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What is the Pirate Party—and why is it helping Wikileaks?

This past December, when the host of the Wikileaks domain shut down the organization’s online presence, the Pirate Party came to the rescue. No, the saviors were not renegade Somalis or Internet bootleggers, but, rather, a small but growing five-year-old political party focused on copyright and intellectual property laws. There are between 30 and 40 Pirate Parties globally, and two Pirate Party members sit in the European Parliament. By reopening the shuttered Wikileaks on the Swiss Pirate Party’s site, the party linked up with one of the biggest stories of 2010. A tiny movement was suddenly on the global political map.

While it doesn’t get a lot of attention in the press, America also has a Pirate Party. Founded in June 2006 by University of Georgia graduate student Brent Allison, the United States Pirate Party’s (USPP’s) aim, loosely summarized, is to completely change how information is shared on the Internet. At the time of its founding, Allison told Wired magazine, “This party is all about raising awareness of issues that only geeks and lawyers have cared about until now.” Like its international counterparts, the USPP’s main practical concerns are digital intellectual property and privacy laws—specifically, the abolition of a 1998 digital U.S. copyright law, the reduction of copyrights to 14 years (from 95 years after publication, or 70 years after the author’s death), and the expiration of patents that don’t result in significant progress within four years (as opposed to 20 years)

In the years since its inception, the USPP has garnered, according to USPP Records Officer Brad Hall, 3,000 members and has organized seven state chapters. But it has also struggled to maintain momentum and continuity of leadership, even within its brief lifespan. Allison stepped down within three days of founding the party, and, in late 2009, former chairman Ryan Martin was removed over allegations of election fraud and shoddy meeting attendance. Three of the six USPP board positions are currently vacant, and the current officers and leaders are a motley, geographically disjointed crew: Chair Brittany Phelps is an undergraduate student in Arizona, hoping to study intellectual property law; vice-chair Jay Emerson is a “non-matriculated graduate student” at Stony Brook University in New York; Hall is a substitute teacher based in Florida; and Washington state party founder Jeff Talada is a “stay at-home husband.” Because of the distances between them, they meet (with varying frequency, on Tuesday nights) on the USPP’s Internet Relay Chat channel—a primitive chat room beloved of techie-types—and conduct most recruitment online.

The most attention-grabbing aspect of the party—its name—has been a mixed blessing. Organizers generally take the Captain Hook/Long John Silver/pick-your-favorite-pirate associations in stride. “I would say that having the name Pirate Party gives the added benefit of playfulness,” says Talada. “We can dress up and say ‘Argh.’” But there are other complicated connotations. The U.S. Pirate Party is eager to dissociate itself from Internet piracy—a task made more difficult because of the Swedish Pirate Party’s relationship with The Pirate Bay, one of the world’s most popular file-sharing sites, which has been repeatedly sued for providing links to free albums, movies, and other copyrighted works. (After several years of unofficial support, the Swedish party started hosting the site last May.) Although U.S. members emphasize that their party has no connection to The Pirate Bay, its notoriety is a good recruitment tool; several members of the party note that they first got involved while following The Pirate Bay’s legal troubles.

If the party is still ironing out the kinks in its image and struggling through some growing pains, it has ambitious goals and is currently building the scaffolding for what it hopes will be a more effective, state-based organization. State chapters have recently been formed in Washington, Massachusetts, and the Carolinas, and more established chapters in Oregon, Oklahoma, and New York are allying with other small political parties, ranging from Greens to Libertarians, to lower barriers that prevent smaller parties from getting on the ballot, such as the number of required signatures. Though no Pirate candidates have ever run for office, the Massachusetts state party hopes to present candidates for local and state positions in the next two years. Four years after the party’s inception, the Swedes were able to get two pirates into the European Parliament. It doesn’t seem likely that the Americans will enjoy similar success; but you never know.

Even if they fall short, Pirate Party members remain upbeat about their endeavor. The party’s name itself can provide a humorous salve all on its own. “I was walking around a store one day,” says Hall. “A kid … started talking to his mother about a Pirate Party. Of course this gets my attention. I’m wondering how this kid knew I was with the Pirate Party. After a few minutes, I realize the kid is talking about his upcoming birthday.”

James Downie is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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