A different kind of piracy

Disclaimer: This article deals exclusively with the issue of music sharing, not other media.

You’ve heard a lot about pirates recently, but did you know that Somalians aren’t the only ones making headlines?

Indeed, the largest and best-known BitTorrent tracker, The Pirate Bay (http://thepiratebay.org), was recently brought to trial and charged with “promoting other peoples’ infringements of copyright laws” by a group of Stockholm prosecutors working in conjunction with the IFPI, or International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. The trial, which had been closely followed by various international news organizations – though coverage was conspicuously absent from mainstream U.S. media – came to an end on April 17 when the judge deemed four individuals associated with the site guilty.

Using evidence seized in a 2006 raid of the Web site’s headquarters, prosecutors presented proof of the site making 33 specific files under copyright available via peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. However, after taking into account the enormity of the site (22 million registered users tracking 1.5 million torrents per cycle, with $1.2 million per year in advertising revenues), the defendants’ punishments seem rather light: each must serve one year of imprisonment within Swedish penitentiaries and they must pay $3.6 million to a collection of entertainment agencies such as Warner Bros., Columbia, Sony Music and EMI.

And the site continues to run! As someone who hasn’t paid for an album since freshman year of high school, I’m thankful.

For years, Internet file-sharing has been a hot topic in the music industry. Since the Metallica vs. Napster conflict in 2000, various labels have adopted a defense against file sharing based on the supposed loss of money at the expense of their clientele: the musicians. This argument is hollow. In fact, many major artists knowingly released their music for free during the course of the trial – among them were Radiohead, Trent Reznor, and Greg Gillis (Girl Talk). While I don’t have enough space in this article to deride the music label’s entire defense, suffice it to say that it works like this: artists have historically made most of their profits from live shows and merchandise; CD sales are a small piece (~7 percent) of the pie.

Which is why this case is so puzzling. Under present law, the site is not accountable for file sharing, and therefore it cannot be brought to trial. What just occurred in Stockholm was little more than a spectacle – a last-ditch flex of diminishing power by a dying industry. In essence, the case was proof that the labels continually miss the point: for every file-sharing site shut down, two more will emerge. Or, in this instance: you can’t even shut down one.

So as the Pirate Bay guys are submitting their appeals to the court, I encourage everyone reading to continue getting their music for free. Perhaps in time, the labels will abandon their antiquated business models and realize that when one window’s shut, another’s open. And for any industry eyes seeking examples, check out a label called Normative (http://normative.com/), with whom artists establish themselves as independent corporations, not indentured money-earners.