We talked to the Pirate Party of the United States: Here's what it's all about


Let’s make one thing absolutely clear about the Pirate Party of the United States (PPUS): it has no interest in defending your ability to illegally download The Blueprint 3 from Waffles.fm. It just doesn’t. If you had the idea in your head that the PPUS would somehow work to legalize your bad habits, well, tough break, kid: it’s a legitimate political party whose goal is not to make it so that you can download the latest Lady Gaga release with impunity, but rather to effect change in the more general realm of copyright and governmental transparency. In other words, you may want to lower that skull and crossbones flag you’ve been flying.

This past week I spoke to not one, but two officers of the PPUS. Ryan Martin, the party’s Administrator, and Glenn Kerbein, the party’s Operations Officer. The conversations were illuminating. Like many of you, I was only vaguely familiar with the idea of a “pirate party” as a result of the antics of The Pirate Bay. (I’ve written, at wholly unnecessary length, about TPB in the past, and my opinion on it can be summed up like this: it’s time for it to go away.) The link between the PPUS and its international counterparts isn’t as close as you might assume. As Ryan explained to me, the parties are really only linked together as a “loose confederation” that’s known informally as the International Pirate Party Movement. It’s a bit like the International Green Movement insofar as there’s no central authority telling who to do what.

But while the Greens regularly send MPs to parliaments all over the world, the American political system, wacky thing that it is, isn’t exactly keen on third parties. These days, it doesn’t seem too keen on doing anything, either, but that’s a discussion for another day (if not another blog). And it goes beyond the notion that Americans are just not “used to” the idea of a politician without a (D) or (R) next to his or her name, but the way in which the system works. You see, unlike in unitary polities, here in the good ol’ US of A you don’t really need one, national political party to be an effective national voice, but rather 50 state-level parties. So imagine how difficult it is to get some sort of organization up and running—think of the paperwork!—and multiply that by 50. This, of course, assumes that states will grant you ballot access in the first place, which, as Ryan told me, isn’t always a guarantee. Long delays in processing paperwork, “missing” paperwork, esoteric rules that not even Harvey Birdman could figure out, you name it. No, The Man isn’t working against the PPUS, it’s just that the political system in this country is so convoluted that it’s damn near impossible for someone to run an effective campaign unless they’re backed by one of the two big parties. (Read: you need money, and lots of it, to stand a chance. Just look at how Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York City.) It’s almost as if all political thought can be broken down into two, and only two, ways of thinking.

To the point, then: what does the PPUS want, and how does it plan to go about doing that? (You should have heard the passion in Glenn’s voice when he began to speak about this stuff!) It comes down to this: the PPUS is looking to reform the way we think about copyright and trademark in this country, while simultaneously bringing some transparency back the government. That’s it. To that end, it wants to elect as many local, state, and national politicians as it can. Who knows, in 10 years maybe you—yes, you!—can run for Congress in your local district, and try to modernize the ancient ways in which we imagine ownership.

The PPUS is a 100 percent legal, federally recognized political organization, one that’s funded entirely by “micro-donations,” as Ryan put it. There is no shadowy sugar daddy behind the curtain funding these guys. And money isn’t even the issue at this point. It’s early enough in the game that your time is just as valuable, if not more so, than your dollars. Do you have a legal background? Perhaps you’d like to donate your expertise to the party? Or maybe you have extensive experience in third-party politics, and know just what it takes to get on the ballot in New York or Florida or Indiana? By all means, send the party the party en e-mail and let them know what you know.

And if you’re wondering, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have contacted the PPUS. Not to take a peek at their platform and perhaps integrate a point or two, or to see how they can better articulate their positions (if they even have them!) vis-à-vis copyright in the year 2009. That’s to be expected, I guess, when you consider how much money certain entrenched interests give to the Democrats’ and Republicans’ campaigns. Is it “free speech” to donate money to a political candidate of your choosing? Absolutely, but I somehow doubt that when the framers were drafting the Constitution they thought there would ever be so much money being thrown around, pushing this interest over that one, smearing that idea over this idea.

