Pirates have been the scourge of the music and film industry for years, swapping and "stealing" songs and movies with no regard for the law.
But now the pirates will be making the law. And this should scare a lot of besieged captains of information industry, who may not be long for the high seas.
On Sunday the Pirate Party -- devoted to reforming copyright law, eliminating the patent system and the protection of individual privacy -- won more than 7 percent in the Swedish election for the European Union parliament. This guarantees them exactly one seat in the 785-seat European Parliament. But more importantly, it gives them, and their ideas, legitimacy. It shows that masses of mostly young people who believe in the freedom -- and free things -- of the internet are willing to sign up and vote their ideals.
This has special relevance in Sweden, where a court recently sentenced four men from the file sharing site Pirate Bay to jail and levied millions in fines. And the recent passage of a strict anti-file sharing law sent internet usage tumbling 40 percent the day after it took effect.
The beneficiaries of all this? The Pirate Party.
But, beyond Sweden, especially in the dying American newspaper industry, the culture of "free" has been under harsh attack.
There has been a lot of chatter recently that newspapers are going to institute fees and finally take a stand against all those freeloaders who read the news on the internet for free. No more exploitation by Google and other free news aggregators (like the Huffington Post), scream newspaper execs drowning in red ink and unwilling to give up their calcified story forms to save themselves.
This is important because even if American newspapers are in mortal pain, more akin to the Big Three automakers than Google, they collectively still have the biggest voice in the world and the influence that goes with that.
And, of course, the Pirate Party is far from a sure thing. One seat in the EU parliament means nothing. There is a tradition both in Sweden and in Europe at large of fringe parties taking seats in the EU parliament only to fade into irrelevance. In 2004, an anti-EU group won about 14 percent of the Swedish vote in the EU elections. This year? 3.6 percent, no seats and political oblivion.
But if you listen to Chris Anderson, the author of The Long Tail, the Pirate Party is part of an inevitable wave. In his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Anderson says that the economics of the internet are trending towards, well, free. There is just too much bandwidth, processing power and storage out there. This means no costs and lots of possibilities. You can read an article by Anderson on the subject, for free, here.
I think Anderson is right, for I know, at this point, that a price tag of one cent will stop me from reading almost any article or listening to any song (and I am not even file sharing anymore). It is like at my college, which was famous for bad but free parties. If a group tried to charge one lousy dollar to get in, they ended up with three guys at the keg listening to a really bored band. And I was with the crowds fleeing back to our dorm lounges (Yes, we were lame. You have no idea how lame.)
For better or for worse (and I am an agnostic on it all), the Pirate Party and Anderson have that sense of long-term inevitability. Big businesses can fight all they want, and they will often win because they are big. But young people want free music and movies and news.
The three-year-old Pirate Party is already the most popular party in Sweden among people under 30 by some estimates. Those young people are going to become older people who will dictate both the economics and policy of the internet. Companies will have to figure out how to make money in this reality. Stop fighting it. Get creative.
For if you make those young people pirates now - out of ignorance, fear or lack of imagination, you will never coax them back into port. They will ride the high seas of the internet forever. And for free.