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Bad Geeks!: Fredrik Neij and Gottfrid Svartholm Warg on the loose


Curtis Cartier uncorks on Internet torrent file barons The Pirate Bay, now on trial in Sweden for copyright infringement.

By Curtis Cartier

July 3, 2001, was a great day for music. That was the day a U.S. District Court ordered Shawn Fanning to shut down his illegal file-sharing website, Napster. The landmark decision rocked the online downloading world and was a milestone for artists everywhere who enjoy being paid for their work. The Swedish government now has the chance to make a similar mark on history when it hands down its verdict on criminal copyright infringement charges against torrent-file tracking site The Pirate Bay, sometime before April 17.

Billed as "the world's largest BitTorrent tracker," the Pirate Bay is a free online service that allows users to search for, share, comment on and rank torrent files. These small files contain a treasure map to data scattered around the Internet, that, when combined, add up to a shiny new copy of The Dark Knight or Beirut's March of the Zapotec. Anything and everything that uses binary code is available on The Pirate Bay, from unreleased albums to original photos to programs like Adobe Photoshop. And since the site's 23 million users upload the files, site owners Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg and Peter Sunde are arguing that their service is no more illegal than Google or MySpace. Unfortunately, we've heard this tale before. Napster told it in 2001 and Kazaa a year later. What this entire case boils down to is the misplaced notion that you can get something for nothing as long as it's online. The Pirate Bay may not be personally distributing copyrighted material, but it is building a nice cozy house for people to get together and do just that.

The monthlong trial, which began in February--nearly two years after Swedish police raided The Pirate Bay's massive servers in May of 2006--has been called "the internet piracy case of the decade" by the London Times and covered extensively by media worldwide. Besides the criminal charges levied by the Swedish government, a host of media companies are also seeking civil damages totaling about $14 million. Though the dollar amount is debatable, the need to continually strengthen laws against pirated media is not. The legal framework for monitoring downloads and sharing has been playing a losing game of catch-up ever since the first Internet user emailed a song to a friend.

In the time of Napster's demise, dozens of small indie bands rallied for the site, claiming it was the only vessel for promoting their music without the aid of a big record label. This defense is no longer valid, as sites like MySpace and Last.FM allow users to listen to full songs and view info on the artists instantly, without paying a cent. What these sites don't allow is for users to burn songs onto a CD or download them into an iPod. And that is the line in the sand that should always remain when setting legal precedent for media sharing. Would I like to download a leaked copy of the new Bob Dylan album or an entire season of The Wire for free? Sure. But if no one is paying the musicians to record or the moviemakers to film, what reason do they have to go above and beyond? Nothing worthwhile is this world is free. It's time the online world joined the real one.

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