While headlines may suggest otherwise, the vast majority of online file-sharers go about their business without ever falling foul of the law. Like hundreds of millions of speeding motorists every day, most breaches go unnoticed or unpunished.
Nevertheless, that’s not to say people can forget about the risks. Breaches of copyright law can result in hefty fines in most developed countries, if rightsholders feel strongly enough about prosecuting the case.
One such case began in Sweden four years ago when police investigating another incident stumbled across content being shared on a man’s computer. The discovery, which involved material obtained from The Pirate Bay, was reported to both copyright holders and the prosecutor.
After moving through an initial case and an appeal, the prosecutor’s office was disappointed when the file-sharer was issued with just a fine. With ambitions for a scary legal precedent, those sharing files habitually should be sent to jail, the prosecutor argued.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court but it didn’t work out as planned. The Court agreed that the defendant (known as JS) had damaged the interests of copyright holders with his actions but noted that in the majority of cases (57 out of the 60 movies) his subsequent sharing with others had been brief.
Also in the man’s favor was how the Court viewed his activities. No commercial motivation was found, with the Court noting that his file-sharing had been for personal use, despite its scale.
“Such use of the current networks and services should not be considered as an aggravating factor when assessing the penalty amount,” the judgment reads.
Sweden operates an income-calibrated system of fines known as “day fines” which are equal to the amount the defendant could have earned in a day. The Court ruled that for each movie download with a short upload, the man would be sentenced to 50 day fines.
While that sounds like the fine could increase to a huge amount, in Sweden when people are convicted of several offenses at the same time the penalty is gradually reduced for each subsequent offense. In any event the maximum punishment is 200 day fines.
In this case the man was sentenced to 180 day fines, up from the 160 handed down by the lower court. Anti-piracy group Rights Alliance who assisted with the case welcomed the judgment, but there can be little doubt that a custodial sentence (even a suspended one) was the target here.
Nevertheless, it appears that the judgment could have drawn a line in the sand.
“This is a borderline case where the sentence is located on the edge of going over to prison. If you’re looking to see what is necessary for a prison sentence, it’s not much more than this,” Supreme Court Judge Svante O. Johansson concluded.