November 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Pirate politics

By Charles Firth
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

By this time next year, Australia’s political system could be controlled by pirates. In June this year, Sweden’s Pirate Party secured 7.1% of the vote in the European elections. Then, in September, the Australian Pirate Party opened nominations for the election of its key office holders, proudly declaring its intention to run in every seat across the country. Seven days later, the party’s membership exceeded 1000, up from only 20 in April. Clearly, pirates are in the ascendancy.

It is possible that Labor will end up with a double dissolution trigger before the year is out. In elections that result from double dissolution, the quota required to win a Senate seat virtually halves – from 14.3% to 7.7%. If the Australian Pirate Party were to perform in such an election like its European counterpart, it could end up with six senators – one in each state – which would leave it holding the balance of power.

As it turns out, the Pirate Party is not full of swash-buckling sailors with eye patches and wooden legs. Instead, the party is built upon rather earnest policy planks that seek to restore copyright, as it was originally conceived. These pirates are very sincere, very nerdy male software engineers and law graduates: the kind of people who hang out on computer programming websites and affect condescending tones whenever someone asks a question.

Let me explain why I hope this party succeeds. Every night, I commit a crime that is punishable by five years’ jail and a $60,500 fine: I turn on a computer that I have attached to my television and go to Eztv, a website that boasts every original television series made in the US. Every time a show goes to air in the US, Eztv has it within the hour, ready and freely available for download to a worldwide audience. Despite the crackdown on big piracy sites, such as Mininova and Pirate Bay, Eztv’s traffic has increased more than 50% in the past year. It now has over 15 million visitors per month and consistently ranks as one of Australia’s 300 most popular websites.

People who say I should be jailed for five years for watching television in this way point to the fact that most shows ultimately screen here. For example, Mad Men can be seen on SBS on Thursdays at 8.30 pm – roughly 18 months after being aired in the US, and episodes of 30 Rock are run on Seven about a year after they were made. The argument is that I should wait and submit to watching these shows at a time of someone else’s choosing, even though it is utterly within the power of the shows’ producers to make them legally available for download. Or, alternatively (goes the argument), I could get off my couch, walk down the street and hire these shows on DVD. If I’m too tired to do that, I should spend five years in jail.

I called the Pirate Party’s president, David Crafti, soon after he ascended to the position. I congratulated him on his win and begged him to spare my wife and child – a joke he didn’t really get. Indeed, his telephone manner was more like that of a tech-support guy than a rambunctious criminal overlord. During the day, the aspiring politician is a software engineer for a big Australian dotcom. The pirate business is something he’s pursuing on the side. Internet file-sharing is not theft, he argues, since “theft is about permanently depriving people of something”. Copyright was never intended to make money for creators, Crafti continues; this is merely a by-product of laws that are absurdly biased towards big, rich production studios.

Unfortunately, the only other question I could think about asking him concerned resetting my modem without affecting the firewall settings. Perhaps the fact the Pirate Party is full of dags – rather than dagger-wielders – is a cause for relief; if they are elected, we can rest assured question time won’t be dominated by sword fights or treasure hunts.

If you believe the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT), the Pirate Party is running on a platform far more sinister and disruptive than real pirates ever are. For them, the party’s agenda represents an assault on property law that could ultimately see the death of film and television production. AFACT spokesperson Rebecca Milkman argues that such an assault would undermine the power of the studios to make significant decisions about the production of their shows. Milkman argues that the choice not to release material in a timely fashion on the internet should lie with the studios and that to deprive them of this choice will stifle innovation, because, if they don’t have a say in how they sell their products, studios will stop making films and television shows.

According to this logic, if too many people download The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Brad Pitt will suddenly not want to make movies anymore – or, at the very least, studios won’t want to make movies in which he can star. To Crafti, however, the fact that copyright extends 70 years beyond the death of the author clearly demonstrates that copyright in itself has nothing to do with incentives for creatives.

Unsurprisingly, AFACT hasn’t followed its American counterparts in pursuing individuals over copyright infringements; this would create a PR disaster no studio wants to see. Instead, AFACT has tried to go after companies stuck in the middle of online piracy processes – namely, the internet service providers. In October, AFACT took iiNet to court in an attempt to establish systemic copyright-law enforcement, by getting iiNet to block users who persist in downloading pirate material. The internet service provider’s response has been simple: it is happy to help AFACT pursue individuals, but, as an internet service provider, it is not responsible for enforcing the law.

On the Pirate Party’s official online forum, one party member suggested that a revolutionary “open source” form of governance be adopted. Many other members immediately replied in breathless support of the suggestion, which was made in September this year. A Wikipedia site detailing the draft constitution and party platform was soon set up, literally offering “the party constitution anyone can edit”. Shortly thereafter, a party member with the username ‘Timmibal’ poured cold water on the whole idea: “It sounds brilliant on paper … Unfortunately, I don’t believe it’s realistic. Idealism aside, we have a wealth of fucking retards in this country with internet access, as the booming success of cyber-fraud attests. You would have to have a team of editors working around the clock vetting all edits [and] submissions from trolls, radicals, crazies, bigots, and the flat-out stupid.”

And that, in a way, neatly sums up the problem the studios face: there are a lot of fucking retards with internet access in this country and, even if they are threatened with five years’ jail, at the end of the day they are too busy or too tired to bother going to a shop to hire some out-of-date movie. Especially when the latest stuff is available for download right in front of them.

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