Paradoxes of the Pirate Party

pirate.jpgLast month Stanford hosted Rick Falkvinge, the head of the Swedish Pirate Party, which advocates fundamental changes to patent and copyright laws. Falkvinge’s “personal candidacy came in at rank #15 out of over 5,000 candidates for the 349 parliamentary seats,” but “he didn’t win a seat due to threshold rules.” I listened to his talk on iTunes University, and was surprised by the comprehensiveness of his case against excess copyright and for more open competition.

Falkvinge explained the unfortunate historical origins of copyright-type restrictions, as a tool first for censorship and later for the preservation of monopolistic practices of the stationers’ guild in England. He argued that many current copyright laws resulted from the undue influence of “crumbling monopolies” trying to protect their business models against new forms of competition. But he made an interesting concession: he admitted that certain works that cost a huge sum wouldn’t be produced if their makers had no hope of financial return, so he favored some copyright protection for commercial uses of those works. However, Falkvinge said the threat to privacy posed by modern copyright enforcement techniques was too great to allow any legal monitoring of personal use of works.

Two thoughts after the break…

1) Having blogged a panel on “civil disobedience and copyright,” I found Falkvinge’s discussion of the politics of IP interesting. So much of the dialogue on IP is based on law or economics. Legally, pirates are in the wrong, and oftentimes the academic debate on unauthorized use stalls out in fights over the proper scope of concepts like fair use. Falkvinge sidesteps this debate by saying: “I don’t want to interpret the law; I want to change it” (echoing the 11th thesis on Feuerbach). He embraces the language of politics rather than expertise, declaring economic studies of the field radically contestable. Lobbyists try to legitimate IP policy decisions by citing studies commissioned by interested parties, but Falkvinge dismisses their often contradictory conclusions (for a sample debate, see here).

Having criticized the “shamanism in economism,” and having recently seen a conference IP presentation where the author basically pleaded that most of the economic variables in his model were unquantifiable, I can sympathize with his frustration. However, I think the most sophisticated observers will try to see the complementarity of various social science methods. I am deeply skeptical of anyone supporting a policy for economic reasons alone, but add in a few other modes of analysis and I am far more likely to be convinced.

2) I want to question one of Falkvinge’s concessions regarding the need to recompense producers for their investments. In the patent field, I certainly can see the need to do so. However, the cultural field features some competitive dynamics that should lead us to question a continuing subsidy to the largest players who invest the greatest deal of money. As Guy Pessach has noted, over time, the largest and most powerful players not only meet current demand but also shape tastes. If we’re going to be giving out subsidies, we should be careful to avoid handing them out indiscriminately. If a culture stops spending money on movies that cost $100 million to produce and starts watching free community theater (or, more likely, pet videos), hasn’t it saved money? Rishab Aiyer Ghosh has begun to model the ways in which economies save money by substituting the free for the costly.

Photo Credit: Earl What I Saw 2.0 (Flickr).

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