Pirates take over the European Parliament!

PiratPartiet. Have you heard of it?

I consider myself to be a pretty well informed person and my love of politics has me reading all kinds of publications from various European countries. Despite this, until last week, even I had never heard of it. I had at least figured out that it meant ‘Pirate Party’ but outside of thinking of captain Barbarossa shouting “yar” from a pulpit, I had no idea what its political message was.

Curiosity got the best of me and, after a few Google searches, I discovered that the ‘PiratPartiet’: is led by Rick Flakvinge, was formed in 2006, hails from Sweden, and is intrinsically tied to the infamous peer-to-peer sharing Web site “The Pirate Bay”. The party’s platform then became self-evident; it fights to reform anti-copyright laws.

The success of the ‘PiratPartiet’ happened literally overnight and showcases, yet again, the increasing role of the Internet in politics. On April 17, 2009, in a heavily publicized trial, the Swedish government sentenced the 4 individuals who run the Pirate Bay website to 1 year in prison and over 2 million Euros in fines. The reaction amongst the Swedish youth (i.e. file sharers) was immediate.  The very next day, the party registered 25,000 new PiratPartiet members making it the 4th largest party in Sweden and the leading political force amongst 18-30 year-olds.

Consequently, increased media coverage throughout the European parliament electoral campaign helped the party earn 215,000 votes, and the chance to have a Pirate sitting in the European Parliament.

So what does one lonely seat in the European parliament mean and, ultimately, how does it affect the end user? Anyone slightly familiar with politics across the Atlantic is aware that there is no such thing as a two party system and that the popular belief is ‘the more the merrier.’ What this translates to is a courtship battle between the larger parties to partner with the ‘PiratPartiet’ to form either a larger coalition or, in some cases, a majority (yes, 1 seat can often determine a majority in Europe!). Falkvinge, the leader of the party, welcomes this unprecedented attention but doesn’t fail to make it clear that it doesn’t come for free or with broken promises.

The cost of his vote?  The promotion of his credo: “a free internet without any licenses in an open society”. Consequently, even with just his one seat, the ‘PiratPartiet’ could actually influence legislation. This sole seat can, ultimately, hold the power to sway the way Europeans share files and possibly, if it happens to trickle over, how the rest of the world shares files too.

At first, I couldn’t foresee a way to make both the end-user and the content holders happy. However, after thinking about Falkvinge’s goals of shortening copyright licenses to five years, it brought to mind an article I read the other day about the coming release of Epix TV. This joint venture between Lionsgate, Paramount, and MGM studios will broadcast their most popular releases free of charge, and free of advertising, on both cable TV and online at Epixhd.com. Similar to services such as Hulu.com, and all the other TV broadcasting networks’ websites (fox.com, abc.com, nbc.com, cbs.com), the Hollywood majors are looking to curb the piracy of their material by providing users with similar, if not identical, content for free shortly after it has been released.  Why bother illegally downloading the most recent Lost episode if I can legitimately access it the very next day at NBC.com?

With over 400 million streamed videos for 40 million users in April 2009 alone, Hulu is proving that if provided with content that is relevant and new, users will divert from piracy. Additionally, ScreenDigest predicts that the revenues for Hulu will equal or surpass those of YouTube ($180 million), a pretty big carrot that encourages content holders to work together to create similar sites. A channel such as Epix, which operates on a different model than Hulu, will generate revenue from the cable providers who will provide the channel as part of a bundled package similar to HBO and other premium movie channels.

Aside from the anecdotal aspect of this historic win, the emergence and, moreover, success of a “Pirate Party,” clearly shows the thought held by internet users that they are the authority of their own media and that it is their right to defend its use. As a former Napster user converted iTunes fanatic, I used to share this sentiment. Of course the desire to pirate remains, but I’ve come to acknowledge that the content producers must be able to retain their ability to generate revenue. Without revenue they will cease to produce that content, and without content, what is there to pirate? While the Pirate Party’s credo may seem novel and intriguing, it appears to be a day late and a dollar short. Ultimately, if the major corporations can protect their revenue and the users can access their content in a timely, legitimate way, the need for the Pirate Party’s copyright reform platform may become obsolete just as quickly as it became evident.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons