Sigrid Quack and Leonhard Dobusch comment on the election results of the German “Piratenpartei” based on their research project “The Copyright Dispute”.

On Sunday, 27 September 2009, the Pirate Party running for the first time in German federal elections promptly won 2 percent of the votes. In some constituencies, particularly in university towns and urban centres, it gained up to 6 percent. In total, 850.000 voters cast their ballot for the Pirate Party (see official results and DW-World).

Piratenergebnisse-BRD-WebWhile this result does not bring the Pirate Party into the German parliament because of its 5 percent barring clause, this is nevertheless a quite impressive result for a young party which was founded only three years ago. Just to compare, the Green Party gained only 1.5 percent in its first run for German Federal elections in 1980, even though it had reunified a number of regional parties with experience in municipal councils and Länder parliaments. According to Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, an independent polling institute, the gains of the Pirate Party are part of a “historic gain’” of small parties in the last elections.

First signs of the Pirate Party gaining electoral support became visible in the elections for the European Parliament earlier on 7 June this year, where the Pirate Party obtained 0.9 percent (see also “Copyright Related Social Movements: Pirate Parties and the European Parliamentary Elections”). In the North Rhine-Westphalian communal elections on 30 August, members of the Pirate Party gained seats in the municipal councils of the cities of Münster and Aachen. In parallel to its public visibility and electoral support, the membership of the Pirate Party has been growing rapidly to currently close to 10,000 members, out of which about 8,000 joined the party during the last four months.

Still, this leaves interesting questions about what made nearly a million people vote for a relatively unknown and unestablished party, and what the perspectives of this party are for the next elections in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2010. Is the Pirate Party comparable to a “Biertrinker-Partei” (“beer drinker party”), as suggested by political scientist Oscar W. Gabriel (see, German), and is therefore its success a short flash that will disappear as soon as it popped up?

In the following we will suggest that to be better understood, the development of the Pirate Party in Germany needs to be situated in a broader context: The gains of the Pirate Party build on both, a network of transnational activists criticising an, in their view, unbalanced extension of copyright protection and more localised social movements concerned with new data retention and surveillance plans. The internet is the place where these rather broad trends enter everyday life experience of people, and particularly those of having jobs in computing, software, creative industries, media, education, research, universities – not to speak of the palpable and rather concrete experiences of all those who wish to download music, share files and access open content in their free time.

Transnational context: How a file sharing server in Sweden leads to the birth of a party in Germany

Originally, “piracy” was considered to be something evil. As Sell and Prakash (PDF) convincingly argue, lobbyists in favour of stronger protection of intellectual property rights had used the term to describe and thereby delegitimize previously legal practices in (mostly: developing) countries. How come that pirate parties in over 20 countries manage to at least partially re-define the notion of “pirates” and “piracy” by using it successfully as a description of their idealistic and political actions? In a way, establishing pirate parties resembles the adoption and re-definition of previously derogatory terms such as “queer” (see Jagose) by the very group that is addressed by these terms.

In their self-description as “pirates”, the founders of the first pirate party, the Swedish “Piratpartiet”, followed the Swedish anti-copyright organization “Piratbyrån” (“The Pirate Bureau”). In 2003 the Piratbyrån had started the now famous website “The Pirate Bay”, which enables file sharing by indexing torrent-files and received enormous media attention around the “Pirate Bay Trial”. Not least this media attention led to the Piratpartiet’s success in the elections to the European Parliament, where they won 7.1 percent of the votes and became fifth strongest party, overtaking the old-established Left Party and the Center Party (see Wikipedia for details).

But the success of the Piratpartiet was not limited to ballot boxes. Established parties like the Moderate Party (Moderaterna) and Swedish Left Party (Vänsterpartiet) changed their positioning in the field of copyright in general and on filesharing in particular. What is more, the Swedish example initiated a series of followers in currently over 30 different countries, as listed at One such follower is the German “Piratenpartei”.

But neither the Swedish nor the German pirate party had to start from scratch, several other organizations had prepared the ground for their mobilization; actually, pirate parties are part of a relatively broad and transnational social movement. The prevalent regime of strong intellectual property rights protection had come under attack by NGOs such as the ETC Group in the field of patents and Creative Commons in the field of copyright (see Dobusch and Quack, PDF). Wikipedia lists five “movements” in the field of “Intellectual property reform activism”, namely the Access to Knowledge Movement, Anti-Copyright, Cultural Environmentalism, the Free Culture Movement, and the Free Software Movement. It is the year-long activism of their proponents together with (partly: illegal) file sharing as a mass phenomenon that pirate parties all around the world build upon.

