:Ben Metcalfe Blog

Some thoughts on Lawrence Lessig and a possible Pirate Party USA

During last week’s ETech Conference, I attended Lawrence Lessig’s talk on his new project ‘Change Congress‘. TorrentFreak picked up a key point Lessig made during the Q&A that proceeded the presentation.

“At a preview of his new Change Congress project at the ETech conference, the Creative Commons founder responded to a question about the US Pirate Party, saying “I’m skeptical of the utility of something like the Pirate Party in the United States.” He went on to comment about the naming, referring to the ‘honest business fighting illegitimate thieves’ battle that Hollywood portrays with “Call your party the Pirate Party, and you’ll reinforce that. The branding is not one that I would embrace here in the United States.”

Naturally, the Pirate Party of the US disagrees. “As a professor, he should know better than to advocate judging a book by it’s cover” says Andrew Norton, head of the US Pirate Party. “It’s also unusual that the man that fought Hollywood’s increase of copyright, should find fault with a party that only seeks to represent the general public, and what better title than the name that Hollywood is using for all citizens.” referring to a recent study, which suggested that everyone violates copyright, and are thus pirates, every day.”

I agree with Lessig in his point.

Both Sofia and I follow the endeavors of the Piratpartiet (Pirate Party) in Sofia’s native Sweden. It’s the first credible political movement that has started a serious conversation about copyright reform in a significant nation such as Sweden.

Lessig’s point that such as party would need to campaign under a different name are are valid for two reasons – the need for mainstream presentation in the US and the ability for smaller parties to win seats in parliament in countries which have proportional representation, such as Sweden.

Presentation and facade

Firstly, the US uses a singe-winner first-past-the-post electoral system, which is so two-party centric that minority parties have little involvement or impact upon the political system. You have to aim to go mainstream – at which point appearance and marketing become very important.

As geeks we often fail to see the importance of branding and packaging in modern life – especially amongst more ‘normal’ strands of society. If the Democrat party was called the “Big Banana Party” it would be unlikely to win much interest in the political scene.

In fact, just to use a less-crazy example, even with the same political manifesto I doubt the Democrat Party would see much success if it was called the “American Socialist Party” – because Americans don’t generally respond well to the word ‘socialism’ in their politics.

To argue against that is frankly to demonstrate a lack of understanding of marketing and branding, or an ignorance to the importance of facade in US politics. Why do you think it’s only now, in 2008, that we finally have a female and a black man as candidates? Because presentation is important and even the left wing of America wasn’t ready to vote for each a candidate 10 years ago.

Its all about proportional representation

In Sweden the name “Piratpartiet” (Pirate Party) works not only because society is far more liberal but also because the country uses a multi-winnner proportional representation system. This means that even the parties with minority voting get to sit proportionally in parliament.

In the case of the Piratpartiet, it only needs one or two seats in order to achieve voting rights on legislative matters and have the opportunity to air it’s views in the parliament under such an unorthodox banner.

Why it won’t work in America

The American first-past-the-post system is certainly top-focused, with tertiary parties not only getting little room to maneuver but also scuppering similarly aligned parties when the population split their vote (such as a slight majority of the voting population voting for either the Democrats and the Greens – with neither party gaining majority and handing the Republicans the win).

The two main parties also remain highly corporate focused – and so for all these reasons I don’t believe such a political debate about copyright reform will ever take place in the US until significant momentum has occurred elsewhere in the world.

Not only do I agree with Lawrence Lessig that ‘The Pirate Party USA’ would be a poor choice of name for such a movement in North America, but I would go further and suggest that under the current American electoral system, any single-issue party has little chance of affecting change.