Do digital pirates belong in jail?
A Swedish court has sentenced the founders of the website The Pirate Bay to one year in prison.
Whether you agree with the verdict depends on whether you regard illegally downloading a song the same way the entertainment industry does - as the same as stealing a packet of biscuits from the supermarket.
Everything gets leaked thee days: CDs, films and even verdicts. The four Pirate Bay defendants say they knew in advance that the judge would find them guilty.
Europa: Pirate BayAt the end of a trial which was followed with great international interest, the court in their home country Sweden concluded that The Pirate Bay "assists" in illegally making available films, music and software which are protected by copyright.
The careful wording is significant since there is not a single illegal file on the website itself. The Pirate Bay simply informs users about the availability of a particular film or CD. For free.
And how you can make contact with the providers using software like BitTorrent. According to the entertainment industry this is the equivalent of putting ashtrays on the tables in a bar when you know that smoking is prohibited.
The verdict would seem to confirm this and place the founders of The Pirate Bay in the same category as common criminals.
The entertainment industry has been arguing for years that there is no difference between walking out of a supermarket with a packet of biscuits and illegally downloading a song. Needless to say, far more people do the latter.
But there's more to it than that. Two years ago The Pirate Bay wanted to buy the notorious "pirate" island Sealand, proclaimed a free state by the eccentric Englishman Paddy Roy Bates without taxes or laws.
Sweden even has its own "Pirate Party" which will be taking part in the forthcoming European elections. These are conscious attempts to challenge the established order and to make a point.
The leader of the Pirate Party, Rik Falkvinge, formulated that point as follows: "Europe has to stop dismantling our civil rights. Now that the web has become part of our way of life, access has to be open."
Johan Pouwelse is researching file exchange at Delft University of Technology. He agrees that there is more to it than common theft.
"Embracing file exchange technology allows people to listen to much more music, their tastes become more diverse rather than remaining content with pre-packaged hits.
The idea that internet piracy will lead to a drying up of talent is untrue. Just look at YouTube and you'll see it's far from affliction and suffering. Artists can now communicate directly with their fans, and that makes the music companies superfluous."
A crowd of journalists press to get a copy of the Pirate Bay trial verdict on 17 April 17 2009 at the court house in Stockholm.
If the record and film companies are suffering from "pirates" like The Pirate Bay, says Pouwelse, it is very much their own fault.
For years they tried everything they could to prevent the distribution of their products through the internet, instead of acknowledging the changing needs of their customers and providing legal channels for downloading.
Prosecute the downloaders
The fact that a Swedish judge has now come to the aid of the industry is no real surprise, says Pouwelse.
In the United States in the past individual downloaders have even been prosecuted and enormous fines imposed.
Following the Swedish verdict, is it still safe for ordinary users to visit The Pirate Bay site? Or could they soon face prosecution - for membership of a criminal organisation, for example?
Johan Pouwelse doesn't believe the verdict will create a precedent like that very soon. "You're still more likely to be struck by lightning walking outside during a thunderstorm than to be arrested for illegal downloading"
Not everyone feels that confident. After Swedish law was tightened up at the beginning of this month, the total amount of internet traffic in Sweden immediately dropped by almost 50 percent.
Supporters of the web site 'The Pirate Bay', one of the world's top illegal filesharing websites, demonstrate in Stockholm, on 18 April 2009.
For most of those people the founders of The Pirate Bay are heroes. Jail or no jail.
Perro de Jong