Far from the coast of Somalia, The Pirate Bay (www.thepiratebay.org) made a big splash in last month’s legal news when the four men who run the Swedish website were found guilty by a Swedish court of violating copyright law, sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay damages of over $3.6 million dollars.
As its name so bluntly connotes, The Pirate Bay was formed as part of an anti-copyright movement, and its founders consider it to be part of an effort to reform laws around copyright. The website founders were prosecuted for enabling the file-sharing of copies of movies, music and games.
Because of the severity of the punishment, the colorful and controversial behavior of the defendants, and the popularity of the site worldwide, the case has garnered significant attention outside of Sweden.
The Pirate Bay is an extremely popular BitTorrent tracker site. In other words, Pirate Bay is a website that indexes files which others prepare and submit to the website. Those files, also known as .torrent files, provide a description of content files which may be shared by the website users. This sharing is often referred to as peer-to-peer file sharing.
Once the user has the .torrent file, using BitTorrent software, he or she can locate the content file anywhere on the internet where it is made available for download by other BitTorrent users. The content files are not downloaded from a single source, but are downloaded in small pieces from multiple sources, which permits faster downloading.
The more popular the file, and the more people that are “seeding” the file, the faster the file can be downloaded. Thus, the “tracking” service provided by Pirate Bay is critical to locating all the many places where the files may be available. The website is funded by advertisers whose ads are displayed next to the torrent listings.
Of course, many of the content files made available for copying by users of Pirate Bay contain copyrighted material, and the copying is unauthorized. Pirate Bay was charged with facilitating its users’ infringements of copyright law.
The defendants argued that they were not guilty of violating Swedish copyright law because their site did not actually copy, transfer or host any files. Indeed, their attorney suggested that individual users, not Pirate Bay, are answerable for files they choose to share on the website.
The court in Stockholm disagreed, concluding that the website owners knew that many torrent files point to copyrighted material. On April 17, 2009, Peter Sunde, Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm, and Carl Lundström were found guilty of being accessories to crimes against copyright law, a finding that was reinforced by the “commercial and organized” nature of Pirate Bay’s enterprise. The one-year prison sentence is said to be the harshest punishment meted out under Swedish copyright laws.
The four have claimed that the judge, Tomas Norström, was biased, since he is a member of the Swedish Copyright Association and the Swedish Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property, and hence presumably ill-disposed toward pirates. A court of appeal is currently considering whether the alleged bias warrants a new trial.
The judgment has no effect on the website itself, which continues in operation. Even if a new trial is denied, the judgment might not become final for several years, as Pirate Bay will pursue its appeal before various Swedish courts and probably also the European Court of Justice.