There isn’t an eyepatch or hook in sight, but three young computer geeks and a businessman have suddenly made piracy very sexy in Sweden. The four founders of a popular file-sharing service called the Pirate Bay became instant underdog cyber-heroes as they took the stand in court in February against US media giants such as Sony and Warner Brothers. The four potentially face up to two years in prison and fines of up to $180,000 if they are found guilty of infringing copyright laws. The verdict is due in April.
Skull-and-crossbones flags fluttered outside the court, every utterance was blogged and twittered and new recruits flooded to the new Pirate Party, which now has more members than the Greens. The contentious website (www.piratebay.org) continues to taunt the music and film industry with insults and the spectre of lost profits as an estimated 22 million users swap files ranging from U2’s latest album to films such as Slumdog Millionaire.
The entertainment industry is keen to change the image of the Pirate Bay from one of cyber-freedom fighters to one of businessmen (albeit businessmen with unusual facial hair) profiting at the expense of artists. Monique Wadsted, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) representative in Sweden, says file-sharing is simple theft: ‘It’s not a political trial or shutting down a people’s library or one that wants to prohibit file sharing as a technique. It’s a trial regarding four individuals that have conducted a big commercial business, making money out of others by file-sharing copy-protected works.’
Pirate Party founder Rickard Falkvinge sees it differently: ‘The problem is that politicians have chosen not to listen to young people. The music industry is doing everything to prevent the spread of culture. In Sweden we are putting a flag in the ground and uniting to put an end to their lobbying.’
Students for free culture
Sweden isn’t the only place where flags are being put in the ground. A couple of months previously, on the opposite side of the globe, Students for Free Culture held their first national meeting in Berkeley. They consciously chose to hold the meeting at the US university that became renowned for launching the Free Speech Movement, which campaigned against a ban on political activities on campus and sparked a subsequent nationwide wave of student activism in the 1960s.
Students for Free Culture was started by two students in Pennsylvania who received legal threats in 2003 from electronic voting machine manufacturer Diebold for publishing embarrassing internal company emails that revealed serious flaws in its e-voting systems. Diebold was already at the centre of controversy over alleged voting irregularities and its links to the Republicans.
Rather than backing down, the students organised to get the emails published on even more websites and counter-sued the company for abuse of copyright law. The political and media attention forced Diebold to cave in.
‘Like the Free Speech Movement, we are fighting against the top-down control of speech and are motivated by beliefs about basic rights. The differences are in our ability to organise electronically – our Mario Savio [one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement] is more likely to inspire with a blog post than with a speech,’ says Berkeley student Alex Kozak, one of the organisers.
The national meeting at Berkeley – billed as an ‘unconference’ – committed itself to fight for open access to university research and the use of free and open software within universities, and to push for free licensing of any university patents related to health or software. It also promised to continue to pick fights with any attempts to control the open nature of the internet and to take on corporations that try to quash artistic creativity and free speech with lawsuits.
Mayo Fuster Morell, a Catalan activist and researcher on digital issues, believes that ‘the movement has a high level of commitment and clear ideas. It is not possible to reverse what they want to do. The goal of universal access to knowledge is hugely motivating and linked with other social movements will have a huge impact.’
Growing up digital
Throughout the world, the experience of ‘growing up digital’, as technology writer Don Tapscott calls it, has created a pattern of behaviour and cooperation that undermines corporate control of culture, without even necessarily meaning to. ‘It is part of the identity of my generation to create and share content on large social networks, organise events online and share with each other our favourite music and movies, sometimes legally and sometimes not,’ says Alex Kozak. ‘This behaviour has lead to an unconscious dedication to the culture of sharing.’
Sharing albums via the internet or in person, editing music and TV footage for YouTube videos or mixing tracks to produce one’s own music is part of the everyday experience of most young people. The internet has also facilitated the emergence of communities that have the tools to collaborate across borders and produce software, music and films that previously could only be made by resource-rich corporations. This has created a burgeoning movement of free software and open source technicians, independent media activists and creative artists and writers.
Certainly not all elements of this burgeoning movement are political, and libertarian attitudes are just as likely to be found on the right as on the left. Nevertheless, it is clear that the experience of growing up digital is starting to politicise young people, who take pride in the collaborative models that they are developing and are determined to defend them when they are threatened.
Inadvertently, corporations are intensifying this politicisation when they desperately try to limit the culture of sharing. In addition to its frequent attempts to close down file-sharing sites such as the Pirate Bay (and Napster before it), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has sued more than 30,000 randomly selected US families for music file-sharing in the last five years. And these legal actions are likely to continue. As corporations’ possibilities for increasing profit diminish at a time of recession and against a systemic capitalist tendency for overproduction, patents are one of the few mechanisms that insulate companies from competition and keep prices high for their branded products (whether they are music albums or Microsoft software).
