I’m frequently asked about the name of the Pirate Party, particularly in international contexts. Is it serious? Isn’t it an obstacle? Does it work? The answers are yes, no, and yes, in that order.
To understand why the name Pirate Party was chosen in Sweden — Piratpartiet — we need to look at the context of that country. After all, the movement originated there. Sweden was very early in broadband-proper rollout: I had ten-megabit fiber, full duplex, to my suburban apartment in 1998. When you put that kind of disruptive technology not just in the hands of technicians, but in the hands of everyone, it starts to change public perception of how this technology can be used, and maybe even should be used.
To put things on the timeline: in Sweden, fibered apartments with 10Mbit/s were commonplace before Napster had arrived in 1999. (Guess what happened when Napster arrived.)
In this sociocultural land, the copyright industry’s lobby arrived to a battle already lost and long over. Nevertheless, lacking fingerspitzengefühl as usual, they followed the blueprints of all other countries and established the enforcement agency Antipiratbyrån — The Anti-Piracy Bureau — in 2001, which was immediately a laughingstock in its feeble attempts to “educate” the public.
In response, a couple of artists, musicians, and cultural workers founded the think-tank Piratbyrån — the Piracy Bureau — in 2003. Choosing that name, they wanted to signal that they were the progressives, and the antis were the regressives. These activists were the first to talk back to the copyright lobby, and immediately catapulted into media everywhere. Inspired by the talkback culture of Piratbyrån, a small subgroup of their activists set up a BitTorrent tracker as an experiment in the fall of 2003. They named it The Pirate Bay.
They were all heroes, in particular with the youth.
In 2005, copyright laws were harshened yet again in Sweden. The debate over the proposed legislation raged everywhere: in schools, at dinner tables, in TV, in the newspapers, at universities, at workplaces. Everybody participated. Everybody — except the politicians.
This was the scene that made it necessary to make the debate personal for politicians, to aim right at their power base. “This doesn’t work. Take part in the discussion, damn it, or we will threaten to take your job.”
It’s important to understand that at this point in Sweden, pirate policies were already established by the Piratbyrån. When the time came to politicize the issues, it was not a matter of founding a new party and start contemplating its name.
It was a matter of founding The Pirate Party.
The name was a smash hit, winning attention immediately. Everybody knew two things on seeing the name for the first time: they knew exactly what our policies were, and they knew that they could vote for us come Election Day. That would not have happened with any other name. With 99% probability, any other name would have stayed an obscure web page.
Branding experts also give the name 10 points out of 10. In brand management, you ideally choose a name that is as unique as possible and as descriptive as possible. You will always have to make a tradeoff between these two. Skype is unique, but not descriptive in the least. Word is descriptive, but not unique in the least. “The Pirate Party” scores bell-dinging top scores in both aspects.
The surprise for me was how quickly policitizing activists in other countries, where the red carpet had not been prepared by a Piratbyrån equivalent, also chose the name The Pirate Party in their own languages. Each of them discussed at length before settling on using the same name as we had. Perhaps the most convincing reason came from the discussion in founding the Spanish Partido Pirata:
Either we call ourselves the Pirate Party, and get to define what the name stands for, they reasoned, or we’ll be called the Pirate Party anyway, without control of what the name stands for.
It’s quite like when the gay movement reclaimed the word gay in the same way. By standing proud about being a pirate, and doing so in public, you take that weapon away from the copyright industry’s lobby. These days, they are even complaining that branding people as pirates doesn’t work anymore.
So, to tackle common misconceptions:
Does the name work to get votes? Unquestionably. We were the largest party in the most coveted sub-30 demographic in the European Elections in Sweden, with 25% of the votes from that demographic. We had 38% of the votes among young males. The name is not an obstacle for votes, and we have the election results to prove it.
Is the name taken seriously? That some people didn’t take the Pirate Party seriously at first had less to do with the name, and more to do with the fact that we were a new party. We were treated with the same scepticism that any new party gets.
But older people still don’t take the name seriously. Well, it’s true in some instances that people who are not part of the net culture don’t understand the name. But if the party had another name, those people would give it 30 seconds while browsing the party program before dismissing it anyway as the non-net demographic does not agree with the policies. It’s much better to have a strong brand towards your core supporters.
Besides, it’s really a hypothetical discussion. We would not have been where we are as a global movement if we had not had that name on day one, and we are not strong enough to change the name and survive it as a cohesive movement, even if we wanted to.
But we don’t want to change the name, even if we theoretically could. That would send all the wrong signals to our core supporters, that we had rethought our policies and come to the conclusion that copying wasn’t really that good after all. This is not the message we want to send.
Quite simply, we believe in copying and in civil liberties. Some people brand us pirates for that. Well, then we are pirates, and we stand tall and proud about it.
So keep those pirate colors flying high across every continent!