One of the most significant and much awaited copyright disputes commenced last month in Stockholm, Sweden. The case, which has been labelled as 'the internet piracy trial of the decade', involves Pirate Bay, the massively popular file sharing website, which was accused in 2006 of facilitating the illegal distribution of copyrighted material following police raids at the website's premises in Stockholm.

How Pirate Bay works

Pirate Bay is one of the world's largest BitTorrent search engines. BitTorrent is the data-sharing protocol which enables the transfer of large files i.e. music from one user to the other. Pirate Bay works by providing users with a search interface which provides a list of various BitTorrent files, thus providing them with the information needed about where the BitTorrent files can be downloaded.

The two sides of the argument

As with any dispute of this type, both sides are arguing heavily that their approach is right, which has led to two interesting competing arguments being put forward by the respective parties.

On one hand, public prosecutor, Hakan Roswall argues that Pirate Bay is "not merely a search engine. It is an active part of an action that aims at, and also leads to, making copyrighted material available…It's a classic example of accessory-to act as intermediary between people who commit crimes, whether it's in the physical or virtual world".

However, as perhaps could be expected, the four men behind Pirate Bay who have been charged with the offence deny this to be the case. Instead, their argument is based on the premise that no copyrighted material is made available on their site and, equally importantly, no swapping of BitTorrent files actually takes place on it. This is the position of Pirate Bay's legal advisor Mikael Viborg who is insisting that since the search results only direct the user to content, its actions are legal.

Possible outcome and the future

The authorities (together with various industry officials) believe that evidence produced during the trial will demonstrate that there has been an abuse of copyright by the website, however it is also acknowledged that this trial may only be the start of a longer term battle to close Pirate Bay for good. Notwithstanding the outcome of the trial, the men behind Pirate Bay claim that they have servers in various parts of the world which will allow them to re-establish the website. Further, because of the variety of locations of these servers, despite any decision made in the Swedish courts, this will not prevent the survival of the site in other countries. Although several commentators predict that legal action will continue in these other countries to ensure the demise of Pirate Bay, the success of such attempts will rely significantly on those countries' attitudes to the protection of copyrighted work.

It is worth noting that it has already been established in other disputes of a similar nature, that such attitudes vary enormously especially outside Europe and the United States. The appetite for such subsequent actions will likely depend on the outcome of this case, which will no doubt lead to a large amount of media as well as political and legal interest in the development and outcome of the trial over the coming months.