The cultural industry is one of the largest and most profitable in the developed world, especially in the US and Japan. Four companies control 70 per cent of the world’s music market. Copyright industries in the US have typically outperformed other industries, contributing as much as 24 per cent of overall economic growth in 2007. These corporations usually don’t produce the content and tend not to employ creative producers directly, but rather identify and invest in a small number of artists who can create the most value. They concentrate on licensing: maintaining the maximum length of control of the ‘intellectual property’ and exercising these rights in as many arenas as possible (film, TV, dvds, merchandise).
Corporations are not willing to let go of this control easily. Apart from legal threats, companies benefit from the corporate control of access to the internet and corporate ownership of popular ‘sharing’ sites like YouTube. In January 2009, they succeeded in pressurising Eircom in Ireland to become the first internet service provider to block access to all file-sharing content, and they undoubtedly hope to pressure other ISPs to follow suit.
They have backed this up with pressure to change the law in many countries. Where the corporations don’t have sufficient influence on domestic politicians, they have used the arsenal of regional free trade agreements and even blunt diplomatic threats to impose stricter intellectual property regimes and to target file-sharing sites. The first attempt to close down the Pirate Bay was in 2006, when Swedish police confiscated servers. It took place after threats from the US embassy against the Swedish government.
Mark Getty of Getty Images – one of the largest owners of copyrighted materials – once said: ‘Intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century.’ Digital activists took this to mean that corporations, and countries like the US, would be willing to go to legal and, who knows, maybe even literal war to protect and control it.
Despite their best efforts, there is a sense that the corporations face an impossible task in trying to put free culture back into a safe pre-digital box. Felix Stalder, media researcher at Zurich University, says: ‘I think the war on piracy is failing for social reasons. People like to communicate, to share things, to transform things, and technology makes it so easy that there is no way of stopping it.’
The Pirate Party’s Richard Falkvinge compares the fight to the attempts by the church to control information and culture in the Middle Ages. ’15 years ago we had one source communicating to the many, like a newspaper or TV station. Today, however, with the internet, millions of people are exchanging culture and information, so there is no way of controlling this information.’
Pirate Bay’s founders have said that regardless of the trial’s outcome Pirate Bay will continue to exist, as it is now set up on servers across the world in such a way that even the owners don’t know where they are.
Notably, Getty Images was sold in 2008 after its stock prices plunged with the rapid rise of cheaper and open-access images on the web. In January 2009, Apple announced it would remove anti-copying restrictions (known as digital rights management) on all of the songs in its popular iTunes store.
Most significant, perhaps, are the strong alternatives and new models of knowledge-sharing that are emerging as cracks appear in the weakening structure of intellectual property. In the digital world, free and open source applications such as the Firefox browser and OpenOffice suite are taking off as alternatives to Microsoft programs. The collaborative and free-to-use internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia is now the fourth most popular website worldwide (after Google, Yahoo and MSN). An increasing number of projects are now carried out collectively and collaboratively across the internet. Bands such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have shown that bypassing corporate media companies and allowing people to pay what they want to download an album can still ensure that artists get rewarded for their creative work.
Creativity shows no signs of being squashed by the decline in profits of companies like Sony music. More than 130 million works by writers, photographers, and film producers have been released with Creative Commons licences, which are designed to make it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others. German activist Sebastian Lütgert, from do-it-yourself squatter-cinema group Pirate Cinema, believes that ‘what we are witnessing is the coming of producers rather than consumers, and that suggests a new economic model for society.’
In practical terms, researcher Dorothy Kidd notes that ‘the open source software movement offers a good model for how decentralised network structures can work. It is an example that contradicts the ideology that says that public institutions are not flexible and dynamic enough to work.’ She believes that these practices need to be incorporated into social movements’ practices and their articulation of alternatives.
There will be challenges in doing this – and it is important not to over-romanticise developments like the free and open source software movements. Jeff Juris, an analyst on new media technologies and social movements, says: ‘Open source movements can still replicate hierarchies seen in traditional systems. This time the divisions are not just around the usual issues of power and money, but also based on a divide between “techies” and “activists”.’
Others note that open source models and corporate power are not mutually exclusive, citing the prominent role of IT company Sun Microsystems in projects such as OpenOffice. Collaborative models have the potential to flatten hierarchies and weaken corporate power, but this still requires a firm political commitment from the participants.
In an interview carried out by the digital magazine Wired with one of Pirate Bay’s collaborators, Pete (surname undisclosed) tells the reporter: ‘It’s not the problem of the pirates to figure out how to compensate artists or encourage invention away from the current intellectual property system … Our job is just to tear down the flawed system that exists, to force the hand of society to make something better.’ Therein lies the challenge for social movements and activists to take the redefinition of piracy a stage further – to turn the image of a pirate from an eye-patched destroyer to one of a digitally-inspired pioneer, determined to use creativity to build new collaborative and just economic and social models of living.
This article is based on conversations, papers and web links pulled together at the Networked Politics and Technology seminar at Berkeley
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant