The Church of Internet Piracy

Sweden’s newest recognized religion, Kopimism, holds illegal file sharing sacred. Is it real, or another prank?

Sweden’s newest religion may be the only faith that was born out of an insult. The idea to form a church promoting Internet piracy first came to an activist named Peter Sunde “four or five years ago” when he saw a comment by one of the lawyers seeking his prosecution for facilitating copyright infringement. Asked in an interview for her opinion of enthusiasts such as Sunde, at the time the spokesman for the popular file-sharing site Pirate Bay, the lawyer replied: “They’re a cult.” The slur provided a new direction for Sweden’s vibrant anti-copyright community to explore. “We have this history that every time somebody calls us something negative, we just take the name and make it ours,” Sunde says. “We were called pirates, so we said, ‘Let’s make pirates cool.’ O.K., so now, we’re a cult. Let’s make that fun as well.”

Thus was born the Missionary Church of Kopimism. Sunde never took action on his idea, but he mentioned it to his fellow activists and mused openly about it on the Internet. Soon enough a group had gathered that held sacred the act of copying information. The group adopted the keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste, ctrl-C and ctrl-V, as holy symbols—the church has no formal doctrine regarding ctrl-X—and began to develop a theology.

In stark opposition to “Thou shalt not steal,” the church’s central commandment, “Copy and seed,” is a call to download files and make them available for sharing. Life itself, the newly declared believers observed, depends on the replication of cells and the endless duplication of DNA. The church even survived a mini-schism when some believers questioned why their religion had adopted holy symbols popularized by —a company that has increasingly based its business model around the tight control of information—rather than, say, escape-W and ctrl-Y, the copy and paste commands for the open-source text editor Emacs. “For me it’s a fun prank, and it’s even better because I didn’t have to do it myself,” says Sunde.

More than 5,000 people have signed on to Kopimism’s website, according to its directors. While many of the church’s members likely share Sunde’s whimsical attitude, it would be a mistake to say no one takes the religion seriously. Kopimism is far from the first religion to get its start out of political expediency—think Henry VIII—and many of its adherents share deeply held political and philosophical beliefs about freedom of information. “In the beginning, it was a joke,” says Gustav Nipe, the church’s chairman. “But maybe we’ve stepped on something greater than we thought.” Sunde supports the cause, although he hasn’t signed up. “Like most Swedes, I’m an atheist,” he says.

To the extent that Kopimism has a spiritual home outside Internet forums, it is Uppsala, a university town some 40 miles north of Stockholm, where long, dark winters, monotonous weather, and a large student population provide fertile ground for the dissemination of the church’s precepts. For Nicholas Miles, a 21-year-old student of social work at the University of Uppsala, the copying held sacred by Kopimism isn’t just about file sharing (though it’s that, too). “By having this conversation, you and I right now are copying information,” he told me. “Sharing can involve music or a video game or a movie or, indeed, a philosophical text.”

The church’s chief missionary and spiritual leader (and when it comes to dealing with Swedish bureaucracy, its prime submitter of paperwork) is Isak Gerson, a 20-year-old student of philosophy. Gerson has a pale face, a shaved head, and loves video games. In addition to being the country’s top Kopimist, Gerson is a committed Lutheran who attends mass about twice a month. He makes the case for his new faith with an unnerving deadpan delivery and the zeal of the converted. “Information is holy,” he says. One important distinction between religious values and other values is that you can’t explain them rationally.”

To those following the battle between copyright holders and anti-intellectual-property activists, it came as little surprise that Sweden was the country that gave birth to Kopimism. In the 1990s, Sweden had one of the most connected populations in the world, with broadband penetration rivaling that of Japan and South Korea. As millions of Swedes discovered the joys of free entertainment, a constituency formed around file sharing, and activists set about developing an intellectual framework for its defense. “When you give that kind of technology not just to nerds, who nobody listens to, but to everyone, it kick-starts the public discussion of how that technology can and maybe should be used,” says Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, one of several anti-copyright movements that emerged in the country over the past decade. (Nipe, as it happens, is also chairman of the party’s youth organization.)

The trade-offs between the defense of intellectual property and Internet freedom made headlines earlier this year, when Wikipedia and other sites staged a 24-hour blackout in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), an effort by the U.S. Congress to block foreign sites that break copyright laws, which many feared would cripple the Internet. For Sweden, it was old news. The country had its SOPA moment in 2008 when a bill that proposed allowing the government to intercept some sorts of Internet traffic sparked broad protests. (The legislation squeaked through Parliament.) And when authorities in New Zealand busted the file-sharing site in January, Swedes had seen it all before, in the 2006 raids of the Pirate Bay, which resulted in the arrest and eventual conviction of Sunde and several other activists on charges of “assisting in making copyright content available.” The defendants were given jail time and fines amounting to $6.8 million. (Sunde is to serve eight months.) Their motion to appeal the decision was rejected last week by Sweden’s Supreme Court.

The New Year brought better news for Kopimism. In January, Gerson received word that the church had been recognized by the government in Stockholm. Swedish law has allowed for the registration of religious organizations since 2000, when the country formally separated church from state. To qualify as a religious organization, a group need only declare that its members define themselves as religious (a recursive definition only a programmer could love) and that they hold some sort of meditative service. Officials at the Kammarkollegiet, the agency responsible for the registration, stress that their procedures don’t certify the tenets of a faith, just the existence of its followers.

Nonetheless, the Missionary Church of Kopimism struggled to get acceptance. The first attempt foundered when its adherents neglected to check all the bureaucratic boxes when defining their service. They’d settled on file sharing as their form of communal worship—basically what many would have been doing anyway—but neglected to explain how it was meditative. The second try failed, too. The applicants botched some of the dates and signatures. “They’re actually not so good at copying,” says Bertil Kallner, the Kammarkollegiet’s chief lawyer.

According to Nipe, the group’s eventual recognition by the Swedish authorities is only the beginning. He says it opens the door to apply for the right to perform marriage ceremonies and to receive government funding allocated to religious groups. “The Church of Sweden is selling a lot of its old churches,” says Nipe. “I’d love it if we could buy one.” Others, like Sunde, salivate over the prospect of invoking the privacy of the confessional in future court cases. For now, though, registration has provided the Missionary Church of Kopimism with only one legal advantage: Nobody in Sweden is allowed to copy its name.

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