And while we’re on the subject of who contacting whom: neither the RIAA nor the MPAA ever sent so much as a Christmas Card to the PPUS. Here I am, thinking that maybe someone at the RIAA would have the idea to contact the PPUS and say something like, “We look forward to a healthy and rigorous debate on the issues with you guys.” Not that the RIAA or MPAA are political parties (though they both seem to have an awful lot of influence over the two big parties), or course, but that maybe they’d have a working lunch one day and, in essence, shoot the shit. A sort of, “What do you think we’re doing wrong here, suing everyone under the sun for unlawfully humming Happy Birthday while on line at the Post Office?” Nope, as far as the RIAA and MPAA are concerned, the PPUS doesn’t exist. And if you don’t exist, you can’t possibly make any sort of impact on the national debate, which is music to the RIAA/MPAA’s ears. Fully licensed music, of course, with royalties that go not to the artist, but to the record label. America!

Getting into the specifics, just how could the PPUS change copyright in this country? First, we have to understand what copyright is before we can change it. In its most simplified form: when you create a work, you and your estate—right now, my estate consists of a 2006 era iMac and an Xbox 360—are fully entitled to all related monies for up to 50 years after your death. (It begins to complicate once you start involving other people, and copyright currently can be extended to as much as 120 years after the original creation.) Write a song today or play today, and you’re entitled to make money off it till 50 years after the day you die. To me that makes zero sense: why would I need to keep making money after I’m dead, to support my didn’t-even-earn-it progeny? (I have a weird relationship with money, I readily admit.) That time limit is pretty arbitrary, Glenn says, and should be lowered to something a little more reasonable. By all means, let the artist make his or her money, but after they’re gone we don’t need to keep paying his or her estate for dozens of years, and then see that time limit extended because some sympathetic congressman snuck a provision in an omnibus bill. Something that was initially designed to help out starving artists and promote good ol’ creativity has been bent and warped beyond all recognition. The system is broken, so let’s fix it.

I did ask Glenn where all of this is going. It’s one thing to call for change, and it’s another thing to actually bring it about. (See: this past presidential election.) And the PPUS is moving in the right direction: it’s about as organized as you can expect such a lightly funded, grassroots organization to be at this stage in the game. The long-term goal, obviously, is to elect PPUS members to national office, which is to say Congress. Considering how much it costs to run an election campaign, even at the congressional level, and considering how carefully etched out election districts are, and considering all the inherent advantages that incumbents have over challengers (and challengers from a “pirate party,” no less), and you understand why that’s not really a plausible scenario in the short term. What is entirely plausible, however: running for local school board.

Both Ryan and Glenn used the word “loophole” to describe the election of local school board members. That is, you don’t have to be a member of any party to run. In fact, party ID is totally irrelevant when it comes to school board elections. And you may be thinking to yourself, “What does a local school board have to do with copyright reform?” Anecdotally, I can say that it was brought to my attention that last year that my younger brother (age 12 at the time) had come home with an assignment from his computer class that ostensibly taught the Dos and Don’ts of using a computer. What was one of the most emphasized “Don’t”? That’s right, download music! No distinction was made between legal and illegal downloads, no effort was taken to actually teach anything even remotely related to copyright. Just the blanket statement: downloading music is bad, so don’t do it. Now, of course I don’t expect a teacher to get into issues of copyright, fair use, and whatnot in a class of 12-year-olds, but why not broach the subject in high school? I graduated high school in 2004, and the subject was never brought up. Why no take one or two days out of an economics class—really, what are you learning in high school economics beyond the demand curve and that communism means everybody is equal (which, I guess, is pure evil)?—and teach the kids about copyright law? If you’re a member of a school board, you very much have the opportunity to influence that kind of decision.

I guess I can end this long-winded nonsense with this: while the PPUS certainly stands for all the right things, it more than has its work cut out for it to “make it” in this political system. For better or worse, third-parties are just portrayed as being “odd” or, the phrase of the moment, “out of the mainstream.” As if your rights as a consumer are “out of the mainstream”! In a best case scenario, I see the PPUS playing the Ralph Nader (of the 1970s) role of forcing the candidates of the two major parties to at least broach the issues it believes in.