The EU Election, Pirates, and Society

toppage_logo_svNext week (June 7) is the election date for the EU parliament for the next five-year term. As a citizen of the EU and Sweden, I feel it is my civic duty to vote… but the quality of the election campaign so far does not exactly encourage it. As in many other EU countries, the EU and its parliament feels like a distant power hard to affect, and the EU election process tends to be more about domestic issues than true EU-level issues. Even so, there is one relevant, interesting, and burning topic that has come to the fore. Intellectual property rights and “media piracy”.

Thanks to “Piratpartiet“, and the recent Pirate Bay trial, file-sharing of media and the laws and enforcement procedures against it is a very hot topic. There is a strong current of thinking that it is hard to outlaw an entire generation of kids, which has some logic to it. There is also a strong backlash against the heavy-handed way that the media companies are enforcing their rights, and way in which lawmakers across the EU are bending over to accomodate the media companies. Laws that make it possible to cut off someones Internet access just because some company claims they are copying media files, with no trial to prove their guilt, are not making tech-savvy people happy. For a good reason. All of this is leading up to making “Internet freedom” a key issue in the campaign here in Sweden.

What is nice with this is that it is actually a topic over which the EU parliament has some say. Some other topics, like jobs, which the Social democrats are using as their focus in the campaign are simply completely out of the domain of the parliament. Needless to say, that kind of posturing mostly for the domestic market will not win my vote.

But I find the debate around “piracy” very worrying in some ways. The problem is that there are a lot of people who seem to think that copyright as a concept is wrong. Crazy and false notions like “copyright is a state-sponsored monopoly” pop up quite commonly. Making my living from selling software, I feel this kind of lack of respect for the intellectual property of others quite disturbing.

Disliking the way current laws and media companies are treating piracy is one thing. Claiming that we should abolish a central part of our modern knowledge-based economy is quite  a different issue.The logic and dynamics of the debate is very interesting. From the idea that “we cannot make everyone a criminal” via “big music is bad” to “copyright is bad for society” is quite an interesting path. I am reminded of a tenet of philosophy: “an is is not  a should.” And I lack self-reflection and thinking about the bigger picture in most of what I hear and read.

I don’t think that most or even a miniscule minority of the millions of people sharing songs and movies over peer-to-peer networks starting doing it as a political statement against copyright. They did it because they wanted something and piracy gave it to them for free. Pure self-interest here. Today, there might be some more political activism behind it, but in general, file-sharing looks to be about getting something for free rather than paying for it.When you confront people to discuss this, they start talking about “freedom on the Internet” and “the need to promote culture”… which has nothing to do with it. Other popular arguments is that “music labels take most of the money anyway so I do not take money from artists” and “so few artists can live from their money anyway that removing a source of income will have no effect on music production”.

By the way, I believe that 90% or more of traffic is likely to be the same set of recent Hollywood block-busters and top-of-pops tunes. Indeed, file-sharing does not seem to promote the long tail theory, rather it makes head of the curve even more spiked. Kids want what all the other kids are listening to or watching, most kids are not using the Internet to explore new and exciting bands or forms of popular culture. And in any case: how does not paying for the music you buy have anything to do with this?

The Big Big Problem

My main issue with the current debate is exactly that: that people completely fail to see how our entire society and economy rests on respect for intellectual property rights, and the assumption that you should pay for what you use. For me, that is a given. In certain parts of the world, it is not, and when the basic moral compass of people is that “I take what I need in whatever way I can” rather than “I respect the (intellectual) property of others”, selling software can be pretty tough. The current attitude towards intellectual property in the industrialized world is a great educational achievement, and a foundation or our modern economy.

If we look at the broader picture, giving up on music copying and considering it “lawful for personal use” as some want to have it, where do we then draw the line? At some point, we need to start considering computer software, which is a big industry. And beyond that, how would we protect the knowledge embodied in the form of mechanical and software design for the cars, mobile phones, industrial robots, and other products on the sales of which our relative prosperity still rests? The patent system is needed to encourage the research into new medicines, for example. We have to strike down on pirate copies of clothes, watches, and other European products. Given this bigger picture, I think the only sane stance is to maintain that music piracy is immoral and a crime.

Furthermore, I think our current copyright regime has allowed music creators and book authors and others creators the means to be more independent than they have been earlier in history. Once again, the music business is a dirty business that tends to pay the artist pennies for every dollar they bring in… but it is possible to sell music. And books.

Copyright makes it possible for talented individuals to make a living off of their “art” in comparative freedom, which really was not possible before the modern era. The great artists of antiquity and the renaissance were all financed by kings, nobels, states, or other wealthy people to produce cultural goods that would enhance the glory and status of the sponsor. Basically, being an artist meant being a consultant, a gun for hire, not a free agent since there was no real market for cultural goods that would let you make a living. With this perspective, I think copyright in itself is a strong democratic and cultural force that rather encourages than discourages innovation and creativity.

The current intellectual property regimes around the world has huge problems, for sure. The Mickey Mouse extension to US copyright is a joke. The way the music industry is chasing pirates in the courts is horrendous. Patents are abused by big companies to bully small inventors.

But all of these are policy issues that can be adjusted in the normal course of the democratic process. Completely giving up the fight and surrendering to the forces proclaiming that copyright is evil and that music wants to be free is not the best option.

Even so, the fact that we have Piratpartiet in action will mean that Internet-related questions will be brought more into focus, and hopefully lead to a tempering of the overly broad laws currently being put into place solely to help Big Music chase small-time file-sharers. I will not vote for them, but I actually think their existence is good for the overall ecosystem of politics.

The Election

This was one 1200-word rant on a hot topic. You might then wonder what my stance for the election actually is. And it comes here, in Swedish, as this is only relevant to Sweden.

Folkpartiet verkar i min mening ha den bästa kombinationen av att ha historisk röstat “vettigt” i Internetfrågor i parlamentet och i val av frågor som de driver inför EU-valet. Miljöpartiet är inte dumma de heller, eftersom miljö- och matfrågorna som de driver hårt ligger på parlamentets bord. FP har dock Marit Paulson som jag verkligen tror på. Socialdemokraterna och vänstern är ute och cyklar med snack om jobb — det är inte vad det här valet handlar om. Moderaterna har en rösthistoria i Internetfrågor som inte är så vacker, precis som Kristdemokraterna.

3 thoughts on “The EU Election, Pirates, and Society”

  1. Well, election day was today, and it looks like sadly enough the single-question Pirate Party has won a seat or two in the European parliament. Guess it is good news for net privacy, at least, and that they will have no real impact on intellectual property policy in any radical way.

  2. EU Election results from http://www.svd.se

    Here is a chart of the final result. The PP Pirate Party got 1 seat in the parliament, and my favorite FP added one seat. Overall, the results indicate a refreshing change towards discussing concrete issues (environment, Internet) in the election, from the dead horse of “yes/no to the EU” that dominated the debate for a long time.

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