Year Released: 2013
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 82 minutes
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Where do battles for creative freedom and the fact that the world is fueled by profit intersect? It turns out that the answer may be The Pirate Bay, the subject of a new doc, TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay: Away From the Keyboard, premiering at SxSW, and in the spirit of its subject, now available all over the internet and On Demand. The documentary focuses on the three founders of the Swedish file-sharing company, The Pirate Bay, and their trial in 2009 as the world was confronted with the most notable file-sharing network in existence and the myriad of interesting questions it raised.
At its best, Simon Klose’s film embraces these double-edged swords, such as when the three founders – Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Fredrik Neij, and Pete Sunde – each give completely different answers as to why they founded the company in the first place. Was it just to control a massive website? Was it to give people access to art? Was it to make a profit? Was it just for fun? Whatever the reason, The Pirate Bay has changed the world of copyright law and internet piracy and the story is far from over.
The majority of the first half of TPB AFK (the title comes from the preferred acronym when not online over “IRL” – In Real Life – since, as Peter Sunde says in testimony, they consider the internet real life) consists of the three men who founded the Bay (and a fourth defendant, their key financier) in front of a Swedish court. The guys are incredibly dismissive of the entire affair, blowing it off with a smirk and a non-answer. They’re clearly not concerned that major studios like MGM, Warner Bros., and Fox are coming after them with everything they’ve got. Gigantic fines and even jail time are on the table.
Klose’s film then flashes back for a little history. Part of The Pirate Bay sprouted from a project called “America’s Dumbest Soldiers,” in which surfers could read stories about recently-deceased American servicemen and rank the “stupidity” of their demise. Naturally, neither the American Government nor any decent human being liked it. But Fredrik Neij fought taking it down on the principle of parody and freedom of speech. Just this history alone makes clear that Neij is the kind of guy who wants to provoke a response. (Just wait till he gets drunk and even his friends call him a racist asshole.) And he certainly got a response with his next project.
The Pirate Bay was designed as a middleman, allowing people to share files without really endorsing the illegality of it. It’s “sharing,” not “stealing.” At one point, TPB was responsible for half of the Bit Torrent traffic in the world. During filming, Sunde looks at his computer to note that 25 million people are using the Bay just at that given moment.
And here’s where TPB AFK gets really interesting. All 25 million of those people are seeing banner ads. How does that profit blend with freedom of speech? The guys disagree with the numbers thrown around by the prosecutors (who claim they must have made $1.7 million in one year) but the ways idealism and capitalism intersect in this new internet frontier are fascinating.
The guys are a little less captivating. They’re really a bunch of kids, like the teens in a Harvard dorm room in The Social Network, about to change the world and fully aware of their global internet importance. The first half-hour of Klose’s doc is easily its strongest, giving the entire back story of The Pirate Bay as a platform and raising the interesting issues around it without too much preaching to the choir who already support TPB. Some of the behind-the-scenes chatting in the second act gets a little wearisome and stretched out to meet a feature running time. Part of the problem is that the story of The Pirate Bay is so clearly still being written and so while this story is interesting it also feels a bit incomplete. Even as people share this film and discuss the issues of copyright, profit, creative freedom, and the legal gray areas of the internet, the story will continue to change. The TPB AFK, Part II of 2020 is going to be fascinating.
Posted on March 13, 2013 in Reviews by Brian Tallerico
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