If you haven’t heard about what’s happening in Sweden this week, listen up — a case being heard there could change the face of Copyright law as it applies to the Web. If the defendants win, a door will be opened to free content, the result of which could significantly harm the entertainment industry (and you). If the plaintiffs win, the Web will be forever changed (potentially for the worse), and all Web content will be subject to and punishable by Copyright law.
Ever wonder why so much TV and movie content has migrated online? At first glance it would appear that the natural step for the entertainment industry was toward the Web. In the last year companies like Hulu and Netflix have given Web content a home that the general public will recognize as the place to get TV and movies.
But entertainment content has been online and easily accessible for much longer than Hulu and Netflix through sites like OVGuide, and most notably ThePirateBay.org — which offer free downloadable TV shows and movies. The catch — content from these sites is considered illegal by some, because the sites hosting content do not own the Copyrights to the content they share.
ThePirateBay is operated by four Swedish men, Frederik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Peter Sunde Kolmsioppi, and Carl Lundstorm, who today stand trial for purportedly providing such content to millions of people through their Web site.
The plaintiffs, Warner Bros. Entertainment, MGM Pictures, Columbia Pictures Industries, Twentieth Century Fox Film, Sony BMG, Universal, and EMI are out for blood, and 120 million kronor ($14.3 million) in “lost revenues”. What’s more, winning this case will make countless sites like ThePirateBay, OVGuide and others, which don’t necessarily host the content, illegal in Sweden (and will give the defendants cause to go after similar sites elsewhere, with a precedent set by Sweden).
The defendants claim their site is legal because it acts like a search engine; but one that focuses solely on entertainment content. The site redirects users to servers in countries whose laws to not prohibit hosting Copyrighted content. The bottom line, ThePirateBay and other sites like it that connect you to streaming or downloadable content are basically niche versions of Google, Yahoo et al.
To be sure, the owners of these sites know they are pointing out illegal content. Furthermore, they’re earning ad revenue from the traffic they obtain. Last month, a site called Watch-Movies.net was more or less shut down when ISPs blocked their nearly 15 million daily visitors from accessing the site, purportedly for alleged copyright infringement (though it was never proven). No laws were ever proved broken — but Time Warner Cable, Verizon and other ISPs can block access to certain sites at will.
Advertising revenue is central to ThePirateBay case because the money the site has earned is substantial — and it comes from content they don’t own. However, the defendants are confident they will win because they don’t host the content themselves. Bottom line — if they are guilty, then so are Google, Yahoo and any other search engines that point to such content.
This case has gained international attention, most prominently via Twitter. During yesterday’s opening arguments, one defendant Tweeted that he may have been the first person to ever Tweet from inside a trial. Feeds have been set up to aggregate the thousands of conversations surrounding the trial — whose outcome will surely change the laws governing the Web.
Only two days in, CNET reports that nearly half the charges brought against ThePirateBay have already been dropped as the prosecution refocuses its case on the defendants’ act of making this content available. Again, this will be a tough crime to prove, as any number of similar sites including more recognizable names can be accused of the same.