John Tagliabue profiles Kopimisim, a new “religion” in Sweden which believes that information should be shared freely, regardless of copyright
People almost everywhere are file sharing these days, using computers to download music, films, books or other materials, often ignoring copyrights. In Sweden, however, it is a religion. Really.
A Swedish government agency this year registered as a bona fide religion a church whose central dogma is that file sharing is sacred. “For me it is a kind of believing in deeper values than worldly values,” says Isak Gerson, a philosophy student at Uppsala University who helped found the church in 2010 and bears the title chief missionary. “You have it in your backbone.”
Kopimism — the name comes from a Swedish spelling of the words “copy me” — claims more than 8,000 faithful who have signed up on the church’s website. It has applied for the right to perform marriages and to receive subsidies awarded to religious organisations by the state, and it has bid, thus far unsuccessfully, to buy a church building, even though most church activities are conducted online.
“We have something similar to regular priests,” says Gerson, 20, who claims a permanent link to the divine through a Nokia smartphone. “We call them ops, or operators, and their task is to help people with things like meetings. There are not that many rituals.”
The Kopimists rose out of Europe’s growing piracy movement, which was born in Sweden about a decade ago. In elections to the European parliament in 2009, the country’s Pirate Party got 7.1 per cent of the vote, though in national elections the next year its share plummeted to less than 1 per cent. The movement has spread abroad, to at least nine European countries. In May, Germany’s Pirate Party won almost 8 per cent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state; in Berlin last year, it won 8.9 per cent in elections to the state parliament. But Kopimists like Gerson insist that the church does not sully its hands with politics, though they admit that the line between politics and religion can be elusive.
The government has no problem with that tradition, as long as its adherents do not break the law. “It is our responsibility to register religious communities that fulfill certain criteria,” says Mareta Grondal, an official at the government agency that registered the church. “We do not look into how communities act in a practical way.” A religious community is recognised, Grondal says, if it fulfills certain requirements, like writing a charter and filing it with the agency, electing a governing board and paying an annual fee, now about $70. The Kopimist request for registration was twice refused on technicalities before being granted. “The government cannot, should not interfere with what people believe in,” Grondal says.
But the government has been interfering with what people do of late, and shows few signs of allowing religious freedom to justify copyright infringement. “More and more file sharers are getting busted, especially within the last year,” says Anna Troberg, leader of the Swedish Pirate Party, which has about 8,500 members. “The big movie companies, the big record companies, want someone to go to trial,” she says, to act as a deterrent to others. Yet, she says, with an estimated two million Swedes involved in such activity, the odds of someone being successfully prosecuted are small.
Still, the trend is clear and Europewide. In a disclosure of diplomatic cable traffic published last year by WikiLeaks was a detailed request by the United States Embassy to the Swedish government to stop copyright infringement. A Dutch court in May ordered Internet providers to block the Pirate Bay website, which is linked to the Pirate Party, or face large fines, a ruling that will virtually block access to the Sweden-based site for the Dutch. Britain’s High Court issued a similar judgment in April.
Not all Swedes share the Kopimist dogma that information wants to be free, regardless of copyright. “It’s important to pay for stuff that you download,” says Jennifer Hallberg, 32, who just finished an MBA and is now looking for work. If the Kopimists find a way for artists and writers to benefit fairly from their work without downloaders having to pay, she says, “then they deserve a Nobel Prize.”
Still, Ernie Lagerstrand, 45, who works in marketing, recalls how large crowds protested outside the royal palace of King Carl XVI Gustaf after the government temporarily shut down the Pirate Bay Web site in 2006. “People were ready to go to jail,” he says.
He doubts that the Kopimists risk becoming a stalking horse for file thieves. “It’s not just about reading files, it’s about ways of sharing information,” he says, fiddling with a laptop in a coffee shop near the central train station. “The politicians don’t get it; they focus on the legal matters.”
For his part, Gerson says Kopimism refuses to “draw a line between copying and creativity.” “Our angle is not to mock religion,” he says. “We recall that Christianity and the Gospels, with their collections of little stories, are examples of copying.”
© 2012 The New York Times