On Monday, perhaps for the first time since the 18th century, a pirate won public office. Not in Somalia but in Sweden, where the Pirate Party is sending a candidate to the European Parliament backed by 7.1 per cent of the national vote. The party, whose poll plank is opposition to the global intellectual property rights (IPR) regime, has also made inroads in Germany. It gained prominence in April when promoters of the Pirate Bay, the Swedish file-sharing site (no relation to the party) were convicted of abetting illegal downloading of movies and music over the Bittorrent network. Swedish youth reacted by joining the party in droves, propelling it to Parliament.
The right to download Matrix Reloaded looks like a futuristic concern in India, where elections are won on promises of the right to food. But IPRs now underlie even traditional pursuits — ask an illiterate GM farmer, who no longer owns the seed he plants while MNCs try to copyright his neem toothbrush. IPRs control ownership of everything from music to food and medicines. Music starvation won’t kill you, but people do die for lack of access to overpriced drugs.
The IPR regime, designed to reward creativity, now stifles human growth by reducing public access to its fruits. Iniquitously, it rewards corporates more than creative individuals. Copyright spans have bloated up — write a bestseller today, and your publisher could live off it for three generations. Technology has slashed the cost of production and distribution, but prices remain high. Corporates budget big in order to win big, then manage the heightened risk by seeking safe bets. In music, this spells a Britney Spears blitz which drowns out the promising indie bands reviewed in ‘Download Central’, elsewhere in this newspaper.
Business has treated intellectual property as capital, like coal or land, ignoring the social value which marks it apart. But there have been reform movements within business, too. India has seen guerrilla warfare in the pharma sector, with Cipla cloning expensive HIV and influenza drugs for sale in poor Asian and African nations. In the knowledge industry, Wikipedia has established the idea of public ownership of internet content. Linux, the posterboy of the open-source movement, is competing with market leader Windows. It’s rarely seen on the desktop, but the world’s biggest Websites run on it. So does the coveted Android cellphone, and you could find a Linux kernel under the hood of your internet router.
So there is change, and it’s coming from unexpected quarters. The entertainment majors which sued the Pirate Bay complain that illegal downloading destroyed their business. They’re wrong. It was destroyed by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc. The core business of a recording company is to sell overpriced albums on CD. When Apple launched the iTunes store to sell single tracks from any label — including independents — for 99 cents a pop, the audio CD became history. Similarly, Internet-delivered movies will undermine traditional film distribution and make cinema more affordable.
Groups like the Pirate Party articulate the need for finding a middle ground between corporate traditionalism and changing social needs. The party may not exactly change the world with just one Parliamentary seat, but it has drawn attention to the public belief that the world must change.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine