Friday, 9 April 2010

Almost a Pirate

Pirate Party LogoI've never joined a party before. I have considered becoming a member of a number of different ones previously, but something has always put me off. However, I believe I have now found one that suits me very well. I put in my application to join the Pirate Party this morning, and my membership is now pending approval. As the name of the party would suggest, the primary policies are concerned with copyright and related issues, but they also raise such important things such as drug patents and privacy of citizens against a powerful State. My support for this party isn't only as a result of the disgraceful Digital Economy Bill (DEB), but at the democratic process in Britain as a whole, and overall agreement with their polices. Unlike other parties, the Pirates don't have or intend to have Whips, and aside from the party policies on the areas outlined above, representatives are free to make up their own mind about issues and choose what they believe to be in the best interests of the British people. Just to clarify before I begin my ramblings, when I refer to 'Pirates' I'm talking about members of the party, not currently illegal copiers, etc.

To be accurate, it's probably more of a pressure group than a party, since it doesn't seek government nor does it have policies in a wide range of areas.

Before the DEB was passed, I would not have seen myself as someone particularly concerned with copyrights, downloading etc - I haven't deliberately downloaded any copyrighted material for a long time. Well, that's not quite true if you count listening to music on Youtube, or looking at images or files online that someone may have uploaded without owning the copyright to, but you can never tell with that one. Nuances aside, I haven't proactively sought to download media illegally for about 5 years now, when I used to occasionally use Peer to Peer software to grab music. However, seeing that our Government and the Opposition don't care about the people of Britain or even democratic discussion and scrutiny, I realised that we need a force of dedicated people to strongly counteract the influence of big media distribution companies. By gaining more members and funding, the party will be able to get its message out strongly, speaking up for the majority of people, and work towards having its policies adopted, or at least achieving a middle-ground between the party's views and the interests of big media corporations.

H'okay, now I'm going to launch into an analysis of the party's policies and stances, and why I support them. I'll work from the top of the manifesto downwards.First up is copyright law and patents. The Pirate Party argues that the laws in both of these fields are out of date, not fit for a modern, technological world, and in dire need of drastic changes. You may have heard of DRM - Digital Rights Management. It refers to a bloody annoying set of restrictions that media companies put onto disks or legal downloads to prevent you from moving it to a different format. So, if you buy a DVD, the disk might fight against software which tries to rip it to your PC, or if you download an album, it might refuse to be put onto your MP3 player. This is referred to as format shifting - moving data from one form of storage 0r file format to another. The Pirates pledge to give us a the right to change the format of media and copy it to different devices, which is currently against the law. Another freedom the party promises to give us is what they refer to as Time Shift, which boils down to recording TV programmes to watch later. I thought that we already had that right, but perhaps it does not apply to all programmes. I know from experience with my DVD recorder that some programmes don't allow me to burn them to DVD after I have recorded them - usually films - so I would presume that such restrictions would have to be removed under Pirate Party legislation.

The change in this ares that is most drastic - and will really raise the hackles of big media distribution companies - is the pledge of the party to give rights to people to share their files. Currently, unless released under a different license - such as Creative Commons -  or not copyrighted, it's illegal for me to copy a CD and then give it to someone else. Under Pirate plans, this would become legal. Unlike the draconian Digital Economy Bill, this would leave small-time file sharers like you and me (don't tell me you've never copied an album and given it to a friend) wouldn't get criminalised for sharing files purely for the sake of sharing, whilst those who make profit from copying and distributing  these copies would still be punishable by law. The manifesto also raises the issue of the length that copyright applies - they highlight that it originally only lasted for 14 years in total, but the time has progressively been increased to a whopping 70 years after the death of the author of the material. The party aims to slash this length of time back down to size by decreasing it to a total of 10 years. This, the party says, will encourage artists to continue to create new material, as well as making it easier for new artists to draw upon past work and change and build upon it without fear of men in black suits knocking at their door. This 10 year period is then split into a renewal after 5 years, which means that work an artist no longer wishes to keep copyrighted will then become licensed into the public domain, with no restrictions placed upon it. The party also aims to encourage open sourcing of software - where the source code is available to anyone who is interested, such as Firefox and OpenOffice - by allowing 10 years of copyright for it, and only 5 years for proprietary closed-source software. Finally, the party aims to prevent businesses re-copyrighting their material simply by moving it to a different format or changing something very minor about it.

I mentioned DRM earlier - those awful limitations that tell you what you can and can't do with media you've bought. To discourage companies from using it, and to make it clear to consumers that the product they're buying will dictate to them how it can be used, a law that clear warning labels must be placed on DRM-protected content will be enacted. This will let us choose whether or not to purchase it, and hopefully if sales are decreased by customers avoiding DRMed products, could result in more companies stopping using it on their products.