At least to some extent, this social movement context makes pirate parties more than a mere “single issue party”. Opposition to copyright and patents spans many different areas – from genetic engineered food and development politics (“biopiracy” and gene patenting) over education and science (Open Courseware, Open Access) to software, culture and innovation (Free Software, Free Culture, Open Innovation), and includes aspects of inequality in terms of access to immaterial goods in a so-called knowledge society. Furthermore, this bandwidth of issues may be complemented by local initiatives, as is the case in Germany.

Local context: Reminiscences of the campaign against “Volkszählung” in the 1980s

In spite of the transnational or even global character of these movements, pirate parties develop differently from country to country as they mix and co-evolve with local idiosyncrasies and movements.

Within Germany, some advocacy of the Piratenpartei evokes reminiscences of the civil activist campaign against the “Volkszählung” in 1983 (see wikipedia for details, in German and English). At that time, the plan of the German government of a population census was seen as intruding into the privacy of citizens and creating the technical potential for a “Big Brother Society” of state surveillance. These fears gave rise to the rapid creation of thousands of citizen action committee’s against the census, petitions signed by thousands of people, and a broad civil society coalition including representatives of churches, unions and civil society organizations like the Humanistische Union, and lead the German Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) in its decision (1 BvR 209/83) to formulate a basic right to “Informationeller Selbstbestimmung” (data privacy) which also shaped European policies in this field (see Newman 2008).

pirates-surveillance(small)Some lose threads of this historical movement have recently been taken up by the German pirate party in their opposition against new legislation on data retention, online computer surveillance (see the Times for the UK-pendant to the German legislation) and Internet censorship by a so called “Access Impediment Act” (see also Bendrath).

While tapping into the remaining scepticism towards technical surveillance by the state, which has grown after the German reunification due to decade-long spying by the East German “Ministry for State Security” (“Stasi”) as well as in response to new anti-terror legislation introduced following September 11, the new anti-surveillance activists in Germany do not principally reject using new technologies. On the contrary, the majority of German pirate party activists may very well be called “netizens”, who integrate new digital technologies in nearly every aspect of their professional and personal life. Differently to the general critique of technology in the 1983 census protests, pirate party activists reject technological surveillance because they want to use these new devices also in their most personal matters.

Future perspectives

Consequently, most of the German pirate party’s election campaigns also take place on or are at least organized via the Internet. A visit of the Piratenpartei’s website prior to the elections revealed the busy live of a beehive: While it is common for politicians of all parties to use online platforms like Facebook and Twitter to let their electorate participate in their everyday experiences, there is no other German party which made such innovative use of its website for coordinating the election campaign, from fund raising to plastering cities with posters and from meetings at regular’s tables to organizing public demonstrations. Christoph Bieber even calls this form of campaigning an “augmented reality game”.

While the focus on online campaigning not least followed from scarce financial resources, this may change due to recent election results, which crossed the 0.5 percent threshold required to get campaign funding from the federal government for the next elections. Party chief Jens Seipenbusch is already considering how to invest the funds for further mobilization (see DW-World). As it is appropriate for a party representing a growing population of young (and old) internet users, among the options discussed is not only the hiring of additional personnel to handle the party’s exceptional growth (see graph below), but also the acquisition of new software and equipment to facilitate online voting and discussion for a for members.


The (intentionally) very open mode of online campaigning, however, also has its adverse side-effects, such as maverick followers whose views might compromise the party, legions of “trolls” (see also Tina Guenther at sozlog, German) and a male bias: As opposed to the Swedish Piratpartiet, for example, which had several female candidates on its list for the European parliamentary election, its German counterpart is dominated by male computer professionals. A situation that inspired heated debates in the German blogosphere about whether feminists could vote for the pirate party or not (see, for example, danilola or maedchenmannschaft). pirates

Antje Schrupp summarized her concerns in a blog post titled “Can a feminist vote for pirates?” as follows:

“There is a new party, rebellious, wild and strong-willed in their struggle against old frumps – and then they emerge as deeply sexist, and even worse, they don’t even seem to care about this. What shall we do now with the pirates?“ (translation LD/SQ).

A question not only open for feminists to answer, yet.

(leonhard & sigrid)