The four people charged with breaching copyright laws in the trial against the Pirate Bay received a tough verdict in Stockholm. What do revolutionaries say about file-sharing and the downloading of music and movies? How do we make sure that the working class gets access to culture?
Also available in Swedish.
The court followed the claims from the record and movie companies: The four defendants got one year in prison each, and will have to pay a damages to the tune of 30 million Swedish kronor (£2,500 000) – a staggering £6 per song that’s been downloaded through Pirate Bay.
It’s more than obvious that a substantial majority of Sweden’s youth support the legalization of file-sharing. Most couldn’t care less about the record industry’s attempts to limit illegal file-sharing. The motto is “sharing is caring”, and all political youth organisations – including the right-wing ones who just a couple of years ago told us how much they love private property – claim to support a legalization of file-sharing for personal use. Following the verdict, the pro-file-sharing Pirate Party has grown enormously, and their youth group, Young Pirates, now claim to be the third* largest political youth organisation. (*correction)
One shouldn’t, however, be carried away by the “file-sharing movement”. It’s true that demonstrations have been organised in several Swedish cities, and that the blogosphere is brimming with harsh attacks on the copyright lobby – but the will to continue downloading music for free doesn’t necessarily translate to any other kind of political activism.
The defendants – three young guys and one older man, Carl Lundström – are portrayed as young rebels, bravely taking on the record industry in the struggle for new technology. That image is only partly true. The driving forces behind Pirate Bay are rather tech nerds and entrepreneurs than rebels. The questions of everyone’s access to culture and cultural policies are of subordinate importance in the debate on file-sharing. First and foremost, the debate is about what technical solutions capitalism should make use of to distribute culture, like music and movies.
This is obvious in the trial’s aftermath: paid services aimed at getting around the IPRED law (a privacy-infringing, anti-file-sharing EU legislation) are already in launch, and a flood of customers have gone over to up-and-coming ISP’s who promise not to give out their customers’ details to the record industry in the case of further trials. Even if the major ISP’s claim to support the legislation against file-sharing, there’s no doubt that they make a lot of money from it – if it wasn’t for file-sharing, why would anyone want to pay for super fast broadband connections? Sony serves as a good illustration of the frictions between different capitalist strategies when they, as a record company, put file-sharers on trial – and as a manufacturer of MP3 players make good money from selling products people can play the illegally downloaded music on.
Some companies make money by adjusting themselves to new, more efficient ways of doing business, while others desperately try to fight technological progress. This is an intra-capitalist rift. The record industry’s war on file-sharing also illustrates why capitalism is no longer an efficient system. Using threats of legal action and artificial technological barriers they’re forcing people to buy CD discs instead of just downloading music, even though, from a customer’s viewpoint, downloading is a far easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly method of doing things. But there’s no money in downloading.
So why do young people turn to file-sharing? There are a couple of reasons. Music and movies have become increasingly expensive. A CD might cost up to £15, a lot of money if you’re a student with only so much money to make it through the month, or a young unemployed worker who struggle to pay the bills and rent. Another reason is the commercial strangle hold on culture. Standardized, slimmed down music is taking up more and more space in the cultural sphere. When it comes to movies, we get to choose between different versions of the same story: the one where US imperialism is the world’s saviour, where cops are smart, friendly and always get the bad guys, and so on. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, and commercial pop music or action-packed movies is not an evil thing by itself – it’s when there’s no space left for anything else that things get problematic. That’s when you’ll get a lot of people looking to other forums to find music or movies that swim against the stream, trying to find culture that speaks to us and that we can relate to.
The fact that the debate on file-sharing is largely concerned with different capitalist solutions to the issue of copyright law does not make us, as Communists, neutral on this question. We support a full legalization of file-sharing, and we oppose the verdict against the Pirate Bay, even though the scapegoats are a bunch of neo-liberals. (Or, as in the case of Carl Lundström, charged with providing financial support for the Pirate Bay: a well-known figure on the Swedish extreme right. The inheritor of a large bread company, he’s been notorious in financing different racist endeavors over the years.) But the struggle doesn’t end there. The real question is that about how to improve the cultural life, and how to make culture accessible for everyone.
The “quality” of culture in a bourgeois society determined by the class struggle. When bourgeois ideas are predominant in media and the society at large, we’ll get a lot of movies and music telling us that things are fine the way they are and that there’s no point in trying to change things. They want us to leave us with the opportunity of getting drunk at the end of a long work week or hoping for the great love waiting around the corner and the happy, bourgeois nuclear family that awaits us after that. If the situation were different, if the position of the working class is moved forward in the class struggle, the mode of cultural expression will also be different. Some culture created by working class musicians and writers still in touch with the roots is already present today.
A legalization of file-sharing is one step forward in making culture accessible to everyone. One solution could be a state owned, legal download service run by the people who write the songs themselves. But the working class needs to be given the means to participate in cultural work too. There needs to be more venues in working class areas for the playing of musical instruments, the staging of theater plays, band rehearsals and so on. The culture being created today needs to be brought into the lives of the working class, the one class that can make it truly alive. The cultural workers need to get out of their closed circles and get out to the workplaces, the schools and the communities. Only then can we create good culture.
Another cultural demand is the need for increased grants to artists and cultural workers. The Swedish right-wing government have launched an onslaught on the entire cultural sphere in society. They’d rather see all kinds of human expression, such as singing, dance and writing, kept in a middle and upper class only reserve. On the contrary, we demand that more ordinary people are given the financial means to work on their artistic expressions. Such a system could be run by the organisations of the cultural workers themselves. The capitalists will defend themselves with their favourite old saying: that “there’s no money”. It’s a rant that’s become even more popular with the current financial crisis. But we remember the years of enormous financial growth and the massive payouts to the fat cats. The workers, who continue to create the wealth the upper class then lay their hands on, need to demand that the bosses pay the losses. A state financed pay scheme for cultural workers is possible, if funded by massive taxations of the rich.
In the run-up to the EU elections, a lot of young people in Sweden turn to the Pirate Party. And everyone’s access to culture is indeed an important issue. But lacking a socialist viewpoint on culture, an ideology, single issue parties such as the Pirate party will never be able to change any of the underlying facts of capitalist society. They might be able to push through a change of the copyright laws, but as long as capitalism is allowed to exist it will put up even more obstacles on the path to everyone’s free access to culture on equal terms.
The concept of copyright is dead, and we support the struggle against capitalists who desperately try to resurrect its corpse. But the struggle goes on – for a socialist view on culture, against the capitalists who try to keep culture out of the hands of the working class.