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The End of the Pirate Movement

So says Sam Sundberg. Peter Sunde disagrees.

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'Just got home from a photo shoot with Wired the day after my interview with the Observer. The Pirate Bay is bigger than ever', tweets Peter Sunde. But Sam Sundberg doesn't agree. Sundberg tells the story of the rise and fall of the Pirate movement in SvD's Sunday edition.

A lot has happened since the verdict against the TPB gang in the district court. Back then the revolution was around the corner; now there are few signs of life. The appeals trial begins this week.

Anna Troberg takes off her rucksack, sinks into a leather sofa, sighs deeply. She's wearing black.

'I have to admit it's heavy', she says.

It's the day after the elections, a dismal day for many Swedes. It feels even worse for the vice chairman of the Pirate Party. Just over a year ago the pirates toasted in champagne at their mandate in the European parliament. They got over 7% of the vote. At yesterday's election party there were entirely different results. 0.65% - nine out of ten supporters abandoned them.

'It's not that we weren't prepared. We'd seen the polls. But I didn't think things would be this bad.'

We're in the Espresso House near the central train station in Stockholm. The unofficial HQ of the Pirate Party. The party's leadership meet here on Tuesdays and will do so this week as well. They're going to talk about what went wrong, how they can get back on track, how they can get people interested in their issues again. There's one thing they don't dare say.

The pirate movement is dead.

They had a storm in their sails during the EU election campaign. The controversial FRA law that permits signals surveillance of Internet and telephony traffic came into effect on 1 January and became the start of a debate that continued to escalate all the way to election day. Opponents of the law - and of them many a pirate supporter - formed already in the autumn of 2008 into a blog network that had such an influence in the debate that the term 'blogquake' was coined.

In the run-up to the TPB trial in February where Peter Sunde, Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, and Carl Lundström stood in the dock, the media were full of articles about file sharing in general and The Pirate Bay in particular. Interest was not limited to Sweden: international sources such as Wired, Vanity Fair, the Guardian, and the New York Times had already written a lot about the Swedish pirates. The pirate blogs set the agenda and the journalists strung along. How could they resist when articles on The Pirate Bay generated hundreds of comments?

The Pirate Party used every opportunity during the trial to propagate for their cause and the inventive individuals in the Pirate Bureau think tank announced that they would use a magic formula to transform the trial into a theater performance they called Spectrial where all parties were actors. The metaphor didn't seem far fetched for the courtroom audience. The trial was full of a reciprocal disdain between plaintiffs and defendants. And Gottfrid Svartholm Warg added to it with outbursts such as 'that old guy is bonkers' when the TT news agency asked him to comment on the prosecution's estimate of their millions in profit.

The trial took nearly three weeks. The verdict didn't come immediately. But the media never cooled down. IPRED came into effect 1 April and private parties now had new opportunities to hunt file sharers. IPRED was a law almost as despised as the FRA law in pirate circles and it was discussed intensively in the media, on the radio, on the television, and on Internet-based channels. Leading pirates were seldom seen without an entourage of journalists. They were fully aware the election campaign started already during the fight over the FRA law and now they were determined to ride on the wave right into the European parliament.

And then came the verdict: one year imprisonment for each and $3 million in damages. It came as a shock for many TPB supporters. The Pirate Party held demonstrations the day after in several cities. The party that got 0.63% of the vote in the 2006 national elections mobilised thousands and grew by 9,000 members in two days.

The Pirate Party could march right into Brussels when the other parties finally began their campaigns. The results gave them 7.1% of the vote and sent Christian Engström to the EU parliament. This was the culmination of a half year's intensive debate on copyright and file sharing - and the beginning of the end for the Pirate Party.

'File sharing hasn't decreased but the pirate movement disbursed', says Netopia's Per Strömbäck. 'Pirate symbolism has played out its role. The idea that everything on the Internet would be free led nowhere.'

Netopia is a lobby website that opened in February of this year. It's financed by copyright organisations such as IFPI, the computer games sector, and movie and television producers.

Strömbäck's opinion seems likely, considering the media calm today around copyright and file sharing. But what exactly ended the pirate movement?

There are many factors. One of the worst was the strange affair with Global Gaming Factory X who were supposed to acquire The Pirate Bay for $6 million.

But what were they supposed to buy?

