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Interview: Pirate Party founder on the collapse of ‘parasitic’ record labels

Rickard Falkvinge, who founded the world’s first Pirate Party in Sweden, speaks to TheJournal.ie about copyright laws, digital currencies and how to set up a new political party.

RIckard Falkvinge founded the world's first Pirate Party, in Sweden, and led the party to success in the European elections in 2009.
RIckard Falkvinge founded the world's first Pirate Party, in Sweden, and led the party to success in the European elections in 2009.
Image: Anna Troberg

RICKARD ‘RICK’ FALKVINGE is a man with a colourful past. A software entrepreneur at 16, Falkvinge left a good job with Microsoft in 2002, changed his name (from Dick Augustsson to Rick Falkvinge, literally meaning ‘falcon wing’) in 2004, and set up the world’s first Pirate Party in Sweden in 2005.

Having brought the party close to seats in parliament in 2006, Falkvinge led the party to its breakthrough success in 2009 when it won a seat in the European Parliament. Thanks to the changes of the Lisbon Treaty, it soon inherited a second.

Falkvinge is an unlikely politician. While powerfully articulate, he does not choose words carefully for the reasons that a traditional politician might – and remains honest enough to have admitted, in the past, to being completely broke and needing to live off the donations of others.

In 2011 Falkvinge stepped down as party leader to become a full-time evangelist for the party and for Pirate policies – which relate largely to copyright and intellectual property law in the digital age – around the world.

Last week he met TheJournal.ie ahead of a talk at the Irish Institute of European Affairs on patent laws in the digital age.

The day of our interview, the value of Bitcoin – an online-only currency of which Falkvinge is a major advocate – had fallen through the floor, after a wild speculative spike driven partly by the economic crisis in Cyprus. (We wrote about this in depth last week.)

As someone who not only advocates the development of non-governmental currencies, but also has his life savings tied up in the currency, it seemed an obvious starting point to ask Falkvinge first about his thoughts on the currency’s wild fluctuations.

What have you made of the rampant spike and then the gradual – or not-so-gradual – fall of Bitcoin prices in the last few days?

It’s a wild ride. Bitcoin is a very, very exciting experiment in getting rid of central banks. Getting rid of transaction fees for international fees are a fraction of what central banks earn and the traditional institutions charge.

I think there is huge potential, long-term potential in Bitcoin. But what we’ve seen over these last days is there’s a lot of kinks to work out in the fabric of the system.

You saw a correction. The correction looked huge if you look at it only in isolation – it corrected something like 60 per cent in the course of a day. Some people lost millions, literally. But the rest of the curve looks just as ridiculous… when you realise it lost 60pc of its value over a day…but that means it backtracked four days of value appreciation”! That’s whre the real ridicule of this curve hits you.

Is there a danger that because it was driven by speculators, it endangers the viability and perception of Bitcoin that it is seen only as a commodity and not a currency?

I think there’s a danger, but it’s short-term rather than long-term. There are people who have gone into this for the ideology of it, if you like: the idea that central banks who can start the printing presses and kill people’s savings are harmful for society. This technology solves that.

Now, Bitcoin is one crypto-currency. There might be competing crypto-currencies that one day overtake Bitcoin. We don’t know that yet. But let’s just speak of Bitcoin as crypto-currency in general.

Obviously, when something goes from $15-ish per unit to $170-ish per unit, which was the last price I saw – by the time this airs it might be $270 or it might be $150. That’s the volatility of it. When that happens, it’s going to attract people who want to make a quick buck. Is that good? Is that bad? I’m not sure that’s relevant. You just have to relate to it, because it’s a fact of life.

But long-term, I see a lot of new upstarts; I see a lot of new entrepreneurs, I see a lot of ideologically driven people wanting to build an infrastructure for Bitcoin. And that infrastructure is not there yet. But as it grows, I think the ecosystem gets better at handling these kinds of wild swings in the exchange rate, because those are not good for the currency. Those are not good for the economy.

As someone who has all of their savings tied up in Bitcoin, it must have been a thrilling but equally scary ride in the last few days.

Yes, absolutely. It’s totally prudent for me to disclose that I have a significant position in Bitcoin. It’s … I’m hoping for it to become retirement money, some 25 years out. Until then I’m trying not to touch it too much. But yeah, it’s completely wild. You start out with a post which has grown to nothing I’ve ever owned before, and then you have a very large amount of money just erased over dinner.

