It sounds like a joke: Some Swedes have formed a political group called the Pirate Party. But avast, ye lily-livered sprogs! Like the Vikings of yore, these pirates are out for plunder -- only it’s intellectual property they’re after, and they aim to pillage through the law rather than lawlessness.
The Pirate Party will participate in this autumn's general elections in Sweden. Its candidates want to weaken copyright laws and roll back government legislation on intellectual property (IP) more generally. Founded in January, the party has rapidly moved to the center of the debate on IP in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. The group is in discussions to form sister parties in Norway and Poland and could field candidates in the next European Parliament elections.
In Sweden, as in other places, the IP debate has run on two parallel tracks: the political/legislative one and the technical one. On the political side, legislation to protect IP rights could be proposed relatively easily. The technological implications of enforcement, however, are another story entirely. The complexity of the technology and the Internet make IP-rights enforcement a real challenge.
The anti-IP contingent, an amalgamation of NGOs and technological activists of all political stripes, has taken advantage of this confusion. It has used the technical expertise of some of its followers to give an air of legitimacy to its agenda of cutting into IP rights. The message: It's too difficult to protect IP rights, so don't even try. Astonishingly, this approach has caught on; Wired Magazine even referred to the Pirate Party as the "third way out" between big corporations and consumer/counter-culture groups.
This strategy has gone over particularly well in Sweden, which is home to one of the most accessible and well-known online providers of pirated films, music, computer games, software and media. This Web site, called the Pirate Bay, is controversial but legal in Sweden. It sparked the creation of a network of file-sharing supporters, Piratbyrn (the Pirate Bureau). According to Swedish government figures, some 10% of Swedes shared pirated files via this "community" during the last quarter of 2005.
This theft of intellectual property will only worsen if protections are weakened, and innovation and creativity will suffer. Why invest in developing new technologies and products if they'll simply be stolen?
The Pirate Party has gradually moved from supporting the abolition of all protection for patents and creative work to a supposedly "softer" position: reducing protections to five years from the current 25 years. This time period still doesn't allow a proper incentive to invest in innovation, particularly for businesses that require considerable capital and long-term investments.
This is particularly true for small and medium-size businesses, or SMEs. Though the IP debate has often been shaped into a battle between big players on one side and small players on the other, this is misleading.
SMEs are the backbone of Europe's creative industry. They need IP protection as an incentive to invest in research and as an asset to attract the necessary resources to bring an innovative idea to the market. A strong and high-quality IP system based on high standard patents represents a vital incentive for firms large and small to innovate -- all to the benefit of consumers. Otherwise, we'll all be walking the plank.