Jack Riley: This trial has only made torrent sites much stronger
"It used to be only movies," Pirate Bay founder Peter Sunde told his followers on Twitter yesterday, as news broke of the early outcome of yesterday's trial. "Now even verdicts are out before the official release." To file-sharers worldwide, the irony will not go unappreciated.
Waves from Pirate Bay's tussle with copyright holders will be appearing on the shores of many file-sharing sites across the world in the coming days, as an under-investigated community tries to assess the implications of yesterday's guilty verdict on what has been, until now, a largely unregulated area of the internet. Pirate Bay's publicly accessible database of "torrent files", the blueprints for quick and easy downloading of TV shows, films, albums and singles, is used to share legal and illegal files by more than 3.5 million registered users. By November of last year it had recorded more than 25 million "peers" – anyone who has participated in the dissipation of files by torrent. Since then, there has been an explosion in publicity which has seen widespread mainstream media coverage as well as almost blanket coverage in the blogosphere and on Twitter. In geek parlance, in trying to strike Pirate Bay down, the prosecutors may have succeeded in making the website stronger than they ever imagined.
The consensus among the smarter media commentators is that the success for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which is reportedly funded by the music industry to the tune of £64m annually, in winning $3.62m (£2.4m) damages from Pirate Bay constitutes a missed opportunity to adapt to a media climate in which they may shortly no longer exist. Not only did Pirate Bay never physically host copyrighted content, as others have noted, by treating file-sharing as an issue of legality, rather than as an opportunity to review its business models, the entertainment industry may well end up winning the battle, but losing the war. Rumours that these kinds of prosecutions will continue until the revenues for DVDs and CDs have collapsed abound, but the argument coming from film studios in particular is that convictions like that of Pirate Bay operate on the same basis as in the war on drugs – serving more as a deterrent than as part of their business plan.
Indeed, the music and movie industry's reaction to the verdict would perhaps look less ridiculous if it wasn't for the fact that alternatives to conventional distribution models are so widespread. Significant moves towards countering piracy by making content free or subsidised include YouTube's deal with Sony, which promises to legitimise reams of content that users would previously have had to visit illegal sources to watch. ITunes offers distribution for films and music and the author Paulo Coelho has found that distributing his novel The Alchemist on Pirate Bay recently has seen a boost in international sales.
But in response to the question of where copyrighted creative content industries can go next as piracy becomes paradoxically both more heavily policed and more widespread, record labels in particular may look to China, where Google has unveiled the final iteration of a service which allows all internet users in the country to download the entire back-catalogues of Warner, Universal, EMI and Sony and 140 other music companies for free. In a country with a legitimate music industry worth just $76m because of widespread piracy, and with an online population which has overtaken that of the USA, advertising accompanying legitimate free downloads is expected to replace money that would once have been made through conventional sales, while simultaneously cutting the detrimental effect to the environment of manufacturing millions of tonnes of plastic for CDs and DVDs.
Whether Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Varg, Peter Sunde and Carl Lundstroem spend 12 months at the pleasure of the Swedish government or succeed in the appeal they are likely to lodge, a revolution in filesharing is underway. Not only did the ruling omit any order to close down piratebay.org but, with servers in Belgium and Russia – the latter considered a haven for all manner of illegal internet activities – the site continues to see traffic rise and seems unlikely to face legal action which will impact its operations any time soon.
Moreover, with alternative torrent sites like Mininova and Torrentz having so far escaped the jurisdiction, it is time Hollywood and the record industries face up to the fact that their current business models leave them at risk of extinction. "As in all good movies, the heroes lose in the beginning but have an epic victory in the end anyhow," a comment posted on The Pirate Bay's website read yesterday. "That's the only thing Hollywood ever taught us."