Sweden’s newest religion may be the only faith that was born out of an insult. The idea to form a church promoting Internet piracy first came to an activist named Peter Sunde “four or five years ago” when he saw a comment by one of the lawyers seeking his prosecution for facilitating copyright infringement. Asked in an interview for her opinion of enthusiasts such as Sunde, at the time the spokesman for the popular file-sharing site Pirate Bay, the lawyer replied: “They’re a cult.” The slur provided a new direction for Sweden’s vibrant anti-copyright community to explore. “We have this history that every time somebody calls us something negative, we just take the name and make it ours,” Sunde says. “We were called pirates, so we said, ‘Let’s make pirates cool.’ O.K., so now, we’re a cult. Let’s make that fun as well.”
Thus was born the Missionary Church of Kopimism. Sunde never took action on his idea, but he mentioned it to his fellow activists and mused openly about it on the Internet. Soon enough a group had gathered that held sacred the act of copying information. The group adopted the keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste, ctrl-C and ctrl-V, as holy symbols—the church has no formal doctrine regarding ctrl-X—and began to develop a theology.
In stark opposition to “Thou shalt not steal,” the church’s central commandment, “Copy and seed,” is a call to download files and make them available for sharing. Life itself, the newly declared believers observed, depends on the replication of cells and the endless duplication of DNA. The church even survived a mini-schism when some believers questioned why their religion had adopted holy symbols popularized by —a company that has increasingly based its business model around the tight control of information—rather than, say, escape-W and ctrl-Y, the copy and paste commands for the open-source text editor Emacs. “For me it’s a fun prank, and it’s even better because I didn’t have to do it myself,” says Sunde.
More than 5,000 people have signed on to Kopimism’s website, according to its directors. While many of the church’s members likely share Sunde’s whimsical attitude, it would be a mistake to say no one takes the religion seriously. Kopimism is far from the first religion to get its start out of political expediency—think Henry VIII—and many of its adherents share deeply held political and philosophical beliefs about freedom of information. “In the beginning, it was a joke,” says Gustav Nipe, the church’s chairman. “But maybe we’ve stepped on something greater than we thought.” Sunde supports the cause, although he hasn’t signed up. “Like most Swedes, I’m an atheist,” he says.
To the extent that Kopimism has a spiritual home outside Internet forums, it is Uppsala, a university town some 40 miles north of Stockholm, where long, dark winters, monotonous weather, and a large student population provide fertile ground for the dissemination of the church’s precepts. For Nicholas Miles, a 21-year-old student of social work at the University of Uppsala, the copying held sacred by Kopimism isn’t just about file sharing (though it’s that, too). “By having this conversation, you and I right now are copying information,” he told me. “Sharing can involve music or a video game or a movie or, indeed, a philosophical text.”