A clear winner is emerging from the Digital Economy Bill – and it’s the UK Pirate Party. The penny only really dropped for me yesterday, after the Open Rights Group’s big demonstration at Westminster.
“What was all that about, Andrew?” someone asked me in the pub afterwards. He’d been at the Commons for a meeting, and walked past the demo too. The confusion was understandable: the ORG’s clever wheeze of blank placards and a silent protest meant anyone walking past had no idea what it was about. The glorious exceptions were a beautiful banner and a large flag from the Pirate Party. The logo is very cool, as you know.
As an exercise in communicating, the Pirates were the only success of the event. At least the logo will have got on TV, and made an impression with passers-by.
Nobody particularly likes the Bill, but as long as the sheer joy of filesharing remains an illicit one, and not part of the legitimate music market place, then Piracy will have a lustre, and the Party will be in with a chance. You may find them childish, ignorant and selfish – as I do – but they have a simple message that eludes other digital campaigners. But I think the Pirates may flourish for a few other reasons. I’ll try and explain what they are.
Back in 1992, as the country came blinking into democracy. Polish voters had the luxury of not just one but two Beer Parties. There was a split, you see, into Dark and Light Beer factions. That’s the beauty of party democracy: it’s like web standards – you can’t get enough of them.
Over here, we have an atrophied political system. At least the pirates have organised their own party – or at any rate, pinched the idea from someone else and registered the name first – and are willing to take their ideas to a real ballot box, rather than engaging in backdoor lobbying, or creeping their way up the party hierarchy via career advancement. The traditional parties are unable to see beyond focus groups, and it leaves voters with no real choices on the big issues of the day – such as Europe or the environment. Instead, we have a Tweedledum / Tweedledee distinction between tiny nuances of style, rather than substance.
Two cheers for that. The internet has seen the liberation of what Bernard Levin christened the “Single Issue Fanatic”, or SIF. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, and it may even be fictional, but if you can pursue it relentlessly, you’ll get traction. The Pirate Party captures a popular “cause” – P2P still isn’t legal, and the Pirates declared enemy – record companies and Hollywood – is easily identifiable. SIFs they certainly are. Other policies are conspicuous by their absence. Foreign relations? Education? Defence? Not a word. But I’d like to think that in a Pirate-governed UK, even civilian aircraft would be required to put the slain body of a copyright holder to the nose.
The Pirate Party also offers clear benefits over donating to the Open Rights Group, which is probably the organisation with most to lose from a successful Pirate tilt. (It strengthens the hardliners in the music business, obviously, at the expense of the industry as a whole.) The ORG had similar origins – it began as a meetup in Hyde Park for anti-copyright campaigners. It’s another coalition of people with nothing in common except a heartfelt antipathy towards copyright.
The ORG has run a lacklustre and at times spectacularly incompetent “campaign” against the Digital Economy Bill. Timing the protest to coincide with Budget Day is just one example; being blindsided by the BPI’s alternative Section 17 – which we first revealed back here – is another.Whereas one merely “donates” to the ORG and receives a thank you, the Party offers real “membership”, and with voting rights the opportunity to influence party policy. To a SIF, it’s money well spent.
So does the Manifesto fit in with any tradition? Who will it appeal to and why?
The politics of spite
I think there are two ingredients to the Pirates’ success, and they have little in common.
For any politics watcher, the Manifesto really is a completely fascinating bundle of contradictions. There’s little attempt to disguise its motivation as a Single Issue party, as readers pointed out in comments here – but even there it falls over itself.
For a party of Pirates (yarrr!), you’d expect a minimal manifesto in the great tradition of the crypto anarchists. But in reality, it’s surprisingly authoritarian: the Pirates’ solution to every grievance is a new law or regulation. This is not the recipe for a Temporary Autonomous Zone.
Even the universally hated National Identity Register would be kept on, apparently, but with extra conditions attached to it. Quite a few of you think that’s bonkers. I agree, there’s no other description.
Heroically, there’s no attempt to soften the pill for creators. They’re stuffed. All copyright expires after ten years (five years if you’re not careful, and apply to re-register it) – so anybody can put out IBM’s DB2, Microsoft’s Windows, Martin Amis’ books or the back catalogue of Michael Jackson (compositions and recordings) and not pay the author – pocketing all the proceeds for the “Pirate” version. You have to be extremely limited in your thinking not to see bad consequences from this, but for the Pirates the “benefit” of destroying these businesses outweighs any disadvantages. The Pirates are offering a politics of spite and selfishness.
With a few people, this strikes a chord. We’ll call this the “nasty” brigade – being seen with these chaps does not improve your prospects of a date. But they’re outnumbered by a larger group.
For far more people, the Pirates offer a simple gesture against the political elites. Most wish no ill towards creators, and couldn’t justify them as collateral damage, as the Party does. But a vote (especially an electronic vote) for the Pirates is a snub to a system that people think has failed them.
So the Pirates’ hour may have come. They’ve made a consumer issue into a civil rights issue, and all because of a lack of action from the music industry to exploit the technology available to it. That’s what’s resulted in a Bill that nobody really likes. Yes, there’s a poetic justice (as my companion at the demo pointed out) to suspending somebody who uses the internet too much, and whose inflated sense of entitlement (“rights”) means trampling over other people. It’s cheaper to let them cool off at dial-up speed, than fuelling the quack medical profession and booking them into an “internet addiction” clinic. That’s missing the point.
As I said earlier, file sharing is a real joy – it should be legal, not criminal. We ought to have competing file sharing services available to us, all innovating their file-sharey goodness. Unlike the Pirates, however, I just don’t expect to get this pleasure for nothing. Many parts of the music business recognised the thrill offered by the original Napster a decade ago, and set about trying to convince rightsholders that they’d profit from it. So the argument is really about how to legalise it.
In other words, to get to the “sharing culture” they advocate, no group has to lose out, nobody need get poorer, and certainly, nobody has to have their rights taken away. To argue otherwise is pure, childish spite.
Onwards to a Pirate Future
Today the Parliamentary Pirate candidates say they’re skint, and their ambition is merely to avoid losing their deposits. But that may soon change. Google lurks in the background, and its business strategy aligns perfectly with the destruction of online copyright. While the Pirates say they’re not in hock to lobbyists, I expect that to change too. Google is too clever to fund them directly, but it may wish to launder some money via foundations or quasi-academic quangos.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.