Even as this Scandinavian country, like other nations across Europe, bows to pressure from big media concerns to stop file sharing, a Swedish government agency this year registered as a bona fide religion a church whose central dogma is that file sharing is sacred.
“For me it is a kind of believing in deeper values than worldly values,” said Isak Gerson, a philosophy student at Uppsala University who helped found the church in 2010 and bears the title chief missionary. “You have it in your backbone.”
Kopimism — the name comes from a Swedish spelling of the words “copy me” — claims more than 8,000 faithful who have signed up on the church’s Web site. It has applied for the right to perform marriages and to receive subsidies awarded to religious organizations by the state, and it has bid, thus far unsuccessfully, to buy a church building, even though most church activities are conducted online.
As regular church attendance drops among the 9.4 million Swedes, the Church of Sweden has been selling off disused churches, but it has not yet responded to the Kopimist bid.
“We have something similar to regular priests,” said Mr. Gerson, 20, who claims a permanent link to the divine through a Nokia smartphone. “We call them ops, or operators, and their task is to help people with things like meetings. There are not that many rituals. We are a tolerant community.”
Asked whether he believed in God, Mr. Gerson replied: “No, I just believe in our values. It’s just a belief in holy values.”
The Kopimists rose out of Europe’s growing piracy movement, which was born in Sweden about a decade ago. In elections to the European Parliament in 2009, the country’s Pirate Party got 7.1 percent of the vote, though in national elections the next year its share plummeted to less than 1 percent.
The movement has spread abroad, to at least nine European countries. In May, Germany’s Pirate Party won almost 8 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state; in Berlin last year, it won 8.9 percent in elections to the state Parliament.
But Kopimists like Mr. Gerson, the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, insist that the church does not sully its hands with politics, though they admit that the line between politics and religion can be elusive.
“Look at the United States, in the primaries, the importance of religion, or in the Middle East,” said Gustav Nipe, another church founder. Mr. Nipe, 23, who studied economics, illustrates the thin line — he is chairman of both the Kopimist Church and the Pirate Party’s youth group.
Mr. Nipe, whose parents are churchgoing Christians, emphasizes with his coreligionists that Kopimism’s purpose is not to directly promote illegal file sharing, but rather to focus on the values of sharing information.
“I think we see it as a theological remix,” Mr. Gerson said. “Christianity took from Judaism and turned it into something new, and the Muslims did the same. We are part of a tradition.”
The government has no problem with that tradition, as long as its adherents do not break the law.
“It is our responsibility to register religious communities that fulfill certain criteria,” said Mareta Grondal, an official at the government agency that registered the church. “We do not look into how communities act in a practical way.”
A religious community is recognized, Ms. Grondal said, if it fulfills certain requirements, like writing a charter and filing it with the agency, electing a governing board and paying an annual fee, now about $70. The Kopimist request for registration was twice refused on technicalities before being granted.
“The government cannot, should not interfere with what people believe in,” Ms. Grondal said. “That would be a dangerous path to take.” But the government has been interfering with what people do of late, and shows few signs of allowing religious freedom to justify copyright infringement.
“More and more file sharers are getting busted, especially within the last year,” said Anna Troberg, the leader of the Swedish Pirate Party, which has about 8,500 members. “The big movie companies, the big record companies, want someone to go to trial,” she said, to act as a deterrent to others. Yet, she said, with an estimated two million Swedes involved in such activity, the odds of someone being successfully prosecuted are small: “It’s easier to get hit by lightning than to go to trial.”
Still, the trend is clear and Europewide, and not even prayer appears able to hold it off. In a disclosure of diplomatic cable traffic published last year by WikiLeaks was a detailed request by the United States Embassy to the Swedish government to stop copyright infringement. A Dutch court in May ordered Internet providers to block the Pirate Bay Web site, which is linked to the Pirate Party, or face large fines, a ruling that will virtually block access to the Sweden-based site for the Dutch. Britain’s High Court issued a similar judgment in April.
Mr. Nipe called it a “kind of an inquisition — like burning people.”
Ms. Troberg, 38, a former publishing industry executive who has led the Pirates since 2008, is not a Kopimist. “I’m agnostic,” she said, adding, however, that the group was “very interesting.”
Some people “think they’re poking fun at religion, but it raises interesting questions about the issues,” she said.
Not all Swedes share the Kopimist dogma that information wants to be free, regardless of copyright, yet many welcome the group’s fervor in searching for new approaches to information sharing.
“It’s important to pay for stuff that you download,” said Jennifer Hallberg, 32, who just finished an M.B.A. and is now looking for work. If the Kopimists find a way for artists and writers to benefit fairly from their work without downloaders having to pay, she said, “then they deserve a Nobel Prize.”
Still, Ernie Lagerstrand, 45, who works in marketing, recalled how large crowds protested outside the royal palace of King Carl XVI Gustaf after the government temporarily shut down the Pirate Bay Web site in 2006. “People were ready to go to jail,” he said.
He doubted that the Kopimists risked becoming a stalking horse for file thieves. “It’s not just about reading files, it’s about ways of sharing information,” he said, fiddling with a laptop in a coffee shop near the central train station. “The politicians don’t get it; they focus on the legal matters.”
For his part, Mr. Gerson said Kopimism refused to “draw a line between copying and creativity.”
“Our angle is not to mock religion,” he said. “We recall that Christianity and the Gospels, with their collections of little stories, are examples of copying.”