Here Come the Vikings: Piracy in the Nordic World

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What is it about Scandinavia and piracy? In Iceland the Pirate Party was touted to win the recent general election and form a government, going from just three members in the Icelandic Parliament, or Althing, to being the largest party among the more than dozen parties represented in the Parliament. In the end the Pirates made strong gains, more than tripling their seat representation, to 10 members in the 63 seat Parliament, although a conservative party won the most seats. It took many months to form a governing coalition and for a time it looked as if the Pirate Party would be asked to lead the formation of a government, but in the end they “sailed away”. After weeks of negotiations a government has just been formed, but without Pirate representation.

In Sweden, where the Pirate Party was founded in 2006, it has been a minor but not insignificant political force for some time. The party has been closely associated with the notorious website The Pirate Bay, becoming its ISP in 2010 after the website lost its ISP through an injunction from a German court. The Pirate Party of Sweden has elected two members to the European Parliament. There are Pirate parties in Norway and Denmark as well. What accounts for the Nordic connection? Perhaps it is the Viking blood. The Vikings were, after all, one of the earliest versions of pirates, although in fairness entities styling themselves “Pirate Parties” have sprung up in many parts of Europe, and even Australia and Canada. (In the 2015 Canadian general election, the Pirate Party of Canada ran 5 candidates, winning a total of 906 votes or one-third of one percent (0.32%) in the areas they contested. I guess political piracy is not as popular in Canada as in Scandinavia.)

What is it these pirate parties really stand for? If you read the online statement of the Pirate Party of Sweden, they have two major bees in their bonnet; “free” access to information (which to them by extension means opposition to copyrights and patents since a “sharing culture” should be encouraged– i.e. I share what is yours), and privacy concerns (“access to communication free from surveillance”). The Pirate Party of Iceland, the most successful of all the pirate fringe parties to date, is really an anti-establishment party established after Iceland’s flirtation with financial collapse. The empowering of groups willing to challenge the establishment (or “the elites”) is becoming a global phenomenon as we have seen with the UK’s Brexit vote and the US presidential election. The fact that the personification of the anti-establishment movement in the small country of Iceland has taken on a pirate identity has more to do with thumbing its nose at the traditional parties than espousing widespread copyright theft, although the party has some unusual policies such as making Iceland a haven for hackers and whistleblowers (including Edward Snowden) and making bitcoin a legal currency in Iceland.

I have long pondered the question of why anti-establishment political movements want to identify with pirates. And I haven’t found a satisfactory answer. We all know that literally piracy has a dual meaning, the first being physical attacks on ships and sometimes land installations by brigands, corsairs etc., sometimes swashbuckling, but more often just downright cruel and bloodthirsty. The other meaning, which apparently dates back to 1701 according to Etymonline, means “to take another’s work without permission”. Which definition is it that our political pirates aspire to? It’s hard to say. There is no question that there is an anti-copyright element that cuts across most of these movements, no doubt because of the misperception that respect for copyright equates with the imposition of authority. I find it strange that these self-professed libertarians/anarchists/professional protestors find it so hard to accept the concept that the works of individual creators should be respected. Individual creators–writers, artists, songwriters, musicians, and so on,–have a long history of speaking out against abuse of authority. One would have thought that conceptually those who rebel against the establishment would identify with the right of the individual creator to express him or herself, while making an honest living.

Back to Sweden. For a country of 9 ½ million, Sweden has acquired quite a reputation as a pirate haven. You can blame that on The Pirate Bay, and its high profile Pirate Party, but also on the fact that some one-third of Swedes are estimated to indulge in content piracy. It is a highly wired, tech-savvy economy, and for content industries a country where the government is not doing enough to combat piracy. An alliance of content owners has very recently drafted an open letter to the Swedish government asking for new and better legislation to target and punish pirates, legislative change to tackle widespread streaming piracy and clarification of ISP responsibility to block illegal sites. This is an ongoing problem. There has been a lengthy campaign by government prosecutors to seize the .se domain used by The Pirate Bay. Finally in May of this year, the Swedish Court of Appeal ordered Pirate Bay to surrender its .se domain name to the Swedish state. The website promptly switched to thepiratebay.org, a domain name it had used back in 2003 when it first launched. It is still up, brazenly advertising itself as “the galaxy’s most resilient BitTorrent site”.

With steady pressure from the industry, and with a renewed push from the government, perhaps Sweden can turn the tide on piracy. In a breaking development, the Patent and Market Court of Appeal has just overturned a lower court verdict that had ruled that a Swedish ISP had no obligation to block The Pirate Bay and streaming portal Swefilmer. The appeal verdict, handed down February 13, ordered the ISP to implement technical measures to prevent its subscribers from accessing the pirate sites. It is a poor advertisement for an innovative country such as Sweden, which ranked 5th out of 45 countries in the most recent ranking of international IP performance by the Global Intellectual Property Center (GIPC) of the US Chamber of Commerce, to have a reputation as the home of piracy. Copyright enforcement was the weakest element in the overall assessment of Sweden’s IP performance. If Sweden is no longer the home of piracy,  it seems that tiny Iceland, (population 300,000), may seek to usurp that title—at least politically. After all, it is the home of the descendants of the Vikings.

© Hugh Stephens, 2017. All Rights Reserved.

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