Kopimism, Sweden's Pirate Religion, Begins to Plunder America

'Kopimism' gives internet piracy a place to worship.

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A Swedish religion whose dogma centers on the belief that people should be free to copy and distribute all information—regardless of any copyright or trademarks—has made its way to the United States.

Followers of so-called "Kopimism" believe copying, sharing, and improving on knowledge, music, and other types of information is only human—the Romans remixed Greek mythology, after all, they say. In January, Kopimism—a play on the words "copy me"—was formally recognized by a Swedish government agency, raising its profile worldwide.

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"Culture is something that makes people feel much better and makes people appreciate their world in a different way. Knowledge is also something we should copy regardless of the law," says Isak Gerson, the 20-year-old founder of Kopimism. "It makes us better when we share knowledge and culture with each other."

More than 3,500 people "like" Kopimism on Facebook, and thousands more practice its sacred ritual of file sharing. According to its manifesto, private, closed-source software code and anti-piracy software are "comparable to slavery." Kopimist "Ops," or spiritual leaders, are encouraged to give counsel to people who want to pirate files, are banned from recording and should encrypt all virtual religious service meetings "because of society's vicious legislative and litigious persecution of Kopimists."

Official in-person meetings must happen in places free of anti-Kopimist monitoring and in spaces with the Kopimist symbol—a pyramid with the letter K inside. To be initiated new parishioners must share the Kopimist symbol and say the sacred words "copied and seeded."

The gospel of the church has begun to spread, with Kopimist branches in 18 countries.

An American branch of the religion was recently registered with Illinois and is in the process of gaining federal recognition, according to Christopher Carmean, a 25-year-old student at the University of Chicago and head of the U.S. branch.

"Data is what we are made of, data is what defines our life, and data is how we express ourselves," says Carmean. "Forms of copying, remixing, and sharing enhance the quality of life for all who have access to them. Attempts to hinder sharing are antithetical to our data-driven existence."

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About 450 people have registered with his church, and about 30 of them are actively practicing the religion, whose symbols include Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V—the keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste.

It's no surprise the religion was born in Sweden—it has some of the laxest copyright laws in the world. The Swedish Pirate Party has two seats in the European Parliament, and The Pirate Bay, a Swedish website that's one of the world's largest portals to illegal files, has avoided being shut down for years.

Gerson is happy to allow people who want to open their own branches of Kopimism to copy its symbols and religious documents.

"There's been a couple people that asked me [to start congregations], but I tell them they shouldn't ask. You don't need permission," he says. "It's a project, and I want projects to be copied, so I'm happy when people copy without asking."

Most Kopimists say they realized they were practicing the religion before they found it.

"There are many people who are like me, who always held the Kopimist ideals, but hadn't yet heard of the official church," says Lauren Pespisa, a web developer in Cambridge, Mass., who gave a speech about the religion in March to a group of anti-copyright activists called the Massachusetts Pirate Party. "I think some people are like me and have embraced it officially and publicly, but some people believe in it and don't really want to mix religion and politics."

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That's a big criticism of the religion—lawsuits brought upon Kopimists is a form of religious persecution, according to Gerson. But Pespisa says that crying persecution in court probably "wouldn't hold up in reality."