In this weeks installment E&T delivers the latest on the development of the EU's North Sea 'supergrid'; Tornado - the latest steam locomotive to be built in Britain; supercomputer modelling for fusion research; Pirate Bay owners on trial and so much more besides.

Scotland contributes to supergrid planning 

Scotland is set to play a significant role in the development of the EU's North Sea Grid.

On a recent visit, the EU's North Sea Grid co-ordinator Georg Adamowitsch asked Scotland to take part in a development group to build a European electricity supergrid.

The Grid has previously been identified as a European infrastructure priority and will be a key building block in exporting Scotland's renewable energy to the UK and the rest of Europe.

The European Commission is allocating €150m to the scheme as part of a €5bn investment in energy and broadband infrastructure to support the EU Recovery Plan.

The proposed 3,850 mile grid would connect more than 100 wind farms, containing 10,000 turbines, to seven countries - Britain, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway.

The EU proposal, based on identified projects, assumes that 68.4GW of capacity at 118 wind farms will have been established in the North Sea by 2030 and could provide 13 per cent of the annual electricity consumption of the seven countries,

A recent European Wind Energy Association strategy paper estimated that installed capacity on land and offshore could rise to 300GW by 2030, accounting for 28 per cent of power generation in the EU, saving 600 million tonnes of CO2.

"The grid would enable the efficient large-scale integration of renewable energy in the system across the North Sea region," said Frauke Thies of Greenpeace. "A dip in wind power in one area could be balanced by higher production in another."

In a separate proposal, Irish electricity infrastructure developer Imera has announced plans for a large grid of sub-sea AC and DC cables in the North Sea and Atlantic, which it says could form the foundation for a pan-European offshore network.

The company is now in the process of raising €100m for the first phase of the project.

Rory O'Neill, Imera's chief executive, said: "Because we are a private company, we can build networks faster and cheaper than most regulated organisations.

"We also have access to the largest fleet of specialised cable-laying vessels and marine engineering expertise through our parent company, Oceanteam. We truly believe that EuropaGrid is the future of electricity in Europe and we have the in-house expertise, technical knowledge, and organisational capability to make it happen."

Imera claimed that it could complete projects within the three years stipulated by the EU Commission in the Economic Recovery Plan announcement.

Tornado steams into service

By Lorna Sharpe

The first mainline steam locomotive to be built in Britain for nearly 50 years has pulled its first passenger trains. Hundreds of people turned out to see Tornado make its maiden voyage from York to Darlington on 31 January and its first trip to London a week later.

Members of The A1 Steam Locomotive Trust built the £3m engine in Darlington to the original design by Arthur Peppercorn, the last chief mechanical engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway, but with additional water capacity and the incorporation of modern safety equipment, including the Train Protection and Warning System that prevents signal overruns.

The A1 Pacifics were express, passenger steam locomotives that operated on the East Coast Main Line before they were replaced by diesels. Other Pacific class locomotives survive, but all the A1s were scrapped.

Tornado will haul charter trains on Network Rail lines as well as historic preserved railways.

The Trust still needs public and commercial support to repay the loans it raised to complete construction.

Musicians monitored in 3D

By Dominic Lenton

Just a small change in the way a musician stands or holds their instrument can make a dramatic difference to how good they sound. A €2m research project has combined motion capture technology with parts from a games console to create a system that promises to help performers improve their technique by analysing a 3D model of their posture.

The 3D Augmented Mirror, or AMIR, was developed as part of the i-Maestro initiative led by the University of Leeds and involving partners in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. Supported by the European Commission under the IST Sixth Framework Programme, the project is developing interactive multimedia tools for music students.

Many musicians already use video recordings to check their technique, but this only provides a 2D image. AMIR uses 12 cameras to film the user with small markers attached to key points on their instrument and body at 200 frames per second.

The captured data is used to create a 3D model for viewing on screen alongside an analysis of areas where the performance could be improved. The prototype system, designed for stringed instruments, looks at parameters such as bow speed, angle and position, as well as the pressure by which - for violinists - the instrument is held on the shoulder. A Balance Board from a Nintendo Wii assesses the musician's balance.

AMIR was developed by Dr Kia Ng of Leeds's Faculty of Engineering and School of Music, himself a violinist. "What makes a great sound is difficult to analyse, but with technique, some things come down to basic physics," he explained. "If the bow is held perpendicular to the string and parallel to the bridge, the minimum effort will produce the maximum result. Our system can show musicians exactly when their technique becomes less effective."

Dr Ng hopes that AMIR will in the future be used alongside more traditional teaching methods. "Learning to play an instrument is a physical activity. If a student develops a bad posture early on, this can be damaging to their career. Our system can help easily identify problems. Similarly, the system enables experienced musicians to make small changes that can improve the sound they make."

The barrier to widespread adoption is cost. The hardware starts at £5,000, and the sophisticated set-up used at Leeds is valued at £100,000. However, Dr Ng will offer use of the prototype on a consultancy basis.

Supercomputer modelling for fusion research

The EU Fusion Programme, an initiative that unites 25 European institutions in nuclear fusion research, will be using a 100 teraflops supercomputer from Bull Information Systems as a platform to validate nuclear simulation models.

Dubbed the HPC-FF (High-Performance Computing For Fusion), its processing power will be primarily used to simulate plasma turbulence, one of the most technologically-challenging requirements now confronting the International Fusion Energy Research Centre. IFERC is a pan-global data centre facility being set up as part of a collaboration between Europe and Japan around the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) programme.

ITER is an international tokamak research/engineering project proposal that will help to make the transition from studies of plasma physics to electricity-producing fusion power plants.

