ISHMAEL N. DARO
After years of minority governments, people have gotten used to constant talk of elections. But whether or not Canadians go to the polls this fall, the recently formed Pirate Party of Canada is vying for voters’ attention.
The Pirate Party of Canada is modelled after the Swedish Pirate Party, whose mission is to “facilitate the emerging information society” through technology.
Formed in 2006, the Swedish party’s only three concerns are copyright reform, abolishing the patent system and bolstering citizens’ right to privacy.
In June 2009, the Pirate Party won its first seat in the European Parliament based on a strong stance in favour of file-sharing and changing the current copyright system. Building on that success, numerous parties have formed around the world with similar goals, including the Pirate Party of Canada.
“A lot of people hear ”˜Pirate Party’ and assume that it’s all about ”˜get your content for free,’ ” said Tim Fretz, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.
Fretz, 26, is an active member of the Pirate Party of Canada. The party focuses on copyright and patent reform, privacy rights, net neutrality and open government. Particularly in relation to file-sharing, the Pirate Party has a more relaxed position compared to other political parties in Canada, although the platform is still being finalized.
“Depending on who you ask, there are either three or five planks to the platform,” said Fretz.
The delay may be because there is no central leadership. Instead, a loose network of members connects online to discuss the goals of the party. This approach is fitting since much of the platform is about accountability and embracing new technology.
“The forums and the wiki style of ”˜everybody participate, everybody work together and check each other’s work’ is very much in that vein,” said Fretz, although he acknowledges that more structure will become necessary as the party grows. There are already hundreds of members signed up.
One of the most common criticisms levelled against the Pirate Party is that there are already political parties in favour of looser copyright laws and net neutrality. Net neutrality is the concept of keeping the Internet completely accessible to users without blocking sites or restricting certain activities like file-sharing.
But Fretz stresses that the Pirate Party is different from other parties because it does not fall into the traditional left-right spectrum.
“There are people (in the party) who are right-wing, left-wing, all over the place,” he said.
By deliberately focusing the party’s platform on a limited number of issues, Fretz says people can wholly agree with what the Pirate Party stands for instead of having to choose between parties they may disagree with to varying degrees.
“It seems like what we do is pick between who we don’t want to win,” said Fretz. “That’s not what democracy is about. You should be able to put your voice behind what you want.”
One of the most difficult issues for the party to settle has been its stance on file-sharing. Most members agree that the current copyright system is outdated and too severe in punishing copyright infringement. However, exactly how lax the system should be has been a topic of robust debate on the Pirate Party’s forums. The Swedish Pirate Party’s manifesto calls for the legalization of all file-sharing as long as it is done for non-commercial purposes. But Fretz and some others would not go as far as their Swedish counterparts.
“It’s a harder position to defend,” he said. “It’s easy to write down, easy to make it concise but it’s harder to defend in an ongoing debate.”
He stresses that the party is not in favour of abolishing copyright altogether but that it seeks to reform copyright to bring it in line with changing technology. Especially since many younger people have at one time pirated movies, music or software, the party believes new models are needed.
Colin Skrapek agrees that changing technology is not reflected in current legislation. Skrapek, better known by his stage name Maybe Smith, has been making music since 2002. During that time, he has released several full-length albums and toured, both within Canada and abroad.
Skrapek says many people, especially in the music industry, have not kept pace with technology but that artists can still be successful.
“There’s always people who will be able to find a way to make money if that’s what their ultimate goal is.”
“They just have to be creative about it and not think they have to make their music a certain way or distribute it a certain way,” said Skrapek. “There’s always people who will be able to find a way to make money if that’s what their ultimate goal is.”
Skrapek points out that even the idea of releasing a CD is fast becoming obsolete since distributing music online is far easier and does not need to be in 12-song batches. For his last album, Skrapek says he only released CDs because of nostalgia.
“From now on I’ll probably be releasing music online — and likely for free.”
On the question of copyright, Skrapek says it no longer realistic for artists to maintain ultimate control over something they create. He also admits he is in no position to preach since his music has always used samples of other people’s work, as well as the occasional chorus.
He recounts how his song “Bloopers” was used as the soundtrack to a YouTube video in which various sports bloopers were mashed up to create something new.
“He’s infringing on numerous copyrights there, all in one go. But seeing that made me smile, it gave me a very warm feeling inside,” said Skrapek. “I think people who try to fight against that kind of creativity are shooting culture in the foot.”
Skrapek, also a web developer, says he has been making music as Maybe Smith throughout the age of file-sharing. Meanwhile, Tim Fretz of the Pirate Party had his first experience with file-sharing and copyright around the same time, starting with Napster back in the early 2000s. Skrapek and Fretz represent two points within the changing debate surrounding the Internet’s role in the spread of ideas.
As the Pirate Party establishes itself, copyright may become an increasingly important political issue, especially among a younger generation that has grown up with very different ideas about intellectual property rights. Whether or not people vote for the Pirate Party of Canada, the challenge of updating laws to reflect changing technology will not go away.
“We have a culture, a youth population that’s sharing and downloading more and more,” said Fretz. “The response should not be (to) abolish it or ban it. That’s the wrong way to go.”
photo Robby Davis