There's been a lot of news about fighting pirates on the high seas in the past couple of weeks. Today comes a reminder that efforts to fight piracy online continues as well. A court in Stockholm on Friday found the four men behind The Pirate Bay, one of the world's biggest free file-sharing sites, guilty of breaching copyright law for allowing its users to illegally access music, movies and TV shows online. Peter Sunde, Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg and Carl Lundstrom were sentenced to a year in jail, and ordered to cough up $3.6 million to a raft of entertainment firms from EMI to Columbia Pictures bilked, said the court, out of valuable revenues. The decision, said John Kennedy, boss of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which represents the global music business, was "good news for everyone ... making a living or a business from creative activity and who needs to know their rights will protected by law."
The Pirate Bay, for its part, was unrepentant. In a statement streamed live on the firm's website, Peter Sunde reckoned it "bizarre we were even convicted at all." Its defense: the company doesn't host or store the offending material, and files aren't actually exchanged on the site. Instead, the Pirate Bay acts like a directory, pointing users to material hosted elsewhere on the Web. In that sense, Sunde told the BBC recently, "there's no difference between us and Google." (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)
Except there is. Use the ubiquitous search engine, and "you will be able to link to some infringing material," says Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer at London law firm Pinsent Masons. "But the vast majority of what's on the service is not infringing. That's an important thing for courts." Like Kazaa, another file-sharing site punished in the courts in recent years, the Pirate Bay works slightly differently. The site has "relatively few legitimate uses, but a huge number of unlawful" ones, says Robertson.
The site, which launched in 2003 and now boasts over 20 million users, plans to appeal the court's conviction. During the online press conference, Sunde scoffed at the fine thrown at the firm, holding up a scribbled I.O.U. to the camera. "Stay calm," he appealed to users on Twitter a little while earlier, "nothing will happen to [The Pirate Bay], us personally, or file sharing what so ever ... this is just theater for the media."
And in one sense, Sunde is right. Entertainment firms have no choice but to go after services that contribute to copyright infringement; doing nothing would send out the wrong message entirely. But those companies also know that legal action alone isn't going to strangle piracy. "The end of this year will be the 10-year anniversary for music industry legal suits against file sharing networks," points out Mark Mulligan, London-based analyst at Forrester Research. "Throughout that time, file sharing has grown, and grown and grown." The shutdown of Napster in 2001 didn't prevent Kazaa becoming even larger; and Kazaa's subsequent demise has hardly hindered the Pirate Bay. By the time courts catch up with unlawful services, user momentum already lies elsewhere. "It's a case of whack a mole," says Mulligan. "Every time they hit one, another pops up. That's not going to change." (See the 25 best blogs of 2009.)
Far more important in the fight against online piracy is offering users legitimate but very cheap or even free alternatives. In that respect, the industry deserves some credit. Competition for iTunes has toughened considerably in recent months. Spotify, which allows users to stream music for free in return for watching the odd ad online, has proved a hit since launching last October with the backing of the industry's big labels. Such services are "signs the music industry is waking up to the fact the best way to fight free isn't in the law courts, it isn't in parliament," says Mulligan, "it's with free itself."
Back in Sweden, the country's National Museum of Science and Technology announced this week plans to exhibit a Pirate Bay server confiscated by police last year. "This is an object of contemporary society and a museum collects such items," curator Nils Olander said. With any luck, online piracy will one day wind up alongside it.