A pirate's life
Dateline Hamilton – Bruce Kingsbury is in a shed full of children. They are tapping away at Facebook and free games on a mix of machines with an average age of about 8, the same as the children.
Kingsbury stood in Hamilton East for the New Zealand arm of the Pirate Party at the last general election. He didn’t have much to spend – only $50 on photocopying. Some people came down from Auckland, delivered some fliers and stood on a roundabout for three hours waving signs before going back to his place for a barbecue.
He says the party is badly organised and full of geeks. There is no problem getting a website redesigned or getting mail server up, but the grunt work of signing up strangers in a shopping mall is beyond many.
‘‘We are not 'people’ people,’’ he says.
He doesn’t like campaigning much. He loses his train of thought when he speaks in public, and he stutters. He got 137 votes: about 100 less than the disintegrating ACT party.
Dateline Europe, February this year – In 200 cities, thousands turn out to protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, an international pact firming up the enforcement of copyright and patent laws. In Germany, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, governments have already backed down and put it on hold.
The German Pirate Party, determined to liberalise internet copyright laws, has won seats in local and state elections.
Its leader is Sebastian Nerz, a jolly, 28-year-old computer programmer who readily admits the party members don’t have any idea how to solve the Greek economic crisis or much of anything else. Mostly, they just want to download things for free.
Polls indicate 10 per cent of the German nation will vote for them.
From its launch in Sweden, the Pirate Party has now spread around the world. As well as its success in Germany, it holds local body seats in Austria, Spain,
Switzerland and the Czech Republic, and Sweden elected two members to the European Parliament.
In New Zealand, it’s struggling to get the 500 registered members it needs to stand people on a party list.
Kingsbury and Wellington Central candidate Gynn Rickerby had to stand in electorate seats in 2011, gathering just 277 votes in the capital, about the same as NZ First.
All around the world, the Pirates want roughly the same thing: for people to be able to share things, be it games, movies or music, over the internet without fear of prosecution. They also want a loosening up of patent law, but it is the file sharing that has got attention and earned the ire of what the pirates call the copyright industry.
Its representatives to the fore here are the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand(RIANZ). Both say it’s only fair that artists of various kinds get paid for the work they do, instead of having it ripped off by geeks.
Kingsbury says the argument is false. ‘‘The bottom line is people have been copying stuff for a long time and it hasn’t
killed those industries.
‘‘They say it costs them dozens of billions [of dollars] based on the assumption that every time someone takes something, they would otherwise have bought it. That’s not a statistic we agree with,’’ he says.
There is a pirate utopia. In Switzerland, he says, peer-to-peer noncommercial copying is not restricted by copyright law.
‘‘They reviewed it at the insistence of the American copyright industry and came to the conclusion it didn’t cut into profits. The people sharing were not the same people who would have gone out and bought the CD. Or to some extent, it offsets. They give a copy to their friends and their friends become a fanand go to the concert.’’
Alook at who is voting for the German Pirates showed a youthful skew andrevealed that many would not vote at all if the Pirate Party did not exist.
In New Zealand, the Young Pirates is the party’s youth wing, open to people up to 30. Northcote College student and software developer Zarek Jenkinson, 15, has been in charge for a month, because no-one else wanted to do it.
Jenkinson says the Young Pirates are focused at the University of Waikato, where his friends are studying for software engineering degrees. It’s early days and they haven’t tried much recruiting yet. Right now, they have about 20 members.
He agrees with RIANZ that copyright holders should be paid for their work, but believes more than a 10-year term for copyright prevents creative expression.
‘‘Having copyright that long means you aren’t able to remix it and modify it and publish the modified version.’’
He dismisses claims that people are simply making bootlegged versions of popular media for their mates, rather than adding to it with their own creativity.
‘‘I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe only a small minority are doing that.’’
Jenkinson and Kingsbury might be thought to be a good fit for the Greens, a party with 14 MPs already in Parliament. It has a youthful image, a history of defending internet freedoms and a reputation for at least being conversant with computer tech.
Kingsbury says New Zealand Pirates had an online meeting about that.
‘‘We share a lot with the Greens, but there is also a lot that doesn’t cross over. Some of our members don’t agree with a lot of the other stuff the Greens do.’’
He is confident the Pirates will get 500 members by the end of this year and thinks the party has a realistic chance of getting over the 5 per cent threshold needed to win a seat in Parliament.
Others, such as Dr Alan Simpson, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Waikato, don’t share that view.
‘‘To succeed in politics, you need a core idea and to get traction for that,’’ he says. ‘‘Then you need to build on that so you do become a broader entity. The Greens have done that, but it’s hard to see it happening around IT issues.’’
The lack of massive demonstrations against the restrictive copyright laws introduced in New Zealand last year does not mean we are apathetic, he says. It simply means that our priorities are elsewhere.
‘‘I think we are fired up in different areas. Look at the environmental concerns.We have had our issues and gone to town on them.’’
There are wildcards in the pack. TheGerman Pirate Party is reaching out beyond its base to advocate free public transport. The Kiwi Pirates want a mreview of the privacy act and the searchand- surveillance bill. Simpson concedes an exoneration of tech-martyr Kim Dotcom here may put wind in the Pirates’ sails.
Further inept and heavy-handed internet legislation, such as last year’s Copyright (Infringing File-Sharing) Act, won’t hurt. The act will be forever known as the ‘‘Skynet Law’’, after the Minister of Broadcasting at the time, Jonathan Coleman, likened the internet to a worlddestroying computer network of that name featured in a Hollywood movie.
It was a statement emblematic of the mlaw. Among other things, it alarmed civil libertarians, ignored better solutions and left large-scale content thieves laughing.
Best of all for the pirates, it was easily painted as being for the sole benefit of rich and powerful overseas interests.
More such political gifts may be in the pipeline as governments struggle with policing the new electronic high seas.
Simpson allows that they could reveal and energise a hidden constituency, even here.
‘‘It’s early days in all of this,’’ he says.
Kingsbury thinks he would probably be No 1 on the party’s list if there were an election tomorrow.
‘‘I’m not sure my wife would let me, though. I don’t think she likes me being this involved in the party.
‘‘It can be stressful and I don’t copewith stress well. It’s crazy. I really careabout the technology, but I really can’t handle the stress, so I’m stuck.’’
All through the computer shed at the Te Whare o Te Ata community house,there are children in varying sizes from hip to shoulder, skittering about its floor.
Kingsbury corrals them fluidly, encouraging and shushing and tapping out shortcuts. The computers are E-day offloads, working fine but not the usual fashion.
The children are the same. They are all from surrounding Fairfield and almost none have a computer or the internet, or often a home phone at all. The software is free and so is his help.
‘‘The original idea was to set up a very cheap computer lab and work towards teaching basic computer skills. My goal was to teach adults, but that didn’t really happen.
‘‘I ended up having a whole lot of kids wanting to come in after school,’’ he says.
‘‘It turned out to be quite fun.’’