeed seems to enjoy the underground reputation it has garnered for itself as an icon of the digital counterculture, and it is not hard to see why. With increasing calls from all sides of the traditional political spectrum demanding regulation of the internet, the world badly needs an official political force willing to stand up and defend freedoms which will have a vital role to play in the future development of the 21st century. While the possibility of any national government being controlled by a pirate party may seem ludicrously far-fetched, it is the impact the party has on open debate, social awareness and public policy which may yet prove its lasting legacy.

The Pirate party burst onto the European political scene in 2006 on a wave of frustration and anger over the rising power and influence of intellectual property lobbyists and censorship advocacy groups. Since then, Pirate parties and affiliated organisations have spread across the globe bringing with them the values of freedom of information, free-exchange and hacker culture. This platform has proved so successful that by 2009 the Pirate party ranked as the third largest party in Sweden by membership and holds two seats in the European parliament while in Germany they are represented in 4 State parliaments, a host of city/municipal councils and account, according to recent polls, for 11% of the national vote. Such impressive achievements for a party which most people had not even heard of two years ago cannot be denied, but what has perhaps been its greatest challenge to date has been resisting the passing of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) which threatens to trample civil liberties in an effort to enforce oppressive copyright laws across the networks. Thanks to the tireless activism of grassroots organisations like the Pirates, earlier this month ACTA was resoundingly rejected by the European parliament. This is an historic precedent which is summed up quite effectively by the UK Pirate Party Leader Loz Kaye, who states:

“The European Parliament vote is a triumph of democracy over special interests and shady back-room deals. Without opposition, our representatives would have waved this agreement through. It is now clear that it is becoming increasingly politically poisonous to be ‘anti Internet’. I’m pleased the MEPs have listened to the millions of people who contacted them and came out on the streets to protest against ACTA, instead of being misled by the empty promises of industry lobbyists. This must signal a start for a new way of doing politics. No more should international agreements be negotiated behind closed doors and simply rubber stamped by parliaments. Policy must become something that happens with the people, not to the people.”

ACTA stands as a crystal example of the undemocratic lengths to which the entertainment industry is willing to go to preserve their antiquated business models and the profits they feel entitled to. Not only would it have forced ISPs to record and police user activity, it would have provided industrial concerns with a de facto legal and monetary weapon in which to censor and control the content of what is distributed over the web. In addition, large pharmaceutical corporations would be granted the power to prevent generic drugs from being developed in nations which had not succumbed to their patenting regimes while giving them full control over food production from seeds to crops. Anti-piracy bills of this kind provide exactly the kind of smokescreen for creeping authoritarianism which governments around the world are more than willing to utilise. The past decade has demonstrated the incredible, potential power of distributed networks with such success that old, hierarchical methods of control are under pressure like never before. This in turn has led to a heavy reaction by states and corporations to exert influence over all free modes of communication, like the internet, by subverting democratic processes, civilian oversight and resorting to the naked force of the law.

Nowhere has the digital war been more rancorous and salient than in the US where a sequence of such bills has been smuggled into the senate, one after the other. No sooner had the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) been defeated by activists in 2010, new revamped versions were proposed early the next year. Public petitions and protests, organised by cyber watchdogs and net companies, forced the joint bills of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) to be temporarily withdrawn from congress while such a hostile climate existed. The two bills are widely seen as precursors to censorship of the web as they would have effectively violated the designation of websites as ‘safe harbours’, protected from liability, and allowed law enforcement to block access to entire internet domains deemed as rogue sites. Unfortunately, it seems that many key aspects of SOPA have returned in the form of the Intellectual Property Attaché Act (IPAA) which was introduced a few weeks ago. This time, officially supervised net attachés would be responsible for policing the web not just in the US but worldwide by liaising with departments and agencies in order to ‘reduce’ copyright infringement. As with previous bills the wording has been left deliberately ambiguous and arbitrary so as to give regulators as much unconstrained muscle power as possible, and once again the bill will facilitate the agenda of Big Content distributors while doing absolutely nothing for small independent artists.

The extent to which corporate interests have been able to manipulate supposedly accountable legislative bodies should not be surprising to anyone with a passing interest in state capitalism and the neo-liberal order, but, what is truly alarming is the blatant and frankly Orwellian attempt at which governments are trying to gain direct control at a global level over the one remaining, free medium of information dispersal which ordinary people possess. Censorship for any private agenda, no matter how eloquent or well marketed, must be resisted by tooth and nail unless we wish to allow the forces of repression free reign over hard won civil liberties. Thankfully however it appears that increasing numbers of people are becoming aware of the looming threat and are in turn contributing to the public debate.