The Pirate Bay has been many things over the years. It started as a small torrent tracker, a server that brought Swedish file sharers together through a project started by the Pirate Bureau. Soon it became a website of its own with search capabilities, then an enormous torrent library and a tracker that grew to be the biggest in the world. The website has long been one of the top 100 trafficked websites in the world. At time of writing it's #94 according to Alexa - between the New York Times and eBay UK. It's still the biggest Swedish website in the world and for Swedish surfers is #22, right ahead of SvD.

It seems natural that such a popular website would be an attractive investment. But the hitch is it's difficult to make a legitimate business out of the website's operations. And it soon turned out the buyer wasn't legitimate and the acquisition never happened. Yet the damage had already been done. Supporters who'd seen The Pirate Bay as an ideological North Star roared out their disappointment in blog comments and posted clips at YouTube where they burned their TPB t-shirts.

'The freedom of speech idealists turned out to be greedy people who wanted to make millions. The rebel image suffered a fatal blow', says Per Strömbäck.

The TPB crew have been blown all over the face of the earth since then. Neij moved to Thailand, Sunde to Berlin, Svartholm to Cambodia, Lundström to Switzerland. None of them want to talk about file sharing anymore. Peter Sunde professed his support for the Swedish green party and today runs a fully legitimate Internet project called Flattr.

The fall of the pirate movement can't be completely blamed on the failed sale of The Pirate Bay. Spotify has in recent years become popular with those who used to download MP3s. Spotify streams music as users listen; they never have to store the tracks on their hard drives. This gives them continual access to an enormous library of music whilst the recording companies earn their money through advertising and subscriptions. Spotify has been heralded especially in political circles as an example of how market players can themselves solve the 'pirate problem' if they can create sufficiently clever business models.

Pirate Bureau founder Rasmus Fleischer says Spotify is a recognition from the recording industry that an important change has already taken place.

'They didn't want to admit it before. But Spotify doesn't solve the problems with copyright that file sharing brought to the fore. If anything, Spotify means profits for the record companies. Which in turn means they will again control consumption, they'll be sitting on user statistics and be able to feed them with marketing.'

The Pirate Bureau was founded in 2003 to spread information about file sharing and to debate copyright. But already in 2007 they buried the file sharing issue symbolically and burned a copy of their own book 'Copy Me'. They experienced a renaissance during the TPB trial but website visitors since June of this year are met by the words 'closed for reflection'.

'The Pirate Bureau was just a name that functioned as a battering ram to bring attention to a conflict. But step by step we realised the pirate concept hurts more than helps. We've no need for it anymore today. We've reformed into different groups such as the Julia Group and Telecomix.'


Author Unni Drougge was drawn to the pirate movement during the TPB trial. She published one of her audio books on The Pirate Bay and spoke at a number of manifestations. Her take is that the pirate movement was overexposed last spring and the media grew tired of it.

'The pirate movement was white hot when the verdict came. It was an attack on people's lifestyle. But the Pirate Party is a young motley party who couldn't get themselves together into a streamlined political profile. Personally I think it would have been better if they'd not campaigned in the national elections and instead pushed issues about Internet culture. The movement is about sharing, democracy, and open networking. It's still big and powerful.'

Whilst the Pirate Bureau dissolved and The Pirate Bay became one file sharing site of many, the Pirate Party stand alone today, waving their pirate flag. But things are happening even there. Supporters are more often talking about integrity and civil rights than they are about copyright and file sharing. Many supporters think they should change their name and Anna Troberg says it might be time to distance oneself from the pirate metaphor.

'I don't want to change the party's name. Many people identify themselves with it. We're pirates! But we talk a lot about boats and ships and when we worked with our election manifesto we called them sea charts. And you finally start to think: what are we doing? This is an election manifesto for goodness' sake - why can't we call it that?'

She's not ready to throw in the towel yet. On the contrary: she can still get properly fired up on the day after when so many former supporters turned their backs in the national elections.

'Unfortunately it might have to get worse with surveillance and the struggle for personal integrity for people to understand how serious these issues are. The situation's worse now. If we ever thought about giving up, this is not the time.'

The appeals trial of The Pirate Bay will give the Pirate Party an opportunity to regroup and try to whip up opinion. But the approaching trial has not yet caused any blogquakes that could revive the movement. File sharing continues unabated but the idealogically laden symbol of The Pirate Bay remains only as a piece at the Technical Museum.

Per Strömbäck's convinced there'll be no social trauma when the verdict comes.

'No one will be upset when they uphold the district court verdict. This time they'll only shrug their shoulders.'

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