The verdict against the founders of The Pirate Bay is being hailed by many as a triumphant win against illegal file-sharing. The four men involved in the BitTorrent tracking site were found guilty on Friday of being accessories to violating copyright law.
A Swedish court sentenced each of them to a year in jail and a collective fine of 30 million kronor (£2.4m).
In the long run, though, the verdict may not be as significant as some suggest when it comes to the battle against online file-sharing. Does the name Does the name Napster ring a bell?
The Pirate Bay Ruling
As was the case with Napster, The Pirate Bay doesn't actually host copyrighted files - it simply allows users to post links to material hosted on third-party servers. That's why, incidentally, prosecutors ended up dropping the initial charge of "assisting copyright infringement" and pursuing only a "assisting making available copyrighted material" charge instead.
"The court said even if you are distributed, you are nevertheless encouraging your customers to violate copyright, and we'll hold you accountable," explains Steve Chang, an attorney specialising in intellectual property matters with Banner & Witcoff.
Napster, of course, ended up effectively boarding up as a result of its lengthy court battle (which, by the way, began exactly one decade ago this December). The Pirate Bay, though, isn't going anywhere yet. Its founders have already indicated they plan to appeal, and the case is expected to head as high as the Supreme Court. Many legal experts expect it could be years before a final verdict is reached.
"It took the entertainment industry three years to get this first verdict," a member of the Swedish "Pirate Party" tells The Register. "If they think they're going to make people stop file sharing, then they're living in a fantasy world."
Beyond the Courts
The bigger issue is that unlike Napster, The Pirate Bay and other modern peer-to-peer-oriented networks are far less centralized and simple to shut down. And, even if The Pirate Bay itself were somehow to be shuttered, there are countless other comparable tracking services all over the world. Could they all be targeted and taken down? It's highly unlikely.
But let's take it a step further. Let's say this whole thing plays out in the high court and The Pirate Bay loses. Let's say BitTorrent completely ceases to exist as a result. (Just play along for a minute.) Would that, then, be the end of online file-sharing?
The answer: of course not. Even in that extreme (and extremely unlikely) scenario, little would be accomplished in the grand scheme of things. Technology is constantly evolving. Just as more advanced decentralized peer-to-peer networks sprung up in the wake of Napster's shutdown, new alternatives would surface once again were a site like The Pirate Bay to lower its sails. Already, countless other methods exist for exchanging data with ease, and more will only pop up as the months wear on.
"In the big scheme of things, piracy is always going to happen," Chang says. "The ramification of this [ruling] is possibly providing the next evolution."
That evolution has already begun. Just recently, The Pirate Bay team prepared a new service called IPREDator, set to launch publicly any day now. It allows people to surf the Net more anonymously using a virtual private network, or VPN. Unlike other VPN services, The Pirate Bay promises its IPREDator will keep no logs of customer activity and therefore could never turn user information over to authorities.
"As in all good movies, the heroes lose in the beginning but have an epic victory in the end," boasts a message posted to The Pirate Bay Web site Friday morning. "That's the only thing Hollywood ever taught us."
If there's one Hollywood analogy to be made, it's that this storyline is far from finished. Rest assured, more sequels are on the way.
Note: This blog first appeared on our sister site PCWorld.com.