Finally on the subject of copyright, the party plans to make government data and BBC content to be free from copyright. They argue that taxpayers originally paid for the statistics and research carried out by the government, so we should have a right to see the data and information. You may have downloaded videos from the BBC's IPlayer website before, only to discover that your downloaded video file will not play after 30 days. This struck me as absolutely absurd for two reasons - the first being that I could record BBC programming on VHS, DVD, or other more newfangled technologies, and then be able to keep that recording indefinitely, so why bother imposing DRM on programmes downloaded from the website? I understand why they wouldn't want to leave all the programmes on their website forever, as it would take up a lot of space on their system, but once I've downloaded it to my PC, why does it matter to them for how long I can play it for? The second, and even more blood-boiling, reason is that we already paid for this content via license fees. The legendary Jeremy Paxman once likened the TV license fee to forcing people to pay a tax to Persil if they own a washing machine, but my hatred of the fee is best saved for another time. However, I see no reason that an organisation funded by us, the taxpayers, should have the right to dictate what we can do with programming that we paid for in the first place.

Now my blood has settled back down, I can continue. Not content with stopping at reforming copyright, the party also wants to make some big alterations to patent law. The party believes that patents are used on things which are too trivial, which then stifles innovation. A working prototype, rather than just a design, concept, or idea would be expected before a patent could be granted, and they would never be granted for such things as software, colours, and smells. I didn't know you could have a patent on colours - how absurd! Furthermore, the party also aims to give patent exemption for private not-for-profit use or academia.

[caption id="attachment_323" align="alignleft" width="195" caption="Drug patents are an important issue raised by the party, and an example that copyright and patents do matter."]Tablets[/caption]

A particular and very important problem with patents is also raised by the party, one that seems to be very little known. The Pirates raise concern about drug patenting, and say that the cost of buying patented drugs can prevent the NHS from buying them, and from other countries - especially poorer ones - purchasing them. Both of these, they say, can result in deaths. We've seen this highlighted occasionally in the news, when NICE has refused to purchase drugs because they were too expensive. The policy proposed to tackle this important issue is the total abolition of drugs patents and grants being provided to pharmaceutical companies for research purposes in its place. This may sound like yet more expense, but the cost to the NHS would be reduced if drugs are not patented and can therefore be bought for less due to competition between drugs companies.

In recent years, and especially with the passing of the anti-terror legislation in the early 2000s, we've seen the police gaining far greater powers. One of the common concerns raised about this increasing power of the police is the threat to privacy. The Pirate Party aims to tackle this by requiring police to get a warrant before being able to view or listen to someone's communications - eg, via telephone, email, or post. This becomes ever-more poignant at the moment, as the government is now looking to give the tax people the power to open our post! Whilst I recognise that the police must be able to tackle terrorism, we must ensure that the privacy of the vast majority of the law-abiding public is not threatened.

Another area raised by the party is the growing and largely uncontrolled use of CCTV. Personally, I don't have a problem with cameras, but I must admit I do feel a bit uncomfortable if a camera is directly watching me, and there very valid concerns that CCTV may one day not be used for their intended purposes. That's why the party says we need laws to outline what acceptable use of CCTV is. They also propose setting up a database, overseen by the independent Information Commissioner, which would contain details of where CCTV is, and contact details for the data controller of the cameras. The Pirates also raise the point made by other groups, and something I think we can all agree on - cameras should never be used as a replacement to police on the streets. The final point the manifesto raises about CCTV is perhaps the most common sense one; they say that all cameras should be clearly marked and visible. Aside from the benefits of people being aware of where the cameras are, it is more likely to deter crime if criminals know they are being recorded or watched. Rather than hiding them and then using the footage to punish those we catch, we ought be using cameras to help deter crime in the first place. Similar occurred with speed cameras when they began to be introduced - there was a debate over whether to hide them and catch speeders unaware, or make them visible so people slow down to avoid getting caught. Hiding them serves little purpose other than making money, where as people slowing down to avoiding being fined could save lives. However by hiding CCTV cameras I would be concerned that criminals would then simply find areas where there is no camera coverage, as they would be able to see clearly where they are placed, and how to avoid their gaze.

Finally, I want to talk briefly about why I support the party on its democratic principles. If you've read my previous, enraged article about the Digital Economy Bill, you'll know that I now despise Party Whips. To me, it is contemptible that MPs are told how to vote by the top brass in their party, and have to put aside their morals and the interests of the public to follow the party line or risk the wrath of the whips (Maybe a bit like this). Well, then it's a good thing that the Pirate Party is whipless. Aside from the policies in the areas outlined above, members are able to choose their own stance on issues, and if elected, vote with their own conscience and in a way they feel best represents their constituents, rather than the way the Malcolm Tuckers of the world told them to. The party also gives a resounding 'No' to lobbyists - it refuses to be influenced by the money of business or pressure groups, which is a nice breath of fresh air. Finally, the items in the manifesto were discussed and approved democratically on the party's forums - what could be nicer than members of the party being asked for their opinions on the policies, and being able to have an influence over them?

Realistically, you're not likely to see any Pirate MPs winning a seat at the next election, but if they can raise awareness of the issues, and bang the current MP in their constituencies to rights over their failure(s), then they've at least managed to do some good. The party provides a great contrast to the politics of most parties - especially Labservative. After years of wandering through a very harsh desert, I feel that I may have finally found my little oasis in the form of the Pirate Party. They're not just some lonely little party - there are Pirate Parties throughout Europe, and even two representatives from the Swedish Pirates sit in the European Parliament.

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