The entertainment industry won round one in a legal battle against a hugely popular internet music, games and film-sharing site today when four men accused of running it were jailed for a year.
The defendants vowed to appeal, setting the stage for a lengthy copyright dispute between music and film corporations and the online swap shop The Pirate Bay that they say has deprived them of billions in lost revenue.
In its landmark ruling, the Stockholm court convicted Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Peter Sunde, Fredrik Neij and Carl Lundstrom of helping millions of users illegally download music, films and computer games.
All four received one-year terms and were ordered to pay €2.7m damages to entertainment companies, including Warner Bros, Sony, EMI and Columbia Pictures.
“We can’t pay and we won’t pay,” Sunde said in a defiant video clip posted on the internet. Mockingly, he held up a hand-scribbled “I owe U” note to the camera. “This is as close as you will get to having money from us,” he said.
With an estimated 22 million users, The Pirate Bay has become the entertainment industry’s main enemy after successful court actions against other sites such as Grokster and Kazaa.
Lundstrom helped finance the site while the three other defendants ran it.
Defence lawyers had argued they should be acquitted because The Pirate Bay does not host any copyright-protected material. Instead, it provides a forum for its users to download content through so-called torrent files. The technology allows users to transfer parts of a large file from several different users, increasing download speeds.
The court found the defendants guilty of helping users commit copyright violations by providing a website with “sophisticated search functions, simple download and storage capabilities, and through the tracker linked to the web site.”
The case focused on dozens of works that the prosecutor said were downloaded illegally. They included songs by the Beatles, Robbie Williams and Coldplay, films such as “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and computer games including “World of Warcraft – Invasion.”
Judge Tomas Norstrom said the site was “commercially driven,” which the defendants denied.
John Kennedy, the head of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, called the verdict good news for anyone “who is making a living or a business from creative activity and who needs to know their rights will be protected by law.”
The Pirate Bay had assured users the trial would not affect the site, and it remained operational after the verdict. Authorities temporarily shut it down in May 2006 after seizing servers and computer equipment during raids in several locations in Sweden. But it soon reappeared, running on servers elsewhere.
Sunde’s lawyer Peter Althin said he was confident that higher courts would dismiss the case against The Pirate Bay, which he described as a battle between the corporate world and “a generation of young people who want to take part of new technology.”
The verdict comes as Europe debates stricter rules to crack down on those who share content illegally on the internet.
Last week the French parliament rejected a plan to cut off the internet connections of people who illegally download music and films, but the government plans to resurrect the bill for another vote this month.
Opponents said the law would represent a Big Brother intrusion on civil liberties, while the European Parliament last month adopted a non-binding resolution that defines internet access as an untouchable “fundamental freedom.”
Earlier this month, Sweden introduced a new law that makes it easier to prosecute file-sharers because it requires internet service providers to disclose the internet addresses of suspected violators to copyright owners.
The country has one of Europe’s highest rates of internet usage, but has also gained a reputation as a hub for file-sharers.