The first major project launched by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) this autumn consists of two lectures under the shared heading ”The Articulation of Protest”. The first speaker was Rasmus Fleischer from the now non-operational or hibernating Swedish organisation Piratbyrån (“The Pirate Bureau”).
Fleischer’s voice has been clearly heard in the discussion about sterner control and protection of copyrighted materials. In addition to publishing books and articles – including Det postdigitala manifestet (“The Post-Digital Manifesto”) from 2009 – he is also known as one of the founders of the Swedish think tank Piratbyrån, which was active from 2003 to 2010. Today, the website www.piratbyran.org only shows a sign bearing the legend “Stängt för eftertanke” (“Closed for Contemplation”).
Fleischer describes Piratbyrån as a conversation in an institutional form; a kind of casing for interventions within the realms of politics, art, and media technology. Piratbyrån was formed as a protest against the increasing anti-piracy efforts that emerged in the early 2000s and may be best known for creating the bit torrent website The Pirate Bay in the autumn of 2003. The Pirate Bay grew into the world’s largest file sharing site. Piratbyrån was wound up in 2010 in the wake of the trial against The Pirate Bay.
What was the point of departure for your talk at OCA?
I wanted to look at the history of Piratbyrån in relation to the history of the Internet. How has the new millennium and major events shaped the Internet we have today? I also wanted to consider the opportunities for web politics and web critique available today – as well as how radical web politics have developed and grown from the days of the dotcom bubble to the present day.
What motives lay behind the creation of The Pirate Bay?
The first bit torrent trackers arrived in 2002, so The Pirate Bay was quite an early mover when it was launched in 2003. At first we operated on a very small scale, mainly in Sweden. The site only really began to grow after some of the large file sharing sites in the USA were forced to cease operation. The objective was never to be such a central locus; rather, we aimed to be copied. What we wanted to achieve was not to have all online file sharing take place via us; rather, we wanted file sharing to blossom and give rise to a plethora of different websites aimed at niche audiences. Also, The Pirate Bay was concerned with openness and transparency about what went on. It was important to make the positions clear to demonstrate that people need not be anxious or afraid.
Would it be accurate to regard The Pirate Bay as a form of political activism?
Yes, but gradually The Pirate Bay also – quite unintentionally – took on a symbolic function. This was very much the result of the raid against the website in 2006. Up until this point we had seen that when file-sharing networks were shut down they would not return, or they would resume operation under a different name. But here, three days after the Swedish police shut down The Pirate Bay the website was up and running again under the same name. This helped give The Pirate Bay a very strong symbolic position and also made it a central node in the online infrastructure in purely physical terms. At some point almost half of all Internet traffic in the world was mediated through The Pirate Bay.
Was copyright protection already growing stronger when you set up The Pirate Bay?
Sweden implemented stronger legislation from an EU Directive in 2005. However, we at the Piratbyrån have always tried to make the point that the law is not as binary in nature as some would have you believe. The copyright laws were never entirely clear. Copyright legislation is in a state of permanent crisis and this is evident in the ever-increasing proliferation of gray areas. One example is the distinction between the public and private spheres. How public can file sharing be before it becomes an object of legislation? It is very difficult to draw such lines in data networks. When The Pirate Bay does not take part in the actual distribution of files, but only mediates links for such distribution, that too is a legal grey area. What we are seeing now is that the legislation has been adjusted so that such links are also considered illegal.
When copyright is discussed, the issue is often portrayed as a conflict between greedy entertainment corporations and equally greedy consumers who won’t pay for the products they consume. Does this eclipse the true heart of the matter?
