By MATTIAS KAREN, Associated Press Writer
Unless Swedes have suddenly changed their habits, about one in 10 became a criminal on Friday when a ban on sharing copyrighted music and movies over the Internet took effect at midnight.
Swedes are among the most prolific file-sharers in the world. Industry groups estimate that about 10 percent of Sweden's 9 million residents freely swap music, games and movies on their computers, making the Scandinavian country one of the world's biggest copyright violators.
The new law, which follows a European Union directive, took effect a day after the U.S. government announced an 11-nation crackdown on Internet piracy organizations responsible for stealing copies of the latest "Star Wars" film and other movies, games and software programs.
The Swedish ban also comes just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the entertainment industry can file piracy lawsuits against technology companies caught encouraging customers to download copyrighted material for free over the Internet.
Globally, the movie industry alone is estimated to be losing $3.5 billion to $5.4 billion a year to Internet piracy.
Many industry experts say that Swedes -- normally law-abiding, but very tech-savvy -- have grown so lax about copyright infringement that any regulation is likely to be useless.
"A law in itself changes nothing," said Henrik Ponten, a spokesman for Antipiratbyran, a Swedish lobbying group waging a fierce campaign against the file-sharers. "There is nothing that indicates that (file-sharers) would change their behavior."
Previously, it had only been illegal in Sweden to make pirated material available online for others to download via so-called peer-to-peer networks.
While such behavior is rampant here, no one has been convicted of doing it. However, a court is expected to make the first ruling in such a case later this year. A 27-year-old man was charged in March with making a Swedish movie available for download from his home computer.
If convicted, he could face two years in prison. But if he is merely fined, it will likely serve as a green light for small-time pirates, as police and prosecutors normally won't spend resources on crimes that only warrant a fine.
And while most political parties backed the new law, Justice Minister Thomas Bodstrom has signaled that chasing downloaders will still not be a priority for police, unless the volume is massive.
"It would be just as unreasonable to dedicate large police resources to investigate single cases of downloading as it would be to prioritize shoplifting cases ahead of robberies," Bodstrom wrote in an op-ed article shortly before the law was passed.
Antipiratbyran and similar organizations in other countries have been tracking file-sharers online and sent out warning letters to people who make illegal material available from their computers.
Seven of every 1,000 Swedes has received such a letter, for a total of more than 60,000. That's a much higher per capita rate than in any other country. The average is about two per thousand, Ponten said.
"Sweden really is a paradise for pirates," he said. "We're getting very weak signals from society that copyright should be valid on the Internet."
While the Antipiratbyran's aggressive pursuit of file-sharers has been a deterrent to some, it also has fueled a public backlash, as many see the group's warning letters as harassment. Hackers attacked the agency's Web site in March. It's still down.
More than 4,000 people reported Antipiratbyran to the Swedish Data Inspection Board, claiming the agency misused personal information by collecting IP addresses and online aliases. The inspection board agreed, and the lobbying group has stopped sending out warning letters to file-sharers.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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