File-sharing isn't just a good way to get the latest episode of your favorite TV show. It's also a religion. Kopimism is an officially-recognized faith in Sweden, and has established a church in the US too. Its credo? Copying information is holy.
Founded by Swedish college student Isak Gerson in 2010, Kopimism was recognized as a religion in Sweden last year. The name is a play on the phrase "copy me," and Gerson told New Scientist that he and his fellow worshipers had had "this faith" for many years before solidifying it into a religion. He added:
We worship the value of information by copying it . . . Information is the building block of everything around me and everything I believe in. Copying it is a way of multiplying the value of this information.
I first encountered Kopimism at Noisebridge, a hackerspace in San Francisco, CA, where hackers, makers and artists collaborate on projects that range from free software to electronic music and weird new Arduino-enabled devices. A group of people from Noisebridge's sister hackerspace in Oakland, Sudo Room, were showing us pictures of their new digs. The Kopimist symbol was emblazoned on its doors. What the hell is that? I wondered. A few quick searches online answered my question.
It makes perfect sense that the Kopimist symbol lurks in hackerspaces. The faith grows out of Free Culture activism, or copyright reform movements that favor a loosening of intellectual property laws to foster greater freedom of expression. David Evan Harris, a social movements expert with the Institute for the Future, has followed the religion since its inception. He told io9 via email:
In Sweden and elsewhere, Kopimism and the Free Culture movement are tied closely to the Pirate Party—which was itself borne out of Swedes being appalled by the US MPAA efforts to force a raid on the headquarters of the Pirate Bay file sharing website.
Kopimism founder Gerson and many other members of the Kopimist Church are strongly in favor of changing laws that prevent file-sharing of copyrighted works. Indeed, Gerson has said that he wants most copyright laws to be eliminated.
But is Kopimism a true religion, or more of a stunt along the lines of a humorous political party? Perhaps it's a little bit of both. Harris elaborated:
Now, obviously, there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor going on too. Given that Sweden is one of the most atheist-leaningcountries in the world, one can only assume that most Swedish Kopimists are not jumping from being bible-thumping Christians straight to Kopimism. By establishing both a political party (with two seats in the European Parliament!) and a religion to buttress the broader Free Culture Movement, these activists are deftly managing to inscribe their movement and beliefs in core social institutions, affording themselves broader visibility, legitimacy and important legal rights.
One of the most fascinating parts for me will be seeing how freedom of religion laws in Sweden and other countries (Idaho now has an official Kopimist Church too) may be used to protect file-sharers in legal proceedings where Kopimist file sharers are being prosecuted... or should I say persecuted?
Now that Kopimism has been recognized as an official religion in Sweden, is it possible that somebody could use religious freedom as a defense when the RIAA sues them for torrenting Metallica albums? It's not likely, given that there are a number of religious practices — such as bigamy and smoking pot — that are still forbidden under US law.
Still, Kopimism represents an interesting moment in the online culture that's grown up around file sharing. Given that so many religions are spread via sacred texts of various kinds, it's not far-fetched to imagine that at some point in the future file-sharing might become a form of communion with the data gods.