Four men linked to popular file-sharing site The Pirate Bay were convicted Friday of breaking Sweden's copyright law by helping millions of users freely download music, movies and computer games on the Internet.
In a landmark ruling, the Stockholm district court sentenced Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Peter Sunde, Fredrik Neij and Carl Lundstrom to one year each in prison.
They were also ordered to pay damages of 30 million kronor ($3.6 million) to a series of entertainment companies, including Warner Bros, Sony Music Entertainment, EMI and Columbia Pictures.
The Pirate Bay provides a forum for its estimated 22 million users to download content through so-called torrent files. The site has become the entertainment industry's enemy No. 1 after successful court actions against file-swapping sites such as Grokster and Kazaa.
Defense lawyers had argued the quartet should be acquitted because The Pirate Bay doesn't host any copyright-protected material. Instead, it provides a forum for its users to download content through so-called torrent files.
The technology allows users to transfer parts of a large file from several different users, increasing download speeds.
The court found the defendants guilty of helping users commit copyright violations "by providing a Web site with ... sophisticated search functions, simple download and storage capabilities, and through the tracker linked to the Web site."
Judge Tomas Norstrom told reporters that the court took into account that the site was "commercially driven" when it made the ruling. The defendants have denied any commercial motives behind the site.
John Kennedy, the head of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, called the verdict "good news for everyone, in Sweden and internationally, who is making a living or a business from creative activity and who needs to know their rights will be protected by law." The defendants said before the verdict that they would appeal if they were found guilty.
The court hearings, which ended March 3, renewed debate about file-sharing in Sweden, where many defend the right to swap songs and movies freely on the Internet.
Critics say that Swedish authorities caved in to pressure from the U.S. when they launched the crackdown on The Pirate Bay in 2006.
The Pirate Bay's supporters mobilized for the trial, waving black skull-and-crossbones flags outside the court and setting up a Web site dedicated to the proceedings. The defendants sent updates from the court hearings through social network Twitter.
The verdict comes as Europe debates stricter rules to crack down on those who share content illegally on the Internet.
Last week French legislators rejected a plan to cut off the Internet connections of people who illegally download music and films, but the government plans to resurrect the bill for another vote this month.
Opponents said the legislation would represent a Big Brother intrusion on civil liberties, while the European Parliament last month adopted a nonbinding resolution that defines Internet access as an untouchable "fundamental freedom."
Sweden earlier this month introduced a new law that makes it easier to prosecute file-sharers because it requires Internet Service Providers to disclose the Internet Protocol-addresses of suspected violators to copyright owners.
Critics said the new law could harm Sweden's reputation as a spawning ground for Internet technology. The country of 9 million has one of Europe's highest rates of Internet penetration, but has also gained a reputation as a hub for file-sharers.
Statistics from the Netnod Internet Exchange, an organization measuring Internet traffic in Sweden, suggested that daily online activity dropped more than 40 percent after the law took effect on April 1.