The most noticeable arena in which this struggle is taking place surrounds the issue or problem with copyright. It is remarkable how often opponents of SOPA or ACTA often claim that the proposed laws are a cure worse than the disease, going too far, whilst genuflecting to copyright and decrying IP piracy as a genuine concern. This is the standard response of companies like Facebook, which argue that lawless foreign web sites full of pirated content cause real damage to the US economy, but destroying the Internet isn’t the solution. Opposition such as this, aims merely to reform existing laws without questioning the underlying premise by which such draconian measures are made possible. The Pirate Party in keeping with its principles of ‘liquid democracy’ reflects the ongoing debate between abolitionists and reformers in the most interest terms. Many within the party have no such qualms about putting blame squarely where it belongs, at the foot of copyright itself.

Not only do many opponents of state intervention online feel that they must support the basic legitimacy of copyright, they also accept the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) propaganda about piracy costing the economy billions of dollars every year despite there being no evidence for this whatsoever. So why then, when it is widely recognised even by the Supreme Court that copyright and patents restrict freedom of speech and expression, do people feel the need to pay lip service to the concept. Part of it is to do with the misconception that IP constitutes a ‘natural right’, and indeed copyright defenders take great pains to use the term as often as possible while forgetting its historical roots.

Originally, both patents and copyrights were grants of monopoly privilege pure and simple. A printing house might be assigned a “copyright” by royal mandate, meaning that only it was allowed to print books or newspapers in a certain district; there was no presumption that copyright originated with the author. Likewise, those with political pull might be assigned a “patent,” i.e., an exclusive monopoly, over some commodity, regardless of whether they had had anything to do with inventing it. Intellectual property rights had their origin in governmental privilege and governmental protectionism, not in any zeal to protect the rights of creators to the fruits of their efforts. When the copyright monopoly was first created on May 4, 1557, it was a means of censorship of political dissent. Nobody at the time thought to claim something as preposterous as the copyright monopoly being a precondition for people wanting to create culture. It never was. Since then the copyright system has metastasized from 14 years to over 100 today, which tends to suggest no liberal copyright system can ever be devised which would prevent its inevitable expansion and internationalisation. Even if we are to believe such privileges have some utilitarian justification in the modern era it cannot be denied that as a direct result of such privileges huge monopolies are created which stifle innovation, creativity, growth, while harming wider culture and society.

Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party, launched a scathing attack on state backed monopolies by asserting that draconian laws are the only means by which such a legal regime can sustain itself at all:

“I believe that the copyright industry is actually right that these ridiculous laws are needed to sustain the copyright monopoly. General-purpose networked computers, free and anonymous speech, and sustained civil liberties make it impossible to maintain this distribution monopoly of digitizable information. As technical progress can’t be legislated against, basic civil liberties would have to go to maintain the crumbling monopoly. And these are the laws we’re seeing on the table. For what is the copyright monopoly, anyway? It is a set of monopolies from the era of guild-regulated commerce, when privately dictated monopolies were the norm and expected. Specifically, the eldest tradesmen in every guild dictated what, where, and how trade happened within that craft. The copyright monopoly is a remnant from this era that should have been thrown out with the establishment of free enterprise laws in the 1850s.

But, the problem with Information Protectionism is not simply the archaic nature of it, or that it is a fixed set of monopolies and privileges; it is a monopoly factory, one that creates ever more monopolies. ‘Intellectual Property’ hoarders constantly register more and more privileged ‘works’ into the system; they make ever broader claims in courts; they lobby governments for ever more privileges, tighter legislation, increased surveillance and ruthless enforcement. And in the case of Information Protectionism as in all their interventions, legislative bodies are but factories for ever more means of protectionism, privileges, etc. Their legislation is either useless or harmful: when it is ineffective, it is useless; when it is effective, it is harmful, for it may only serve to prevent legitimate activities; and of course, all the spending of resources for enacting and enforcing legislation, either effectively or ineffectively, is itself a harmful waste.

Furthermore, copyright and patent laws negate property rights in an individual’s own physical property. As Pirate party member Philip Hunt puts it:

“For example, if I have a hard disk, it is my property and I can arrange the patterns of magnetic alignment on it in any way I choose; and if I cannot, because copyright law forbids me, my property right in the hard disk has been reduced. Or similarly if I own a lathe and a milling machine, and some raw materials, I can make an internal combustion engine or other machine from the raw materials; and if I cannot, because patent laws forbid me, then my property rights have been diminished. So to the extent that you believe in property rights over real property (i.e. anything tangible), you can’t also believe in property rights in imaginary property (i.e. so-called ‘intellectual’ property).