Does it frighten you, that it can be so volatile?

You just have to emotionally block it out, to be honest. It helps to think of it as toy money – although it isn’t, obviously – because if you start to wrap your head around losing six or seven digit amounts over dinner, then you’re just going to go insane. On the other hand, you just gained as much in the previous week, so it’s…

Does it ultimately have a long-term future that could make it compete equally alongside the euro or dollar, or even subvert them and become a single global currency?

The euro is primarily a currency within the European Union. You have a stability pact that effectively prevents printing presses from starting running to make the Euro an export product. The dollar doesn’t have that, so its dual purpose: it’s an exchange medium within the United States and also the trade currency, the reserve currency, of the world.

I think Bitcoin has the potential to become the de facto international trade currency, replacing the dollar in that area. I don’t think, for the foreseeable future, it can replace the dollar when buying a cup of coffee in Atlanta, or getting an espresso in Italy.

But you think it could become an Esperanto for the currency world?

That’s an excellent way of putting it.

‘Every generation needs to reconquer democracy’

How would you summarise in a single notion, or paragraph, the pirate philosophy on politics?

They say that every generation needs to reconquer democracy when the previous politicians have become career politicians. We are the next generation civil liberties movement who have discovered that, by threatening politicians’ jobs you can actually make them take important issues seriously.

So you don’t think it’s important to be in power, so much as be prominent enough to influence those who are?

Absolutely. Our goal is not power, never was. Our goal is to influence policy to safeguard the civil liberties online.  It’s kind of paradoxical: what we want is for the same lives to apply online and offline. We want the secrecy of correspondence – that is, when you send a letter in the mail, it should be a secret all the way to the recipient; that you have the right to send an anonymous letter; that the mailman is not responsible for the contents for the message. Things that we take for granted offline, they should be natural online.

Party members cast votes during a meeting of the German Pirate Party in December 2011. Pirate Parties have been established in dozens of countries, including Ireland. (Michael Probst/AP)

Is there a problem with the layman’s perception that the Pirate Party’s stance is skewed simply to filesharing?

There’s definitely a lot more to the philosophy than that, but that’s where we started out. We were defending civil liberties against corporate profits. We were labelled pirates – probably as an attempt to make us bow our heads and feel ashamed. Rather than doing that, we sort of felt proud about it. We stood straight and said, ‘OK, if fighting for civil liberties makes us pirates, then let’s call ourselves pirates.’

Is it a schoolboy error to relate the Pirate Party to the Pirate Bay, simply because you’re both from Sweden? In many people’s eyes, you’re seen as closely linked… many think the Pirate Party’s goal is legal filesharing of copyrighted works, which would mean most consumers not paying for the content they consume.

[Hollywood profits] don’t necessarily have to go down. The business case might change in the future, but that’s always been the case. The technology always changes the way you can do business. What we want to do primarily is change the laws to go in harmony with the public perception of justice and what people do.

250 million Europeans are sharing culture on a regular basis, so you can’t just jack up the penalties and make examples of people for doing things that everybody does. It doesn’t work in the long term.

To your specific question about what’s the ties between the Pirate Bay and the Pirate Party, and are people mixing them up unnecessarily, I sometimes say: they are activists, we are politicians. So, it’s kind of like any other activist movement to their political counterpart. For instance, I know you don’t have successful Green Parties in Ireland…

…not any more!…

…but there are Green Parties, in Europe and in other countries, who have sensible parties and who are moderately successful. So we would relate to that movement. We would relate the Pirate Bay as that movement relates to Greenpeace, for instance.

Life on the road, on the net, and on the road again

Speak to me about your life as an evangelist for the moment. How broadly global does it bring you? Does it mean spending your life on the road?

I’ve always been an entrepreneur, you know? I founded my first company at age 16, I had my first employee at age 18, and so I’ve always been a bit of a trailblazer if you like. I haven’t cared so much as what other people think about what I do, as much as whether I believe in it. So I founded the first Pirate Party in 2006; it was under my leadership that we got our first members of the European Parliament.

But after five years, I figured that you shouldn’t do the same job for more than five years, so I basically focussed on what I loved doing most as party leader, which was travelling and speaking about the ideas. So these days I’m a political evangelist.

