The results are in. In yesterday's European Parliament electons, the Swedish Pirate Party succeded in winning a seat, out of Sweden's 18 seats in the Parliament, with about 7% of the vote. A great success for a party that's only existed for three years, and which many - even in Sweden - had not heard of until quite recently.
So the question you have to ask today is whether this result is significant or not. Something I'll discuss under the fold..
The case against the Pirates
On the face of it, it's easy to dismiss the success of the Pirate Party. There can be little doubt, really, that their present success is due to several factors which actually had little to do with them. First, the outrage over the "Pirate Bay" case. While not directly related to the party, the prosecution of the Swedish Bittorrent site has gained great international attention, and a lot of public anger in Sweden.
It appears the Swedish prosecution authority was reluctant to prosecute them - they'd been in operation for years before anything happened. They were raided and prosecuted after pressure from the then Minister of Justice Thomas Bodström, probably after strong political pressure from the USA. This was a political scandal in itself, because Sweden has a Separation of Powers between the Executive (political) and Executive (bureaucratic) branches of government, so to speak. In other words, a Minister is not allowed to dictate the day-to-day operations of their ministry. Hearings were held and Bodström subsequently cleared for lack of evidence. But it may have been a contributing factor in the ruling Soc Dem party losing the election later that year.
Now, a month ago, the Pirate Bay received a sentence that was strongly controversial, and exceedingly unpopular. Not only the fact that they were found guilty, but also the harshness of the fines imposed, where the Court almost entirely acquiesced to the demands of the prosecution. Add to that subsequent revelations that the judge may have been biased (He had not disclosed membership in an Intellectual Property Law organization). So the Pirate Bay is now set for appeal, and a possible re-trial before that. It's unlikely the matter will be settled by anything other than the Swedish Supreme Court.
The second factor that undoubtedly contributed to their success yesterday, is the fact that EU Elections simply aren't taken very seriously. The low turnout provides ample evidence - 43% in Sweden - a country where a turnout below 80% in a national election - something we Americans can only dream of - is considered a disaster!
Sweden only joined the EU in 1994, on a referendum split 52%-47%. While resistance to the EU has mellowed since - the idea of leaving the union isn't really on the table anymore - enthusiasm hasn't exactly grown either. EU politics simply aren't followed in detail.
Since the EU elections are viewed as unimportant by a large portion of the population, there's an amount of truth to the argument that people are simply using their votes to protest whatever has them upset for the moment. Something which has benefited the Pirates.
The case for:
In my opinion, though, its far too simplistic to dismiss the Pirate Party out of hand. Because it simply ignores the very real issues involved. That people are unhappy with what's been going on.
The Clinton Era will be remembered for the great Dot-Com Bubble. The temporary insanity spurred by giant swaths of investors believing that the traditional laws of market-economy no longer would apply in the "IT age".
While the IT bubble burst long ago, I think people are only starting to realize that there was a corresponding legislative 'bubble' that has yet to pop. Our lawmakers (and the Democrats are every bit as guilty as the Republicans in this) seemed to feel that the "IT age" would require dramatically new laws. In their zeal to get with the times, a lot of bad legislation was passed in the 90's.
The 90's first saw the Clipper Chip idiocy, then the Communications Decency Act, the extension of Copyright terms in the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, the legalization of software and 'business method' patents, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with corresponding WIPO treaties.
I hold, like the Pirate Party and many others, that this was not a matter of 'new laws for a new era', but rather nothing more than a gigantic land-grab on behalf of Intellectual Property special interests, enabled by technological ignorance on behalf of our politicians.
If you view it that way, the Pirate Party and other such activists do not represent a 'new generation' with a fundamentally different view of copyright and IP law. Rather, it's a generation who realizes that the internet hasn't fundamentally changed things, and which is re-asserting the rights which were taken from them. If mailing someone a cassette tape mix was legal in 1985, then why should it be illegal to e-mail someone an mp3 file in 2005?
For whatever reason, Europe has been slower in following the USA. It's hard to say why. Lack of zeal among lawmakers, less special-interest influence, a better-mobilized opposition, are all possible explanations. The EU failed to legalize software patents, despite the best efforts of the EU Commission. The EUCD passed, but is still not quite as draconian as the DMCA. Copyright term extensions are under debate (currently blocked in the Council of Ministers, from what I understand). Even in the worst case though, it appears the EU will not succeed in going as far as the USA in these matters.
It's somewhat ironic that the Pirate Party was partially successful due to the 'unimportance' of the EU elections, given that these issues are being decided at the EU level. They would have much less opportunity to have significant influence on IP policy at the national level.
Naturally, there's an open question of whether such a 'single issue party' can survive in the long run. It's worth bearing in mind that the Greens were also largely viewed as a 'single issue party' initially, and are now a significant political force in Europe in every respect.
I view the Pirate Party as an important vanguard on issues that have been beholden to special interests for far too long, on both sides of the pond. It's not a right-or-left issue. It's simply a counterbalance to special interests in the IP area, that have gone unchallenged for far too long. Establishment politicians have failed at their job - of listening and protecting public interests, who have little voice, against the strong chorus of private special interests. They've allowed technological illiteracy to cloud their judgments - passing laws on Internet communication that they would hardly have considered, had it been a matter of traditional forms.
I have optimism on these issues. It was only a matter of time before the 'internet generation' re-asserted their rights, and I feel we're starting to see the pendulum swing back.
Ironically, this isn't the best situation for the Pirate Party itself. If they win, they lose their raison d'être. Even if they hadn't won a seat yesterday, through significant 'color-bleed', they've begun to win over many of the mainstream Swedish political parties, who found themselves almost unanimously opposed to the proposed EU copyright extension a few months ago.
I feel Sweden is at the forefront here, together with other north-European countries. They are highly 'wired' countries, highly educated, with large IT sectors and strong democratic traditions. It seems natural that any 'grassroots' IT policy movement would start there. And from there: Europe.
The USA, then? I think America is going to take a bit longer. Our politicians are simply much more beholden to special interests, and our political system is not conductive to forcing an issue by starting a party. There's also a geographic dilemma - the state most likely to be at the forefront of these issues is California, which also happens to be the home of most of the film and music industries. It doesn't help either that Dianne Feinstein is, on these issues, more the Senator of Hollywood than the Senator of Silicon Valley.
But.. things may yet change in the US soon enough. First up, the Supreme Court will soon be trying the legality of 'business method' patents In re: Bilski.