We always thought it was problematic how this issue is reduced to a matter of getting access to entertainment materials. The technology can be used for other purposes, too. Today, the central issue is not one of accessing copyrighted material, but about our infrastructure for utilising all kinds of information. That is part of the reason why Piratbyrån no longer feels relevant: piracy no longer takes centre stage; now that slot belongs to the infrastructure in its entirety. A kind of shift occurred in Sweden in 2007-2008. Up until that point the record companies had clung desperately to their traditional ways of making money, but then they began to investigate new business models. Suddenly the commercial interests also began to exploit this idea of unlimited access, supplying a variety of streaming services that can be said to satisfy the same needs as file sharing – provided that you regard file sharing as simply another consumption technology. At that point it became important for us to emphasise that the potential we see in these file sharing networks is not as a means for maximising consumption. Rather, they represent an infrastructure that can be used to build selective, curatorial structures where users join up to make specific selections from this overabundance of options – instead of simply being met with a search field where you type in what you want and get it. The current commercial centralisation of the Internet – which gathered momentum by usurping a kind of enthusiasm previously mainly found among radical, anti-commercial forces – has caused much online social interaction to segue into social media such as Twitter and Facebook. It has become almost impossible to trace collective interaction backwards in time, for these media have been systematically built in a manner that does not allow access to the back history. Instead, you are prompted to click ahead, to see what is happening now, in this instant. That is why there is such a need for connecting the fast media to slower media. As long as they cannot be connected to collective memory devices they do not allow collective phenomena to emerge, leaving us with a mere culture of distraction. What we need to do is to build more alternative settings where such conversations can be had. They can be based online, but they can also be based in physical space.
And this is the post-digital scenario?
What you might call “post-digital” is a trend that is evident in radical web politics in several ways. Many web activists have helped build hackspaces, i.e. physical spaces for experimenting with technology and for teaching encryption and anonymisation and ways of using the Internet other than those envisioned by Facebook and Apple. It certainly says something about a shift towards the post-digital world when hackers begin to see a need for meeting physically, in real life. If we are to infer any political conclusions from the post-digital manifesto I suppose that it suggests that the challenges we face in relation to Internet won’t be resolved online; they will depend on control of the physical public space. The post-digital manifesto points in this direction – from the web to the city space.
Are there any practical and ideological links between Piratbyrån and Piratpartiet (“The Pirate Party”)?
Piratbyrån never engaged in party politics, but we would put ideas out there and try to have them taken on board and copied. We were not concerned with who picked up on the ideas; they were adopted by people aligned with both sides of the political spectrum in Sweden. However, the most substantial act of political copying was the founding of Piratpartiet (“The Pirate Party”) in early 2006. We had no idea about who these people were, but they claimed to be basing their work on what we were doing. So suddenly we not only had Piratbyrån and The Pirate Bay, but also Piratpartiet. Our feelings towards this were somewhat mixed, for we did not wish to become embroiled in party politics ourselves. So we elected to maintain a certain distance to Piratpartiet. However, at the same time this was part of the objective of our political work: getting copied. Copying as an activity was a central aspect of everything we did.
Is there any way of protecting commercial interests without also making a break with important legal and ideological principles?
Such ways can be found within individual modes of cultural expression. Piratbyrån endeavoured to move away from generalised solutions where you try to find a single model that applies to all kinds of artistic enterprise. No such model exists. To the extent that certain types of institution merit protection, such protection can only be effected by taking one’s starting point in the specific preconditions determined by the various art forms. The preconditions for different art forms differ greatly as far as the digital realm is concerned. To us the main question has never been the issue of whether intellectual property right laws should exist or not. Rather than discussing how it may be modernised we have always been more interested in how it can be ignored.
Is there an anarchistic programme at the heart of this?
I myself do not identify with the concept of anarchism, but nor do I distance myself from it. I think that the permanent crisis of copyright is inextricably linked to the permanent crisis of capitalism; a crisis we are facing right now. This is about constructs and structures that cannot be repaired. Constructs that are about to break down. The legal grey areas will multiply rather than fade away. This situation is not handled by asking what should replace our current laws. Rather, we should take our starting point in specific art forms and forms of culture, ask what we really want to protect, and then try to find solutions that safeguard those values. We are facing a long process of coming up with new alternatives. We cannot sit down and draw up a plan for a post-capitalist society. Nor can we make a plan for post-copyright culture. These are difficult processes that can fail and founder in many ways. But we must try as best we can to develop something that works.
Translation from the Norwegian by René Lauritsen.