I travel for as much as I have energy to, basically, and speak anywhere I can. Do I spend a lot of time on the road? I do, during conference high season, which is about April-May through to September-October. There’s a little bit of time for reflection in the middle of summer and the Yule and New Year’s holidays, but other than that, it’s very much a matter of meeting interesting people, getting challenged on your beliefs…

[suddenly excited] I mean, this is not dogma. I might be wrong. People are challenging me, poking at these ideas, and going, ‘Did you think of this, did you think of that, what about this?‘ And that keeps me on my toes. I love that! Maybe there’s something I haven’t thought about.

How do you combat the fatigue of doing that? It must get tiring sometimes if all you have is the fuel of your own opinions, if you’re getting ready for your fifth talk of the day away from home and thinking, ‘I’d really love my bed now.’

I gotta agree with you that you gotta manage your own energy. It becomes part of your job to take care of yourself, because you don’t take care of yourself you’re not going to be able to do your job properly. In that aspect it kind of goes beyond being a 9-to-5 job and becoming more of a mission really.

Piracy in Ireland

The breakthrough success of Beppe Grillo’s ’5-star movement’ in Italy – a protest, populist movement organised almost entirely through the internet – illustrated how popular movements can go from near-anonymity to major electoral success.

Our interview took place the week after the outcome of the Meath East by-election, where the newly-founded Direct Democracy Ireland party had won a surprising fourth place – pushing Labour into fifth.

I asked Falkvinge about the difficulties in setting up a new political movement and the prospects for doing so in Ireland – where a Pirate Party was officially registered, but floundered due to lack of popular interest and has since been dissolved.

Was it difficult to lead a movement of people with only a single, small selection of overlapping viewpoints who vary wildly in other ways?

It was certainly a challenge. When I set out on founding the party I wanted to create a middle ground where people from vastly different backgrounds would be able to focus on this one issue. And I tried to create a culture where we’d see each other in the eye and say, ‘Yes, we disagree on a lot of these issues, and that’s okay, because we are also in agreement on this set of issues that the party is about, and that the issues we fight for are much more important than what we disagree on. That worked pretty well.

But what amazes me and what I gradually learned from other people who self-identify as pirates around the world, is that we’re actually in quite specific agreement on most policies, even outside the typical core. And it’s not just detailed agreement on the policies – we’re also in agreement in how we got to that standpoint. And that kind of amazes me. That tells me there is a grassroots movement, with genuinely new values here. And they are spreading through exposure of the internet, in some way, that I haven’t really identified. But I guess you could describe us as the political arm of the internet in that way.

Were you disappointed, given that Ireland tries to see itself as a high-tech country and always seems unhappy with its political establishment, that the Irish Pirate Party didn’t take off?

Well, it is very hard to found a political party. I think there’s definitely a scenario where we should celebrate our success rather than bemoan a failure, because it’s kind of like when Thomas Edison made the lightbulb. It’s not that he had failed 10,000 times, it’s that he had discovered 10,000 ways that didn’t work.

So… this is hard. This is really hard stuff. And that’s also why I’m in Dublin right now – to see how fertile the ground is for creating the Irish Pirate Party.

So it’s something you want to revisit?

We’ve spread to 70 countries and part of what I do is create the opportunities for these values to organise into a coherent political party. I think Ireland has all the ingredients necessary right now. What it needs is a core of activists who are politically understanding enough to know that this is long-term and it’s going to take a lot of effort, but also that the effort is worth it.

‘The demise of the record labels is the best thing that could possibly happen to art history’

As has already been mentioned, the Pirate Party is a separate entity to the Pirate Bay, an originally Swedish website which has become known as the world’s most popular conduit for illegal filesharing.

Though the two were founded separately, they share a political ideology and have become closely related – the Pirate Party has previously suggested that it would allow host the Pirate Bay website on the systems of the Swedish Parliament if it was in power.

The complaints from artists – of many formats – about illegal filesharing, and how it threatens their financial viability, have been documented at great length. So what does Falkvinge say to those who believe his policies could kill their industries?

One of the things you mentioned is how peer-to-peer will change file distribution, and force studios to change their financial models. If the Pirate Party’s reforms were enacted – so filesharing was legal, and it become easy for people to legally access content without paying for it -what incentives are there for people to produce that content in the first place?

