A criminal trial underway in Sweden is testing a very American notion: that artifacts that carry a copyright should not simply be lifted or stolen that their use requires permission and compensation. That definition of intellectual property may appear almost quaint in these days when it is easy to find almost anything on the Internet and just as simple to download. But the founders of ThePirateBay.org three geeky Swedish would-be cultural revolutionaries who were funded in part by user donations are in the process of finding out whether they face prison time for facilitating that process for their users.
Each day, millions of users visit ThePirateBay.org, where they can browse hundreds of files containing copyrighted music, movies and other digital media including some works like the Beatles' Let It Be album that have yet to be commercially released as digital files. The Pirates and their supporters who have staged street demonstrations, Twittered the court proceedings and may have crashed the websites of their perceived enemies insist that they simply bring users together to who have files they are willing to share. If users choose to find illegal content and trade it, the site's operators say, that's their business. Not so, say the Hollywood and music-industry heavies who brought the civil case that accompanies Sweden's criminal prosecution, it's really our business. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)
After years of legal challenges by corporate lawyers and rhetorical ripostes by the Pirates, the battle between profiteers and buccaneers was joined when Swedish police raided the site in 2006, resulting in the ongoing civil and criminal trials. The proceedings are the latest twist in a long history of a global fight over property rights a struggle that some say began in America with the country's Founding Fathers ( Benjamin Franklin was all for handing out for free the ideas for his inventions like the Franklin Stove) and extended through Yippie Abbie Hoffman (who named his 1971 book about conning the system Steal This Book).
But in 2009, the fight is more than just a new way to wage an old war of ideas. It's about whether Internet companies whose business is to help users find content that other companies have spent money to create ought to be hailed as innovators or hauled into court as thieves. Some folks, for example, see Google News as a quick and easy way to find the best journalism on the Web. Others complain that it lets the search engine company make billions while the media companies that paid to produce the content struggle to break even.
The trio behind ThePirateBay.org could face prison if convicted on charges that amount to aiding and abetting copyright infringement on a massive scale. The most serious charge complicity in the production of copyrighted material was dropped earlier this week for lack of evidence, but the trio still could walk the plank, should prosecutors prevail. If they lose the criminal case, they could owe nearly $10 million sought in the civil action being heard simultaneously in the Stockholm courtroom.