May 31st has become a landmark date in the history of the intellectual property debate. On that day police in Stockholm raided the server of The Pirate Bay, an infamous source of pirated films, music, computer games, software and media. The site provided torrent files- merely pointers to sources of data but without copyright themselves -- a practice that, though disputed, is still legal in Sweden. The loophole had allowed the Pirate Bay to avoid the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) crackdown on torrent hubs in 2004. Sweden's current move was precipitated by a threat from the US State Department to bring the issue to the World Trade Organization.
The raid set off a major debate in Sweden, and it was well covered in other European countries, as Sweden has become the epicenter of ideological resistance to intellectual property in its present form.
Sweden's high proportion of Internet connected citizens, with 10 percent of the population participating in file sharing in the last quarter of 2005, according to Statistics Sweden (www.scb.se), proved fertile ground for the IP-critical movement. The Pirate Bay sparked the creation of a network of file-sharing supporters called the Pirate Bureau (Piratbyrån). The Pirate Bureau was formed as network, providing a place for discussion in which surprisingly often people from both the left and the right of the political spectrum found themselves united in criticism of intellectual property protections.
In January this year, the Pirate Party (Piratpartiet) was formed, with an aim of competing in this September's parliamentary elections. At first, it appeared it would be a small and obscure party that no one seriously would consider anything more than a student prank. The initial party program called for the complete abolition of all protection for patents and creative work, but the revised platform now calls for IP protection to last for a period of registration of 5 years.
The Pirate Party engaged in the public debate -- quite vociferously -- but gained little ground. The police raid changed all that.
Suddenly the PlayStation generation, considered completely apolitical by most pundits, took to the streets by the thousands in Stockholm and Gothenburg under the Jolly Roger. The Pirate Party's membership more than tripled in the course of a few weeks, from 2,200 to 7,400 today (outnumbering the membership of the Green Party, for instance). The sleepy election campaign, which everyone thought would be about minimal changes in Sweden's massive welfare state, suddenly shifted to a discussion regarding the very fabric of the information society.
Politicians in the established parties were terrified; a policy issue they had considered second-rate at best was mobilizing the public, and they lacked a proper platform of their own. In an opinion poll conducted by the newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet, some 75 percent of all first-time voters said file-sharing is OK "even if illegal".
"Let us show that we are at current with our times," said the Conservative Party's leader Fredrik Reinfeldt in an interview on Swedish public service television. He added that "we cannot hunt down an entire generation of youths." The former communist party followed suit, with its leader Lars Ohly indicating that it never was the law's purpose to "hunt down regular people".
So, during June and July, the established parties gradually started to move their opinions in the Pirate Party's direction. Will it be a temporary flirtation with a seemingly pirate-friendly electorate? Won't this trend simply be reversed after Election Day? After all, Sweden isn't about to start flouting WTO rules.
Perhaps that's true, but some changes in official policy have already taken place. Sweden, together with Norway and Denmark, have already required Apple to make music downloaded via its proprietary iTunes program playable on competitors' hardware. Finland is also considering this demand.
Before the rise of the Pirate Party, the Swedish IP debate was conducted on two different levels: a legal-political level and a technical level. On the political level companies and governments dominated the discussions and instituted legislation without much involvement from other parties. On the technical level, the easy dissemination of content and the complexity of the Internet made it very difficult to uphold and enforce the laws. The result of these two parallel debates was the forming of a huge rift and an unfortunate imbalance between law and actual practice. In reality, legal and technical issues are intimately connected, and the key to successful policies is to use the expertise of both sides, especially as it is relatively easy to get technically inexperienced lawyers and legally inexperienced technicians to agree on issues they would never have considered if they had not collaborated. The problem for the content industry and for those understanding the value of IP is that the common ground for the two parties was anti-IP sentiments.
The crackdown on The Pirate Bay in Stockholm turned into a setback for the public image of IP. Aside from legal question marks being discussed about how the raid was conducted, it was not very efficient in shutting down The Pirate Bay's bittorrent activity, which is once again up and running.
The Pirate movement has been strengthened. Italy, Norway, Poland and recently the United States have also seen the formation of Pirate Parties, inspired by the Swedish predecessor's success. What happens in Sweden is now closely monitored by many in the anti-IP movement.
But the Pirate Party does not have to win elections to influence the political debate. For them it is enough to be the driving force and to propose solutions to the issues. Crackdowns on pirate servers do not foster legitimacy for IP in the long run. It is therefore of great importance to rekindle the debate on IP by communicating the values of the market economy, entrepreneurship and private property and to explain how it benefits society as a whole.
The author is a TCS Daily contributor and CEO of Eudoxa, a Swedish think tank.