The four defendants in the high-profile Pirate Bay trial face year-long jail terms if found guilty when the verdict gets announced in Stockholm, Sweden, on Friday. But even if prosecutors get their way, it's less evident whether a legal victory would also translate to a broader deterrent against illegal file sharing.
Clearly, this case is being viewed on both sides of the Atlantic as a potentially landmark decision in the heated controversy surrounding unauthorized Internet file sharing. The prosecution accuses the four men standing trial--Peter Sunde, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Fredrik Neij, and Carl Lundstrom--of making copyright-protected material available through the Web site thepiratebay.org, one of the most visited BitTorrent destinations in the world.
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The challenge for prosecutor Hakan Roswall has been to prove that the site actually can be legally linked to copyright infringement. He got off to a bumpy start. On the second day of the 13-day trial, which began in February, Roswall was forced to drop accusations that the defendants facilitated making illegal copies. Now the prosecution's case hinges on whether it can prove that the four men were guilty of making the files accessible.
No actual material is stored on the Web site that features a search function for torrent files used for file sharing with the BitTorrent technology--which is legal in itself, but commonly used for illegal file sharing.
It also offers a "tracker," which is a server linking users who swap specific files. The defendants insist Piratebay.org is no different from ordinary search engines, whereas copyright holders accuse it of being the most popular font of copyright infringement around.
Along with the criminal case, a civil claim was filed by media giants Warner Bros. Entertainment, MGM Pictures, Columbia Pictures Industries, Twentieth Century Fox Film, Sony BMG, Universal, and EMI. They demand 120 million kronor ($15 million) in compensation for lost revenue from allegedly illegal file sharing of 20 songs, 9 movies, and 4 computer games.
The judge, Tomas Norstrom, his assistant, and a three-person jury will have to decide whether the defendants could have had knowledge of the files being illegally shared, and whether that is a sufficient basis for sending them to jail.
If the defendants go free, the decision would deal a major blow to the music and movie industry's fight against piracy and its struggle to preserve current copyright legislation protections. If the verdict involves a prison sentence, Piratebay.org is still unlikely to go down.
After a search and seizure of servers by Swedish police at The Pirate Bay's offices in May 2006, which eventually led to the trial, the site was up and running after a few hours. Indeed, sending the four men to jail could also turn them into heroes or martyrs, inspiring others to find new ways to develop piracy.
This much is clear: the technology is already developing to let people share files without fear of being spotted by police or copyright holders.
Services hiding a computer's IP numbers have already been offered for some years, but even easier is a recent kind of second-generation peer-to-peer tool called OneSwarm, developed at the University of Washington in Seattle with the aim of letting file swappers preserve their privacy.
Even after Friday's decision, the case might last for years on appeal. If convicted, the defendants have already promised to fight the decision. And by the time any final verdict gets handed down, the court's opinion may be rendered obsolete by changes in the technology landscape.
CNET News will be covering the verdict, which is expected to be handed down around 2 a.m. PDT Friday, so check back for updates.
Pirate Bay watch
Mats Lewan and Erik Palm, Swedish journalists spending several months at CNET News as exchange reporters, talk with editor Leslie Katz about the Pirate Bay trial and its broader implications.
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