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The entertainment industry scored another victory in its battle against online piracy Friday when a Swedish court convicted the operators of the Pirate Bay -- one of the Web's most popular tools for finding bootlegged movies, songs, software and games -- of aiding and abetting copyright infringement. The site operators had gleefully mocked copyright law, simultaneously making them prime targets for music and movie conglomerates and folk heroes to millions of Internet users who swap digital goods. Yet their extreme behavior made them seem more important than they are, and the court's ruling isn't likely to be as helpful in combating rampant piracy as the industry's improving efforts to make content available online.
The Pirate Bay relies on BitTorrent software, which enables people to make copies of a file by downloading multiple pieces of it simultaneously from a swarm of other computers online. The defendants' attorneys argued that the site was merely a search engine for files in the BitTorrent format, like a fine-tuned Google, and its operators should not be held liable for any unauthorized copies made by its users. The court disagreed, however, noting that the Pirate Bay ignored repeated requests by copyright holders to block access to bootlegs. In fact, the site actively directed users to copyrighted works, such as leaked copies of Oscar-nominated films.
One risk posed by such stunts is that they can prompt courts to overreact, jeopardizing any new technology that has the potential to be used illegally. The Stockholm district court may have fallen into this trap; it ruled that the defendants abetted illegal copying by providing advanced search features, simple uploading and downloading, and some of the software needed to complete file transfers. Creating a usable file-sharing site, however, shouldn't be an illegal act; file-sharing is just another way to distribute content online. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in the Grokster case, the real issue is whether the site operators promote piracy. That's the problem for the four Swedish defendants -- it's their behavior, not their technology.
The ruling, which is sure to be appealed, creates another deterrent to businesses and investors that want to monetize online piracy. But it isn't likely to make a dent in the demand for free content online, legal or otherwise, because there are so many other sources of it. That's why the Stockholm ruling may be just the culmination of yesterday's battle for the entertainment industry. Today's challenge is to create compelling authorized sources of music, movies and games online that make better use of the Net than the bootleggers do. If the industry is going to win over the Pirate Bay's customers, it will be through user-friendly online movie and music outlets such as Hulu and Spotify, not the courts.