Rip this: piracy and politics in Sweden

George South
8 June 2006

Ever thought of moving to Sweden? For Europeans of a liberal-left bent, the country holds the charm that Canada holds for a certain type of American. It has generous and universal healthcare and unemployment benefits, full-frontal nudity on the television and a political system that embraces greens, progressives and conservatives alike, all while remaining contentedly right-on and laid-back.

It seems somehow apt, then, that one of the most heated current debates in Swedish politics – one that has triggered demonstrations, the hacking of the government website and a parliamentary investigation into justice minister Thomas Bodström – has to do not with immigration, Iraq, or gay marriage, but rather with the abstruse issue of copyright reform.

In certain circles, Sweden has long been (in)famous for its quirky copyright laws. The world's largest bittorrent tracker, the Pirate Bay, started here in 2003, a peer to peer file sharing directory supplying 1.5 million visitors a day with links to movies, music and computer program downloads, whilst swatting away legal threats from copyright-owners with belligerent and mocking replies on their website. Before the EU Copyright Directive became Swedish law in July 2005, it was perfectly legal to download copyrighted material, provided it was for personal use.

When the Pirate Bay's servers were seized by local police on 31 May, along with those of Piratbyrån, an advocacy group for copyright reform, the resultant media blaze took almost everybody by surprise. "The situation is really hot here now," says Rasmus Fleischer, a spokesperson for Piratbyrån. "We're actually delighted at the raids, as they have brought our issues to the front pages of newspapers, to the top of the TV news."

Fleischer's organisation founded the Pirate Bay, although the two are no longer formally affiliated. The additional seizure of Piratbyrån's server, along with those of over a hundred unrelated organisations, was widely seen as heavy-handed, since the police admitted that they were not connected to any illegal activity. It is still not clear that the Pirate Bay itself was breaking the law, even under the EU Copyright Directive, since it did not host any of the copyright-infringing files on its servers, only files which direct users to them.

George South is a freelance journalist based in London

Also by George South on opeDemocracy:

"Aiming for the sea"(23 March 2006)

But it isn't just the legality or otherwise of the raids that has caused the commotion. Most people expected the Pirate Bay to be prosecuted sooner or later, if only as a test case for the new EU law. Equally explosive is the claim that the justice minister Thomas Bodström travelled to the US several weeks prior to the raids, to meet with representatives of the White House and the renowned rightsholder lobbyist group, the Motion Picture Association of America.

"A lot of people are angry about the idea that America is making money off every country in the world, and then trying to get them to change their local laws," Fleischer told me. "It all seems very corrupt."

Bodström denies any pressure was applied by the US government or Hollywood, but the accusation has swirled relentlessly around the Swedish media. Hackers launched a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on the government's website, and redirected visitors to a picture of Bodström, while the Centre Party's justice spokesman has reported the minister to the parliament's constitutional committee. On 3 June, demonstrators took to the streets of Stockholm, attracting widespread media coverage and commentary.

It's a row that seems tailor-made for a country that is anxious over Anglo-Saxon and corporate influence on its domestic politics. "This is a democracy," says Fleisher, "and it is up to the Swedish government to decide on Swedish copyright."

Storming the ship of state

Enter the Pirate Party, a motley collective of file-sharers and copyright activists who are planning to stand for the Swedish parliament on September 17. They are running on just three issues: the decriminalisation of copyright infringement, the abolition of patents, and the rollback of the EU Data Retention Directive.

The party's stance on piracy is not quite as blunt as their name might suggest. Closely linked to the Piratbyrån, the candidates are highly-educated, articulate individuals heavily influenced by thinkers such as Lawrence Lessig. They are completely opposed to piracy for commercial gain (bootleggers selling dodgy knock-offs of the Da Vinci Code are out) but would like to reduce the scope of copyright to five years, after which any work would transfer into the public domain; non-commercial copyrights would simply be abolished.

It is not uncommon for single-issue parties to run in Sweden, which has a system of proportional representation, but the electoral rules stipulate that a party must attain 4% of the popular vote before it can win any seats. The system tends to block fringe parties from Parliament. However, the parties which do achieve this magic number (such as the Greens, on 4.65% of the popular vote) can play a critical role in the fragmented coalitions that typically arise.

Four per cent sounds like a tall order for a party devoted to the promotion of piracy, and an outsider might not expect them to do much better than the Swedish Donald Duck party (winner of 10 votes in the 2002 elections). But there are an estimated 1.2 million active file-sharers in Sweden in a population of 9 million - possibly the highest concentration in Europe - and support for copyright reform runs deep. In the week preceding the raids on the Pirate Bay, a Swedish newspaper commissioned a poll of young, first-time voters aged 18-20. It revealed that over 75% of this group support illegal downloading and want it to be decriminalised.

The level of exposure given to the raids has since seen copyright reform rocket up the political agenda. In the week following the seizures, the Pirate Party's paid-up membership base tripled from 2,200 to 6,500, breathing down the neck of the Greens (who have 8,100 members). Christian Engström, the vice-chairman of the Pirate Party, says he now thinks they will get the votes needed to enter parliament. "A week ago if you had asked, I would have said, difficult but can be done. Now I think we'll do it. I think we'll get our four per cent."

Lars Gustafsson, Director-General of the Swedish arm of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (one of the rightsholder lobby groups that filed charges against the Pirate Bay), admitted the boost in support came as a surprise: "They are very good in their publicity … but we didn't expect it to have this level of interest for the media or even for the pirates. Gustafsson dismisses the idea that the protesters are concerned primarily with the freedom of culture or digital privacy. He says it's simple: "It is very easy to get a reaction from youngsters, when you tell them 'you can have music for free'."

He is right, of course. Probably the vast majority of those people planning to vote pirate will be doing so with one eye on their CD wallet. But that the issue of copyright reform is being discussed in public at all, in an informed and democratic way, is in itself refreshing, regardless of whether some people will have self-interested reasons for their views.

The internet juggernaut will not stop to let intellectual property law to catch up anytime soon, so accountable and democratic decision-making is badly needed. To draft a contract that will respect both the rights of the creator and of the culture is not a job for a closed-door committee; nor can it be left up to the content industries to impose their own copyright fiats in the form of restrictive DRM.

There's really only one solution: let's all move to Sweden.

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