Last year when John Aravosis and I went to Sweden we interviewed Rickard Falkvinge, head of the Pirate Party, and I’ve been fascinated with them ever since.  Their relevance only increases in the wake of the draconian measures taken by the police in the Jason Chen/iPhone story.

Formed after the cofounders of BitTorrent tracker Pirate Bay were charged with copyright infringement, the Pirate Party represent both conservatives and liberals who are concerned with privacy and IP issues.

The Pirate Party membership surged, particularly among young people, when the founders of Pirate Bay were found guilty, with jail time for essentially facilitating downloading. The Pirate Party now hold seats in the Swedish parliament as well as the European Parliament, and are fielding 9 candidates in the UK general election.

I know IP issues can often bore people to tears until some kid is getting arrested for downloading, but the ability to pass a law as draconian as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act shows the incredible clout and legislative influence of companies who depend on rents from intellectual property for their profits. That’s a group which includes everything from drug companies to entertainment companies and every company involved in the “new technology” economy, from Apple to IBM to Google and beyond. And as everyone saw when the cops broke down Jason Chen’s door and seized all his computers even after he returned the iPhone to Apple, these companies are not fu&%ing around.

As more and more of the economy is derived from the capture of rents from intellectual property, we’ll see more radical legal actions like the DMCA and like what happened to Jason Chen. It is absolutely laughable that anyone is even considering the possibility that Apple had no hand in urging the expansion of the police investigation, or that what they’re really concerned about is investigating the “theft” of an item that is already back in their possession.

One of Apple’s engineers, Gray Powell, left the prototype in a bar.   Some guy (we’ll call him “Person X”) found it and called Apple, trying to return it, but Apple thought it was a hoax. He then tried to sell it to both Endgadget and Gizmodo. Gizmodo bought it. Technically under California law, what Source X did could be considered “theft,” but it almost never is.

Think about what would be happening if a sweater, or even a diamond ring, had been left in a bar by someone who had too much to drink. If “Person X” found it and tried to return it to the original owner, who said it wasn’t theirs, and then sold it to a pawn shop, what would have happened? Would a SWAT team be sweeping down on the pawn shop and seizing all of its computers, even AFTER the item had already been returned to its original owner? I seriously doubt it.

Few articles written about the Jason Chen raid mention it, but this sentence in the Gizmodo iPhone genesis story explains why Apple is freaking out:

Once we saw it inside and out, however, there was no doubt about it. It was the real thing, so we started to work on documenting it before returning it to Apple.

Gizmodo started “documenting it.” Which means photos, schematics, descriptions of how it was put together. The kinds of things a competitor might want to know, the answers to engineering inquiries that cost millions. Gizmodo got the phone on April 12. They didn’t write about it until April 19. They even let Endgadget scoop them on April 18 with photos obtained from “Source X.” Why didn’t they rush to publication? Because they were documenting it. That’s what Apple wanted off of Jason Chen’s computers.

And it’s also why they wanted to know who “Person X” is. He evidently “documented it” too, sending photos to both Gizmodo and Endgadget. And they’re now claiming that Chen has no right to protect the identity of “Person X” as a source under California’s shield law. The police are now expanding the inquiry into the “theft,” and have learned the identity of “Person X.

As Steve Wozniak told Gizmodo, the morning of the iPad launch, an Apple engineer showed him one for two minutes — and was fired for doing so. There seem to be few limits to what companies will do to protect the their intellectual property rights –  in this case trampling both journalistic privilege and civil liberties to do so.

Given the economic power and political influence of such companies, their desire to protect their profits is going to continue to clash with the rights of individuals to privacy and liberty. The Pirate Party will most certainly have more grist to drive both its issues and its membership numbers in the years to come.