Stallman, the Swedish Pirate Party, and copyleft
A few days ago, Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation published an op-ed to the GNU project's website, in which he criticized the copyright views of the Swedish Pirate Party, which had recently succeeded in its endeavor to get a seat in Brussels' European Parliament a few months back. His main consternation with the PP's goal of shortening the shelf life of copyright to just 5 years was that no exception has been vocally made by the party for the large body of free, libre and/or open source software (FLOSS) for which Stallman has served as a longtime ideological advocate; such software, which are licensed to allow for unencumbered, unfettered redistribution, modification and even commercialization (provided that the license granting such freedoms remains attached and intact when redistributed), have become increasingly popular in many sectors, including homes, schools and businesses due to their effective turning of the more familiar proprietary model of intellectual property law upon its head.
However, this ideological split between a leading advocate of the spread of such freedoms, also known as "copyleft", and a rather small, young, populist outfit from Sweden reveals a much deeper rupture of ideological idiosyncracies that harkens back to the roots of the related, but separate struggles which are pursued by the two groups.
Richard Stallman (or "rms"), a Massachusetts-based software programmer, found his initial bearings within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "hacker" subculture in the 1970's; contrary to our modern concept of a hacker as an antisocial trespasser who breaks into computer networks for any purpose, the hacker of the 1970s was a programmer who modified and functionally extended previously-published software for his or her own use and pleasure (akin to another modern concept, the "hack", which shows a lack of inelegance or originality, but instead uses the "shoulders" of others to create a modification that was not previously available but is otherwise very useful to a wider number of users). The subculture, which thrived in the wake of the 60's hippie subculture, promoted a do-it-yourself/learn-from-your-neighbor attitude amongst its denizens, in which the knowledge to modify and extend the functionality of usually-proprietary computer software was publicly and mutually disseminated. However, Stallman also witnessed and protested the decline of MIT's hacker subculture in the late 1970s as software publishers became more proactive in preventing the capability of third parties to redistribute and modify copies of their stringently-licensed software and their closely-guarded source code (the software programming concept of recipes in the culinary arts). After a momentous falling out with an MIT-based software startup, Stallman resigned from the institute in 1984, around the time when he announced his GNU project to mailing lists on ARPANET (the predecessor of the modern-day Internet); by 1985, Stallman had outlined his motivations for creating an operating system from scratch, one that would be both compatible with AT&T's Unix operating system and licensed under "copyleft" stipulations that ensured that such-licensed software could be freely redistributed, modified and commercialized on a perpetually mutual basis. The same year, Stallman launched the Free Software Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group and think tank for his increasingly-popular definition of software freedom, but his GNU ("GNU's Not Unix") operating system would languish in usage until 1991, when a Finnish computer science engineer by the name of Linus Torvalds began a project to create a kernel, or the very heart of an operating system. Following the combination of GNU with the Linux kernel, the free software movement was in full swing, amassing greater mindshare and greater ideological diversity throughout the 1990s and 2000s and resulting in the proliferation of free/open source software applications such as Firefox, Linux, Blender, Apache, Drupal and OpenOffice.org, but Richard Stallman has remained a stalwart advocate of the FSF's "software freedom" and computer privacy, drawing strength from the semi-libertarian traditions of his hacker roots.
The Pirate Party of Sweden, however, arises out of more recent, more media-related circumstances. In 2003, Rasmus Fleischer, a Halmsted-born historian and musician, took part in the foundation of Piratbyrån ("Pirate Bureau"), a think tank that sought to improve the image of the controversial but popular and proliferating peer-to-peer file sharing networks and applications which had launched in the wake of the 2001 Napster trial in the United States; the same year, The Pirate Bay, a web-based index of hyperlinks to torrents, or files which download other, larger files through a decentralized network known as BitTorrent, was launched by members of the Piratbyrån. The Pirate Bay, which enjoyed immense popularity among both downloaders and uploaders of films, television series, books and software, became increasingly tangled with legal threats from a large number of corporations, most of whom accused The Pirate Bay of copyright infringement and depriving the corporations of the distribution monopoly to which they were entitled by intellectual property law; in early 2006, IT entrepreneur and former Microsoft employee Richard Falkvinge decided to harness the increasing public consciousness of file sharing by launching the amusingly-named Pirate Party, which advocates copyright reform through parliamentary legislation. While the Pirate Party is not associated with The Pirate Bay or Piratbyrån (and is, thus, not a political wing of the latter entities), all three organizations happened to share the same Internet servers; this one common tie between the three organizations was a key factor in the May 31, 2006 police raid on those servers (targeting the Pirate Bay's operations), resulting in the shutdown of all three websites and leading to public demonstrations by members of the party's youth wing, Young Pirate, at the server seizures and the arrests of Pirate Bay administrators. This preceded the 2006 parliamentary elections, in which the party participated, and it did not result in the party gaining the necessary 4% of the vote to send a member to the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament, but it did result in the larger parliamentary parties (the Green Party, the Moderate Party and the Liberal People's Party) shifting their stances on copyright reform to incorporate many of the Pirate Party's stances, primarily the ability to non-commercially share files without the looming threat of litigation over copyright infringement. Three years later, a full-fledged copyright infringement enablement court case was launched by the IFPI against the Pirate Bay administrators, resulting in a heavy loss for the Pirate Bay but resulting in a both a huge boost to the Pirate Party's numbers, the winning of a seat in the European Parliament and the possibility of a more successful campaign in the 2010 Riksdag election.
Thus, a proper appraisal of the two histories, the resulting ideologies, and the semi-coincidental intersections of interests is in order. Stallman, the FSF, and most FLOSS projects come from the perspective of the hacker, which places greater emphasis upon transparency and modifiability of source code (hence the idea of "open source") over the mere ability to redistribute various media over the Internet and other networks; Falkvinge, MEP Christian Engstrom, other PP and Piratbyrån members, and most BitTorrent tracker and search engine administrators are more concerned over the reform and liberalization of intellectual property law and practice in Sweden (and the European Union, if need be), and have not yet addressed the issue of source code availability for those who love to hack and modify in their spare time. Both groups want an end to the more litigious and tyrannical aspects of copyright law in the age of the Internet, where information of all sorts in all formats is more likely to be copied, shared and even remixed despite the agitations and ill will of corporations, but the two collectives, Stallman's and Falkvinge's, are heading in separate ideological directions which may mutually undercut each other's best-intentioned efforts.
Ultimately, one group which may stand to benefit, or stand to suffer, from both collectives' efforts is the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia encyclopedia and the MediaWiki software distribution, which also runs the Wikimedia Commons, a freely-licensed media repository. The Commons database contains millions of images, video, and sounds, and receives contributions of media from private individuals, corporations and governments on a regular basis. However, it - and Wikipedia - most recently ran into trouble with the United Kingdom's National Portrait Gallery over the high-resolution scanning and uploading of some 3,300 portraits from the gallery; such portraits are considered public domain in that their copyrights have expired in the United Kingdom, but English copyright law protects the museum's right to prevent the distribution of high-resolution copies, even if the works in question are in public domain. As Wikipedia has itself become an ideological bastion of information and media freedom advocacy, such kerfuffles over copyright may make or break the free online encyclopedia, or at least its assumptions of fair use vs. free use; in such a monumental legal struggle, the Pirate Party and the Free Software Foundation possess a shared and mutually-vested interest.