Blog Post

Case Study: Pirate Parties and the Uncommon Commons

One of the domains I am currently planning to work with, as many of you know, is piracy. It’s also the area where I’m having the most methodological and ethical troubles at the moment. Given the relative lack of existing scholarship on digital piracy (or, at least, a lack of research which isn’t primarily centred on how to prevent it), my impulse to this point has been to suggest an ethnographic approach.

This is still a possibility, and there are a lot of great guides out there abut how to put together an ethical ethnographic study (like AoIR’s guidelines, and this book). However, recent legal action on piracy communities and on individual pirates also makes me wary about producing scholarship that might inadvertently aid those types of institutional assaults.

So lately I’ve been spending part of my time considering alternate approaches to the affective labour of piracy. One possibility is the circulation of piracy as a political platform, through the rise of Pirate Parties in multiple countries. How are the affective politics I have suggested are at work in closed piracy collectives (such as an emphasis on transferring love from a media object to other pirates) impacted by the transition? Where and how do we see affect in policy statements, for example?

The now famous pirate wheel, created by the original Pirate Party in Sweden, interestingly names affect, or rather “sentiment” as an explicit dimension of its policies and philosophies. It falls under a larger spoke, broadly titled “TICKS (Tools, Ideas, Culture, Knowledge and Sentiments)”. A longer description, found on the organization’s site, offers the following: “Sentiment: a catch-all stating that things need not be objectively useful in the immediate sense to be valuable to society in their communication. Reactions, emotional comments and unquantifiable statements are just as protected and valuable as industrial knowledge.” The “acquisition, usage, refining and distribution,” of all TICKS, the party adds, “must never be subject to permits or conditions.” The wheel thus links TICKS to a call for “infofreedom”, or the demand for “monopolies on the exchange of TICKS” to be “abolished”, as well as a general call for all Information Technology to be “auditable [and] free”.

So, an interesting shift from communities organized exclusively around piracy in several respects. Some of the changes, particularly the emphasis on accessibility of technology, make sense and seem like natural extensions of the same overarching concerns. Others seem worth pausing over. What does it mean for the emphasis to move from directing affects like love toward other pirates (through acts like reciprocal file-sharing) to couching affect as a “protected” and “valuable” site of knowledge, comparable to industry?

On one hand, this seems very promising. Affect here is construed as an important site of knowledge, made no less valuable from its supposed lack of utility. Affect is, to put it differently, recognized as productive—as work. What makes me pause, however, partially because it seems like an extension or symptom of the often privileged population of piracy groups, is the claim that the distribution and collection of sentiment must never be controlled. Certainly affect and affective labour have been commodified in ways that are troubling, and copyright law in particular is a manifestation of this. But what about other modes of control?

Mukurtu, an Indigenous databasing technology, for example, allows community members to restrict access to data based not on payment, but on cultural protocols and spiritual traditions. The platform comes as a response to the fact that the risk of digital technology re-enacting colonial violences upon information and artifacts is a very real one for many Indigenous communities. While Kimberly Christen (2010) notes that this concern can sometimes manifest as an uneasy alliance between corporate entities seeking to enforce copyright and Indigenous subjects, she also reminds us that the distinction between their motivations is essential (329). Affect and affective labour, in other words, cannot (or should not, in this view) circulate ‘freely’ because the bodies and experiences they are tied to do not move freely or equally through the world.

My initial sense, then, is that pirate parties inherit both the best and the worst tendencies of online piracy-based collectives. I have several concerns about potentially moving my focus here rather than on the collectives themselves (not the least of which is the fact that these groups are no longer exclusively or primarily digital), but it’s been interesting to think through this as a potential avenue of investigation.

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