Operating under the sign of a Jolly Roger, The Pirate Bay Web site hopes to evoke a buccaneer spirit: swashbuckling swordsmen, or perhaps pirate radio stations. But as the Internet's number one destination for illegal downloads, it has raised the hackles of the entertainment industry and elevated its founders to the top of Hollywood's most wanted list.
With more than two million visitors every day, The Pirate Bay has become one of the sharpest thorns in the side of the media business. Its controversial success has caused havoc in the music, TV and film industries. Current top downloads include The Bourne Ultimatum, Die Hard 4.0 and Knocked Up -- all showing in British cinemas, but available to watch on a computer screen for those willing to take the risk.
The three-year campaign to bring down the Web site is almost an epic of Hollywood proportions, sprinkled with high-flying lawyers and accusations of political extremism. And yet, so far, the chase has failed to bring the pirates down.
Despite their high profile, however, the men behind The Pirate Bay are not part of an organiZed crime syndicate. Instead, they are an unlikely trio of Swedish computer geeks who began their war with the media from a small room in Stockholm.
The group, who spoke exclusively to this reporter, live like students in the suburbs of Sweden's major cities. They wake late and work into the night. The closest thing they have to an official headquarters is a desk on the suburban outskirts of Malmo -- and that is simply because it has a working fax machine.
But as the most hated men in Hollywood, they said they have become used to the attention. "We get legal threats every day, or we used to," said Peter Sunde, 28, one of the site's main workers. "But we don't have a problem with them -- we're just a search engine."
* What is The Pirate Bay?
The Pirate Bay is based around a system called BitTorrent, which has become one of the most popular filesharing applications on the Internet.
* How does it work?
BitTorrent works by breaking down large files into small pieces. Instead of looking for a complete copy of the file you want the system searches the Internet for any computer that holds a part of the jigsaw. It then grabs them all simultaneously and reassembles them into one piece on your computer. This process can speed up the process of downloading large files, because the more people who have copies of a file the faster it can be downloaded. The Pirate Bay keeps an index of these torrent files, pointing people in the direction of the downloads whether they are copyrighted or not.
* What is the impact of BitTorrent?
Some experts estimate that BitTorrent is responsible for as much as 40 percent of all Internet traffic, but its creator, Bram Cohen, has escaped prosecution. He maintains it can be used for legitimate purposes.
Source: The Guardian
Fredrik Neij, a 29-year-old IT consultant, has a more prosaic view: "It's nice to be noticed," he smiled.
Chief among those angered by The Pirate Bay's popularity is the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represents the US film studios. It is waging war against the site, which it claims is costing billions in lost sales.
John Malcolm, executive vice-president of the MPAA, has railed against the trio, accusing them of cashing in on illegal activity. "The bottom line is that the operators of The Pirate Bay, and others like them, are criminals who profit handsomely by facilitating the distribution of millions of copyrighted creative works," he said.
Sunde insists the site does not profit its founders, and money raised from advertising is used to cover expenses. Instead, he says, the team make their money from a variety of side projects and day jobs.
Filesharing and illegal downloading has been a big issue for media companies since the late 1990s. But while pioneering sites such as Napster and Kazaa were closed down by the courts, the campaign against The Pirate Bay has failed to make a breakthrough.
The crux of the defense is that The Pirate Bay operates like any Internet search engine: it points to downloads, rather than hosting any illegal content itself. Under Swedish law this has so far made it immune to prosecution.
"I don't like the word untouchable, but we feel pretty safe," said Sunde.
He thinks that European enmity towards the Bush administration has bolstered support. "The US government is losing popularity every day in Europe, and people don't want to see us give in to them," he said.