The industrial revolution of the 19th century not only transformed life in the cities, it also altered lifestyles in the countryside. One of the most prevalent social conflicts at that time was the dispute over the collective use of land. “Common land” which could be used by everyone has its roots in the Middle Ages, but the industrial revolution turned these areas into private property. Farmers who collected wood in the forest were suddenly accused of theft by landowners.
The modern equivalent of “common land” is the internet: a space owned by nobody which everybody can use to get 15 minutes of fame or even a big buck. However, there is also the contemporary version of “wood theft” - the downloading of music, movies, games and books from often illegal sources.
Copyright, which was once the obscure domain of some particularly wonkish lawyers, is today a concern of the masses, with corporate lawyers suing users for copyright infringement and programmers earning a fortune by illegally providing access to pirated materials online. Like a modern Robin Hood, some activists even claim that they’re actually fighting for the rights of suppressed artists who are squeezed by the so called “content mafia”. Others, including the Pirate Party, argue that culture is a common good and should therefore be freed from restrictive copyrights so that it is more readily available for citizens.
Indeed, there is no country in Europe where the Pirates – a non-existent movement until a short time ago – have been more successful than in Germany. Their unconventional style and their grass-roots approach especially fuel the curiosity of German voters who are discontent with the political establishment. It is less clear, however, what they stand for politically and the party’s standard response to many policy issues – “we have not yet formulated a position on this issue” – is beginning to annoy voters.
What’s more, the Pirate party has not yet managed to find a sympathetic leader who can inspire voters. Whenever a Pirate becomes too popular, he is dismissed by the party base. A party spokesperson recently stepped down, complaining about intensive mobbing and infighting.
Nevertheless, the Pirates won almost 9% in the state election in Berlin in 2011. They also managed to win a surprising 7.4% of the votes in the regional ballot in Saarland in March and 7.8% in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, in May this year – they may even enter the federal parliament next year. At a recent visit to Germany, even the Pope allegedly asked Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer about the Pirate Party.
The party’s surprising success means that it will become more difficult for the Social Democrats to unseat Chancellor Merkel in 2013, but it also leads all other parties – including the Conservatives – to adopt a looser approach to copyright laws in general. The huge success of the anti ACTA protests in Germany in February was a powerful proof of the internet community's ability to mobilise large numbers of people and put pressure on the government.
The ACTA example also hints at how the success of the Pirate Party may affect politics in Brussels. Following ACTA protests coordinated by Pirate Parties and net activists throughout Europe, the Commission had to shelve its plans for a quick and uncontroversial adoption of the international agreement. A few months after the SOPA/PIPA debacle in the US, the debate surrounding ACTA’s signature and the European Parliament’s consent vote has sown the seeds of a web-based advocacy coalition of digital civil rights groups in Brussels with the different Pirate Parties in order to increase their punching power in the capital of Europe. It would therefore not be surprising to see the orange flag of the Pirate Party being hoisted more frequently in the capital of the EU as well.
The current honeymoon of the Pirates will not necessarily last forever. The party still lacks a coherent programme, charismatic leaders and professional elected officials. Furthermore, the rapid decline recently of the Liberals and the Green Party in Germany shows how quickly a party can turn from “everybody's darling” to a minority group struggling to get enough votes to clear the 5% threshold. But demographics will likely speak in favour of the Pirates: in elections, they manage to attract many young voters, including first-time voters and citizens who felt disenchanted with politics. And the Pirates attract people from all political parties, left and right, which puts them in a strong starting position.
In all likelihood, the Pirates will therefore remain a viable political force in Germany. But not only will the Pirates change the political system, the political system will also change the Pirates. In an attempt to strengthen their economic policy profile, the party recently announced that it is planning a round table on the reform of copyright. The Pirates do not yet have credible answers for the future development of the culture industry and will need to develop concepts which also suit the big players like music labels, film companies and publishing houses who are all important economic players. The industry should be part of this discussion rather than letting others decide on the future of their business.
Note: This blogpost was first published on 12 January 2012 on brussels+, the policy blog of the public affairs consultancy g+ europe. To subscribe to the blog and receive regular updates on the European Union and its member states, please click here. A German version of this article was published by EurActiv.de on 5 September 2012.