Or put another way, you have a natural right to prevent a burglar stealing your Ipod as much as your diary or a copy of it, but only a privilege to prevent people from printing copies of the speech you made at your sister’s wedding. If I write a novel then no one else has any right to copy it, abridge it, adapt it, translate it, or even read it. It is my ‘property’, and should be protected from theft as much as any of my material property. If I sell someone my novel or a printed copy of it, then it becomes the purchaser’s material and therefore their property. This doesn’t prevent any original or copy I retain from remaining my property also. Property is not bound by similarity. I cannot seek nor require my government to unjustly suspend the people’s natural liberty to make copies in order that I can be granted a monopoly in the making of copies. And let’s not forget that liberty is inalienable and cannot be surrendered through contract. It takes the enactment of a privilege such as copyright to alienate individuals from their liberty. Just as we cannot sell ourselves into slavery so we cannot surrender our liberty to make copies. It is for reasons like this that some pirates argue that nothing short of IP abolition will do and that copyright reformers are fundamentally misguided. Stephen Kinsella an intellectual property lawyer and legal theorist argues that:

“Others who oppose SOPA and who are for copyright reform, but who are not for copyright abolition, should realize that a modest, fair, efficient, “reasonable” or “sensible” copyright system is completely impossible. Since the dawn of copyright its scope, length, penalties and enforcement have only increased, because of the relentless pressure by special interest factions like Disney, the RIAA, the MPAA, and other content providers and entrenched interests. As we can see with the pressure to adopt SOPA, PIPA, PRO-IP, DMCA, Berne, WIPO, TRIPS, COICA, Sonny Bono/Mickey Mouse Copyright Term Extension Act, ACTA, the TPP, and other measures (see The Mountain of IP Legislation), the Big Content interests are relentless and will not stop pressuring Congress and other legislatures to expand the war on information sharing and the Internet. The question that SOPA opponents have to ask themselves is: would you rather have today’s copyright system or no copyright at all? Only one of these choices is compatible with opposition to SOPA and to censorship. The only way to stop SOPA type provisions and to maintain Internet freedom, is to get rid of today’s copyright system.”

But what are the alternatives to the current reality? There are of course many existing schemes which operate outside the IP system, various ‘free software’ initiatives such as copyleft, creative commons, etc. are in wide usage while a good deal of protection for the creators of intellectual products may be achieved through voluntary compliance alone. Consider the phenomenon of shareware, in which creators of software provide their products free to all comers, but with the request that those who find the program useful send along a nominal fee to the author. Presumably, only a small percentage of shareware users ever pay up; still, that percentage must be large enough to keep the shareware phenomenon going.

Voluntary boycott systems have also been used in the past. In the late Middle Ages a voluntary court system was created by merchants frustrated with the inadequacies of governmentally-provided commercial law. This system, known as the Law Merchant (‘law’ being the noun and ‘merchant’ the adjective), enforced its decisions solely by means of boycott, and yet it was enormously effective. Suppose producers of intellectual products — authors, artists, inventors, software designers, etc. were to set up an analogous court system for protecting copyrights and patent rights, or rather, copy-claims and patent claims (since the moral claims in question, though often legitimate, are not rights in the strict sense). Individuals and organizations accused of piracy would have a chance to plead their case at a voluntary court, but if found guilty they would be required to cease and desist, and to compensate the victims of their piracy, on pain of boycott. Rick Falvinge has his own proposals for what could be done on copyright reforms including guaranteeing net neutrality, non-commercial file sharing, free sampling and banning Digital Rights Management.

Whatever strain of thought amongst the pirates win out it is clear that if they had their way the present system of copyright would not be long for this world. Any solution to the current war on digital culture must take genuine moves to alter the structure of state/business collusion which is responsible for corporate privilege and give citizens the power to challenge prevailing narratives about acceptable or sanctioned behaviour online. Giulio Prisco wrote a fantastic article on why technoprogressives should join the Pirate Party and iterated the belief that the pirates will mature and grow to encompass many of the things transhumanists argue for today. It is hard not to support that vision. All around the world radical ideas, aided by informal digital networks, are proliferating amongst dissenting populations, and while younger people are completely redefining the boundaries between work and leisure, job and family, older politicians can only see their desire to live their lives more freely as creating chaos for themselves or as an expression of need. This is at the heart of the generational divide and a key reason for the rising popularity of future oriented organisations like the Pirate Party. It is only by changing the cultural zeitgeist that real, substantial and long-term progress can be achieved.

Owen Nicholas is a recent graduate from Nottingham University where he majored in History and Political Science; he is involved in numerous charities aiding the elderly and ethnic minorities and teaches English to foreign students.


I suggest that the article would be clearer if it avoided the term
“intellectual property”.  That term lumps together a dozen or so
unrelated laws which in practical terms have nothing in common.
Copyright and patent are just two of them, and even those two are
so different that it is a mistake to generalize about the two.

The real issues come from specific laws.  From the remote abstract
viewpoint of “intellectual property”, these issues are not even
visible.  For the sake of clear thinking about copyright, and clear
thinking about patents, I suggest rejecting that general term.


Dr Richard Stallman
President, Free Software Foundation

Thanks Owen for liking my article on on why technoprogressives should join the Pirate Party. I like yours, as well.

Welcome here Richard! I tend to agree with you re avoiding the term “intellectual property.” I have no issue with honest creators who try to make a honest living with the fruits of their hard work, and I think they must be supported. But I have many issues with current laws related to “ip.”

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