They're not the "yo-ho-ho" kind of pirates, nor the much scarier "taking-ships-hostage-with-rocket-launchers" pirates. But Sweden's Pirate Party won a seat in the European Parliament in yesterday's election, winning 7% of their country's vote. This could mean the start of a meanful debate regarding copyright and it's application to modern web technology.
There is little doubt that the current system of copyright protection is broken. It has criminalized an entire generation in the similar way to the War on Drugs (although the resource expenditures and incarceration rates are incomparable). In this country, it has been most prominently seen in the RIAA's lawsuits against the downloaders of illegal music--from college students to mothers and grandfathers. In Sweden, a case against bittorrent site The Pirate Bay found its four co-founders convicted of copyright infringement with potential punishment up to a year in prison and $3.8 million in fines. The case, which was Twittered from the courtroom by one of the defendants, is actually being credited as a catalyst in yesterday's victory.
As a music media professional, I am torn by the debate on illegal downloading. On the one hand, I have watched the magazine industry decimated by the effects of downloading, aggregating and other online practices that the most conservative would deem 'infringement." At the same time, the record labels which once supported my particular strand of coverage have had it even worse, with sales plummeting and, along with it, ad dollars to support music media. I have little doubt that my professional career would have been on much stronger footing in the '90s, before the web's widespread usage.
At the same time, I am a long time music downloader who has used pirated media for both my personal pleasure as well as achieving some professional tasks, i.e. -- sending MP3s to reviewers rather going through the time consuming process of requesting promotional CDs (technically breaking the letter of copyright law in the process.) I am also a DJ who must actively use online music blogs to stay competitive by acquiring the newest songs long before they are available for commercial release. I've not yet graduated to film downloading, but my DVD player just died and the pricing on cables to connect my computer to my HDTV are very cheap indeed.
I don't have the solution to striking a balance between content consumers and producers. But I pray someone figures it out before I lose my job and I can't pay my broadband bill. Having proponents of open access such as the Pirate Party in seats of power might at least change the tone of the current discussion. Here's hoping that change turns out for the better.