OK, so there are two things here. First, what would happen if filesharing became legal? Absolutely nothing would happen, because people already do it. What we want to do is change the map to match the terrain. 250 million Europeans – about half the population – already take part in the sharing of culture outside the distribution monopolies, in violation of the law. So that’s already happening.

So what would happen if you make it legal tomorrow? Not a thing would change, except that there wouldn’t be any more atrocious lawsuits trying to make examples out of people.

Second, how would you make money if the law changed? The exact same way as today. It’s only going to change the law, it’s not going to change reality.

But one of the concerns you often hear is that record company profits are falling…

[interrupting] That’s a ‘problem’…

…they complain that it means there is less money to put into new acts…

But that’s bullshit. I mean, record labels are a problem. They used to take 93% of the cut, and make sure that 99.95% of artists never saw a cent in royalties. The demise of the record labels is the best thing that could possibly happen to art history, because it means you get rid of a middleman that is purely parasitic.

But it seems that if everybody has to use a crowd-sourced funding model, it would suggest the era of the superstar is over. Because if every artist is clamouring to fund themselves in that way, they’re all fighting over a finite amount of attention.

Well, first of all, we are seeing that household expenditure on culture has been fairly constant throughout the filesharing era. The pie is as large now as it was when Napster arrived. And second, since you’re getting rid of a middleman that took 93% of the cut, it means there is a lot more money going to artists.

I don’t think the era of the superstar is over. Far from it, but you might not see the sickening type of advertising for a particular artist. You’re going to see a lot more virality as somebody becomes popular on their own merits, and is shared between friends. You have many, many examples of that on YouTube, where videos just spread because people love them. Some of them might be funny, some of them might be stupid, some of them might be good art, but that’s how culture spreads today. Not on a billboard.

At this point I ask about Falkvinge’s thoughts on the newspaper industry – prompted by a misunderstanding that he had avoided any print interviews while visiting Ireland.

Falkvinge’s Irish manager explains that Rick had chosen to do interviews with media outlets who might be more conducive to the Pirate Party’s thoughts and ideal audience – that newspapers weren’t being snubbed, so much as overlooked.

I was going to ask about the controversy where the Irish newspapers’ licensing body was proposing to charge some entities for linking to their content.

If they want to go out of business, fine by me. I think the idea is offensive, that you could even control who gets to point at you. Because that’s what a link is. Some individual in the world stands and gives somebody else directions to where you are. That’s definitely a free speech issue, that’s nothing to do with commercial use. And even if it were commercial use, you can [not] still charge for pointing at people. That is not illegal and that is not covered under the copyright monopoly.

Second, if they are so technologically backward that they want to charge people for driving traffic to them, then I think they deserve to go bankrupt tomorrow.

‘Good ideas were always built on previous ideas’

As a summary, if the Pirate Party and pirate movements around the world achieved the success you would like them to, how would the world be different in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?

First of all, we wouldn’t have the backroom deals that shape our society today. I think they are a real problem. I think it’s the right of the electorate and the citizenry to demand accountability from their government. When silhouettes shake hands in the shade, that’s bad for Ireland. That’s bad for Europe. That’s bad for everybody but the people shaking hands. So I think transparency in government is something we can and should demand, and something I think is a real problem that we don’t have it today.

I think the surveillance laws that are coming need to stop and need to reverse. It used to be that you had a right to privacy – that you could only be wiretapped if police had a warrant. This changed in two ways: first they didn’t need a warrant any more, and then it became too impractical to wiretap one person at a time, so they wiretapped everybody all the time instead. Safeguarding privacy online, as used to have been offline, is a given to the Pirate movement.

I’d see culture flourishing in ways it has never done before. You had gatekeepers determining who gets to be seen and who doesn’t, and I find that idea repulsive. If you have a message –if you have art, culture, knowledge, and want to share it with the world… that should be seen as something positive. If other people share it in turn, that’s even more positive, because that means we get even more culture, more knowledge, as a civilisation.

Those would be the key issues: you have the right to demand accountability and transparency of government, banking being a particularly atrocious example; you have the right to privacy and civil liberties, even when you’re online – specifically when you’re online.

Sharing culture and knowledge is a good thing. Good ideas were always built on previous ideas.

Our thanks to the Irish Institute of European Affairs for their help in arranging this interview. Rickard Falkvinge keeps a blog on information policy and related matters at Falkvinge.net.

Read: Bitcoin or bit-con? Meet the crypto-currency that’s taking over the internet

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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