WINNIPEG – After scoring a surprise electoral win in Sweden and getting high-profile support in Germany, The Pirate Party’s next port of call may be Canada, where a so-far small band of buccaneers are hoping to send copyright restrictions to Davy Jones’s locker.
Right now, they’re a handful of loosely-organized individuals spread across the country. But they want to become an official federal political party within the next few years and get enough support to persuade Parliament to relax proposed copyright laws they say are heavy-handed and a violation of personal privacy.
“I think one of the roles a party like The Pirate Party can play is to more or less stiffen up the spines of people who might be in the NDP or the Liberals who want to get this stuff done,” said Rob Sutherland, a freelance computer programmer in Regina who is one of the organizers of the Canadian group.
The Pirate Party was little-known anywhere in the world until earlier this year, when the four founders of The Pirate Bay, a Swedish torrent tracker site that helped people find and download movies, music and software, were fined millions of dollars and sentenced to jail.
The verdict created a public backlash and, almost overnight, membership in the Swedish Pirate Party more than doubled. In June’s European Parliament elections, the party took 7.1 per cent of the vote in Sweden – enough for its first seat.
There has been a similar surge of support in Germany, where lawmaker Joerg Tauss recently quit the Social Democrats, one of the country’s governing parties, and offered to join the fledgling Pirate Party of Germany.
The party’s goals are fairly simple. It says people should have the right to share and copy music, movies and virtually any material, as long as it is for personal use, not for profit.
It opposes government and corporate monitoring of Internet activities, unless the monitoring is part of a criminal investigation. And it also wants to phase out patents, arguing that patents on new drugs, for example, raise the cost of medical care and keep life-saving medicine out of the hands of many people.
“For me, I think copyright at its core is a good idea but I think it’s been taken too far,” said Rob Britton, a Montreal web developer who has also joined the Canadian Pirate Party movement.
“I think stronger copyright and stronger patent law stifles innovation and discourages a free-market ecosystem.”
Britton and Sutherland freely admit that many Canadians are unlikely to vote for a new, one-issue party. But they say the public has become more concerned about copyright issues because of several controversial proposals put forward by the federal government.
-A copyright bill that would fine people who upload music files as much as $20,000 and forbid people from breaking digital locks on DVDs, CDs and other goods in order to make copies. The bill was not passed into law before the last election but is being revived.
-Two bills currently before the Commons that would give police greater access to private Internet communications and information about Internet subscribers, in some cases without a warrant.
-The international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, currently being negotiated by several countries including Canada, which could allow border guards to search MP3 players, laptops and other devices for unauthorized music, software or other files.
“These issues have a certain momentum, I guess, and it seems to have kind of broken out of the gate at this point,” said Sutherland.
While the Pirate Party’s platform appeals to music and movie downloaders, it’s bound to get a cool reception from the music industry, which has seen compact disc sales plummet since file-sharing took off in the late 1990’s.
Annual retail sales declined by $465 million in the early part of this decade, according to industry statistics, leaving companies with less money to scout out, develop and promote new artists.
“Why would anybody want to make any sizable investment in music, especially from outside of Canada, in Canada, if they felt that immediately after doing so, all the stuff was going to be ripped off?” said Duncan McKie, president of the Canadian Independent Record Production Association.
“It doesn’t seem to me that that’s a good business proposition.”
McKie and other industry leaders maintain that copying deprives the industry – and in the end, artists – of money needed to keep Canada’s music scene alive. The Pirate Party, however, contends the money paid for CD’s ends up in corporate hands, with little going to the artist who wrote or performed the song.
Whether the party can win enough public support in Canada to make copyright law walk the plank remains to be seen. For now, the party is still in its infancy, recruiting members to its website, which sports a version of the Jolly Roger pirate flag with a skull shaped like a maple leaf.
But members are encouraged not only by the sudden rise of the party in Europe, where proportional representation makes it easier for small parties to earn parliamentary seats, but also by the experience of the Green Party in Canada, which has earned a lot of attention without having elected a member to the Commons.
“It’s encouraging because, yes (The Green Party) does have an influence, but discouraging because they don’t have any seats,” Britton said.
“It sort of shows me that it is difficult for new parties to break in.”