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Pro-piracy politician proffers his worldview

Swedish parliamentary hopeful and copyright critic sails into the U.S. to raise funds and awareness.

Miriam Olsson Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Miriam Olsson covers innovations in technology.
Miriam Olsson
5 min read
Rickard Falkvinge doesn't exactly look like a pirate king.

Dressed in a gray suit and red satin shirt, his look suggests hip, young, European politician. But the founder of Sweden's Pirate Party could represent a very serious threat to the music and movie industries.

Falkvinge is a budding politician, a Microsoft-trained technologist and bitter foe of U.S. copyright law. Last year, he founded the party that surprised many when it amassed enough votes to become one of the country's top 10 political groups. (There are nearly 40 in Sweden.)

The organization failed to win enough support, however, to gain membership in the country's parliament and is now raising money for elections in 2009 and 2010. The party's platform is a promise to thwart U.S. attempts to enforce copyright law on Swedish soil.

"When we reach our first major political victory, such as taking seats in parliament, pirates across the world will see we can do something."
--Rickard Falkvinge

There are some signs the Pirate Party's message could appeal to audiences beyond Sweden's borders. On Thursday, a group calling itself the Pirate Party of the United States announced that it was seeking support as it prepares to register as a political party in the state of Utah. The group said in a press release that it needs 2,000 signatures by February to qualify.

"The aim of the Pirate Party is to change intellectual property laws globally...Sweden, Europe and the rest of the world in that order," said Falkvinge, 35. "Fledgling pirate parties are now in many countries...When we reach our first major political victory, such as taking seats in parliament, pirates across the world will see we can do something."

Falkvinge's party has yet to win anything even in its home country. But the group arguably represents the largest effort to date to organize the unknown number of people who illegally download content, and wage a copyright fight at the ballot box. Their goal is to take their argument--that sharing movies, music and other information should not be a crime--directly to voters.

Founded by Falkvinge in January 2006, the Pirate Party received wide media coverage in Sweden. That was nothing compared with the attention the group received after police in the country raided the headquarters of The Pirate Bay, a highly popular online tracker of BitTorrent files.

Hollywood has accused The Pirate Bay, which is not affiliated with the Pirate Party, of being an essential pirate tool for file sharers. U.S. trade officials have lobbied the Swedish government to shut it down, according to Swedish media reports. In May 2006, police seized The Pirate Bay's servers, shutting down the site for several days.

Rickard Falkvinge
Credit: Miriam Olsson
/CNET News.com
Rickard Falkvinge

Many Swedes believed their government had bowed to the will of a foreign power. The Pirate Party held two demonstrations attended by hundreds in Stockholm and Gothenberg. Attention began to swell: Sweden's justice ombudsman reviewed the police's handling of the case, but nothing came of it.

"Swedish youths are proud of the stubbornness and defiance of The Pirate Bay and see their activities as 'sharing,' not 'stealing,'" said Oscar Swartz a Swedish blogger. "Bloggers and activists stand up for The Pirate Bay and defend them against threats to their existence."

All of this occurred as the country headed toward parliamentary elections last September. Membership of the Pirate Party swelled to nearly 10,000 soon after and Pirate Party leaders were confident they could obtain 225,000 votes, or the required 4 percent, to earn a parliamentary seat.

Come election day, however, the party received 35,000 votes, or 0.6 percent. The party with the most votes, Sweden's Social Democrats, which lost in the election to an alliance between the country's liberal and conservative groups, earned the most votes for any single party with 1.9 million.

"To me, it is not an eligible party, but a protest group," said Mats Johansson a member of the Moderaterna party, currently Sweden's leading party in Parliament. "I hope they don't get any votes in the next election."

He may get his wish. Since the election, the Party Pirate's membership has dropped from 9,600 to about 5,700. Such drops are common with political parties in nonelection years, said Falkvinge. But questions have been raised about how the Pirate Party will fare in future elections without the benefit of a major controversy to galvanize followers.

"Generating media attention is pretty much all that this group has done. They haven't accomplished anything. They haven't swayed anybody."
--Patrick Ross, spokesman, Copyright Alliance

"It all depends on what the media brings up," said Eva-Lena Jansson, who holds a seat in the parliament for the Social Democrats and oversees the party's stance on intellectual property law issues. "If the media chooses to focus on these issues then the Pirate Party might stay around."

Copyright holders in the U.S. scoff at the idea that the Pirate Party could ever threaten copyright law.

"Generating media attention is pretty much all that this group has done," said Patrick Ross, a spokesman for the Copyright Alliance, whose members include record labels and movie studios. "They haven't accomplished anything. They haven't swayed anybody. They certainly won't have any impact on this country."

In an interview at a cafe near San Francisco's Dolores Park last week, Falkvinge was fresh off a fundraising tour in the United States as the party girds for Sweden's elections. Falkvinge acknowledged that he raised little money but plenty of awareness, which he hopes will help with future fundraising.

Falkvinge took an earlier interest in politics and was a member of the youth wing of Sweden's Moderate Party. An entrepreneur at age 16, he eventually joined Microsoft as a project manager. He credits the software giant with helping him to hone his organizational and leadership skills.

He's confident in himself and in his message. Copyright laws should apply to only commercial ventures, Falkvinge argued, and sharing videos, music or "culture" with friends for noncommercial purposes should be encouraged. The Pirate Party calls for a reduction of the copyright terms to five years, and an end to digital rights management schemes. Beyond copyright, the group also wants to abolish patents.

Falkvinge claims copyright doesn't offer society any benefit but is the film industry's way of trying to save a "crumbling distribution model." According to him, people no longer need middlemen like film studios to obtain movies and music.

"I would like a guaranteed income," Falkvinge said. "We all would. But that doesn't mean that it's in society's wider interest to write such laws. Copyright was never there as a guaranteed income for the artist."