It may operate in murky waters, but there’s no denying it’s given the music and film industries a run for their money. Oliver Lindberg speaks to Peter Sunde, administrator of one of the web’s most notorious sites, The Pirate Bay
It’s the entertainment industry’s worst nightmare. The website proudly mocks dozens of copyright infringement notices and cease and desist letters, and it’s been raided by the police. So far, every effort to shut it down has been in vain. In fact, three days after the raid, The Pirate Bay bounced back. Now the world’s largest BitTorrent tracker is turning the tables by attempting to sue 10 major entertainment players.
It all started in 2004, when members of the Swedish group Piratbyrån (the bureau of piracy), which supports individuals fighting against current copyrights laws, were looking for a way to promote filesharing. The idea was to launch an all-Swedish portal, where users could download any kind of content. Gottfrid Svartholm, who now runs the site together with fellow pirates Peter Sunde and Fredrik Neij, originally decided to host The Pirate Bay at his workplace in Mexico City, where he worked as a programmer for a security consultant. The internet connection, however, struggled under the popular project and ate up all of the business’s bandwidth, so a year later he moved The Pirate Bay to Sweden to host it on a better connection. Peter, the site’s administrator and main spokesperson, joined soon after because he thought it was a cool technology and a technical challenge. It was something he believed in, so he wanted to help and build a much bigger site. “When we came to Sweden, it was at the same time that all the other torrent sites such as Suprnova [recently resurrected by The Pirate Bay] started to close down because of the pressure from the different copyright holders. We grew and, all of a sudden, we had a Swedish website and 70 per cent of our users couldn’t understand Swedish. It was a bizarre situation, so we decided to upgrade The Pirate Bay, and now it’s available in 30 languages.”
The people’s website
The feedback we get from users is very positive, but the businesses are very hateful towards us
As a result, The Pirate Bay has established itself as one of the web’s most popular sites, currently ranking higher than Last.fm and nytimes.com and used by about two million people a day. Unlike other sites, which have bowed under pressure, it keeps on growing. Each time The Pirate Bay makes headlines (most recently, for trying to buy the micro-nation of Sealand, a former military platform off the Suffolk coast) the site’s traffic increases. “People love what we’re doing and they’re really glad we’re doing it. We get invited to all sorts of conferences and seminars. The feedback we get from users is very positive, but the businesses are very hateful towards us. I can understand what they think because they’re scared. But I don’t think it’s their right, otherwise I wouldn’t have been doing this. We try to change stuff our way.”
Peter says there’s no problem because they’re not doing anything illegal. The Pirate Bay simply serves as a search engine for torrent files, no content is hosted on the site. The investigation that followed the raid of May 2006 is ongoing and the public prosecutor has indicated that it may take several more months before any of the suspects are formally charged. Peter is confident they’ll convince the court The Pirate Bay hasn’t broken the law, and likens his site’s position to telling someone, “Go and steal a pair of pants over at that store”, which wouldn’t be illegal.
“They’re trying to sentence us for assisting with copyright infringement, which is just a cover-up for the whole raid. If you commit a crime in Sweden, that doesn’t carry a prison sentence. It’s not illegal to assist with that crime [in Sweden]. Filesharing in Sweden can’t get you into prison, so there’s nothing criminal about helping people to fileshare.”
To ensure they keep going in case of another raid, The Pirate Bay administrators claim not to know the location of their 30-odd servers, which are spread all over Europe. They feel passionately about filesharing, and current copyright laws are nothing but an inconvenience that gets in the way. Peter explains: “A lot of people see us as copyright haters, but actually we don’t care about the copyright. How could we hate it? Of course we want to change the way copyright is today, but it’s not because we hate it – it’s because copyright is a problem for our users and us. It has changed so much in the past 10 years that we need to have it altered. For private use, filesharing and copying should be legal.”
Peter blames the record industry for the current situation and says iTunes would be a great tool if it wasn’t for the DRM and high prices. “Records are passé – it’s an old technology. The record industry needs to come up with something new. They’ve never been innovators but now they really have to be innovators to survive. It’s their problem and the people who solve the puzzle, which can be solved, will make a lot of money. I don’t care if the record labels survive. The music will survive anyhow.”
Turning the tables
Now The Pirate Bay is firing back. It’s filing criminal charges against 10 major music and movie companies in Sweden, including 20th Century Fox and EMI Music. When hackers attacked US company MediaDefender, a specialist in disrupting P2P networks, thousands of internal emails were released. Peter claims he found proof that the content companies were behind denial of service attacks and spam floods of fake torrents that hit the Pirate Bay. “They hired MediaDefender, which, in our opinion, breaks the law, to sabotage our infrastructure. Since they paid for it, they’re responsible for it. In the emails that leaked, there are contracts and IP addresses that they’ve used and we had logged before. The police seemed to take it seriously and it’s a very important question to answer: Are you allowed to ruin someone’s infrastructure online because of your opinion of what’s right and wrong?”
I got to this one record label and the guy started calling me a rapist and everything
Peter, who used to work for a large German medical company and now runs his own web consultancy, says the plan is to concentrate full-time on The Pirate Bay. At the moment, all of the money they make from the ads on the site goes back into the site, and any profit made from the immensely popular merchandising goes back to the Piratbyrån. Future projects should ensure they generate enough money to pay themselves. Currently, they’re working on a next-gen open source protocol to make filesharing more efficient and safe (so you can’t trace transactions, and to guard the system against anti-piracy attacks), and several side projects are set to launch in early 2008. The Video Bay is going to be modelled after YouTube, but will be uncensored and – if everything goes according to plan – will use P2P streaming protocols. Another service, Playble, will be a music sharing site that enables users to support artists financially. The more their material is downloaded, the more ad revenue the artists will get back from the site. Peter approached several record companies for the project and says the reaction he got wasn’t too friendly: “I got to this one record label and the guy started calling me a rapist and everything,” he says. “He was mad at me and eventually, a couple of hours later, I went out with CDs from some of the artists he wants to promote on the site. Even the hardest people to convince see that it’s a good idea. But we want to deal with the artists directly.”
One thing is certain: The Pirate Bay has got a lot of supporters, and they can count on plenty of help from developers who want to push filesharing forwards. Recently, an unnamed owner donated the domain ifpi.com, previously run by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, to The Pirate Bay, who promptly set up the International Federation of Pirates Interests.
The IFPI, which has already filed a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organisation, won’t give in lightly. So another battle is on the horizon and you can’t help thinking that we haven’t heard the last of The Pirate Bay. Even if it does go down, it has ensured that filesharing has turned into a massive anti-copyright movement that’s impossible to ignore.
Job: Entrepreneur and The Pirate Bay administrator
Previous career: Worked with some of Sweden’s biggest web systems, did one of the first WAP mail systems, and worked with digital X-ray systems for a large German medical company