The HPC-FF computer will also progress research into fusion fields controlled by magnetic confinement, including turbulent transport, magnetohydrodynamic instabilities, plasma/wall interaction, heating systems, and materials modelling. Among these issues, the question of plasma turbulence will certainly be the most demanding in terms of computer resources, says Xavier Garbet, a research director at the French Atomic Energy Commission's Cadarache Research Centre and member of the HPC-FF board.

As it comes into commission, the HPC-FF will involve experts in applied mathematics and computer sciences, Garbet explained: "Most physicists are not computer scientists, so we have created a nine-strong support team to help them to get the most out of this resource."

Garbet believes that collaboration between physicists and computer experts "will result in innovative approaches to the problems the projects face". The HPC-FF will be operated by German research organisation Forschungszentrum Jülich.

Energy storage needed to avert 'black outs'

By Mark Venables

Proponents of electricity storage technologies are warning that the national grids of Britain and Ireland will need to be radically expanded and changed to avoid electricity blackouts over the next ten years as renewable energy generation increases.

According to the energy plans of the British and Irish governments, some 50GW of renewable generation, mostly wind power, will be needed by 2020.

Delegates at a recent Electricity Storage Association meeting in London called on the governments to act urgently to avoid a major shortfall in the capability of the grid. In particular, they said, present arrangements for incentivising research by Britain's electricity distribution network operators are insufficient to allow a full-size demonstration of modern electricity storage techniques.

Electricity supply must match demand or blackouts will occur. The system operator has to ensure that adequate flexible generation and reserve power is available.

Although wind generation is variable by nature, power systems can absorb small amounts of wind power with relative ease. However, when the proportion rises substantially, storage will be needed to reinforce supplies during fluctuating production.

Arrangements for reserve power are already in place with current generation, but the requirement for flexible generation will increase substantially over the next ten years as the proportion of wind power and other renewable generation increases.

Brad Roberts, chairman of the Electricity Storage Association, told the London meeting that the US Department of Energy had now accepted the need for the widespread introduction of storage techniques to assist with system balancing, reducing curtailment of wind power, improving transmission and reducing the use of fossil fuel-fired generation to provide these balancing services.

Electricity storage techniques range from pumped hydro, large-scale batteries and flywheels to compressed air storage systems. They have applications for shifting energy from off-peak to peak periods, for stabilising short-term fluctuations in the supply and demand for power and for improving the use of transmission and distribution lines. These techniques can be used now, but must be justified commercially if they are to operate in the open markets of Europe.

US defers digital TV switchover

By Paul Dempsey

The US government has bowed to the inevitable and delayed its national analogue TV switch-off by four months from 17 February to 12 June.

The House of Representatives voted to postpone the full transition to digital broadcasting by 264 to 158 votes on 4 February, following comments from senior members of the incoming Obama administration that explicitly called for a delay.

"The good news is that Congress has given us extra time to help consumers prepare for this important switch-over," said Michael J Copps, Obama's appointee as acting chair of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

"It has become even more clear in the less than two weeks that I have been acting chair that we were not ready for a nationwide transition on February 17."

The decision is classic presidential handover politics. The outgoing Bush administration was saved from an embarrassing climbdown by the Obama team's willingness to fast-track the delay (albeit with only a fortnight's notice).

Nevertheless, the US remains a case study in how not to handle the logistics of turning off analogue TV broadcasts.

In January, TV research firm Nielsen projected that 6.5 million US households were not ready to move to digital reception. Of these, 3.7 million were aware of what was about to happen but were unable to get government coupons subsidising their purchases of digital terrestrial set-top boxes (STB) because the programme ran out of money.

Then, in spite of a $1bn awareness campaign, Nielsen also found that some groups - particularly the elderly - still included high percentages of terrestrial viewers who had not understood that they would need the STBs.

President Obama's economic stimulus package does include an extra $650m in funding for the STB subsidy, but this is proving more controversial than originally expected. Several analysts have pointed out that the $40 coupon brings the cost of a converter down to about $20, almost exactly the same cost as the cheapest Freeview box in the UK. Some doubts persist that the US government is being taken for a ride by the box providers.

Finally, it has now been recognised that the FCC's digital TV helpline has been woefully understaffed for much of the transition period, even coming under attack last week from one of the commission's own members, Robert McDowell.

"One focus of my concern over the past several months has been our call centre effort. To be blunt, until very recently, the FCC call centre had been inadequate," he said. "I started to test our system myself last month - and ran into repeated busy signals and dropped calls."

Meanwhile, those poised to take up the former analogue TV spectrum for new wireless services have given the delay a mixed response. Network operators AT&T and Verizon Wireless say that they can live with the new June date, but another of the victorious bidders, Qualcomm, was less relaxed.

"It breaks an agreement," said Len Lauer, its chief operating officer. The lawyers are also said to be looming.

Employers check online profiles of job applicants

By James Hayes

A third of human resources and business managers admit to searching for potential and current employees' social networking profiles for information about their backgrounds and behaviour, according to a new survey. And 24 per cent say that they have been deterred from hiring potential recruits by their findings.

The survey, by German people-search website Yasni, drew 961 responses. It revealed that many HR and business managers now regard scrutinising sites like Facebook and MySpace as an unofficial form of 'due diligence' in their recruitment process. They look for pictures, comments, or status updates that may give insight into an applicant's personality, and reveal traits that will never appear on a CV.

The biggest turn-offs were inappropriate drunk photos (47 per cent), and rude comments (22 per cent), the survey found. Of the 68 per cent of respondents who had not searched for applicants online, 44 per cent reckoned that they 'probably would do this in the future'.

"Employers are checking online social networks both for new prospective staff, and existing staff who may be in line for promotion, or to be assigned to a position of extra responsibility," says Yasni communications director Andy Barr. "A comment that seems funny to a friend may be taken completely differently by a potential boss."

In an increasingly competitive job market, people need to treat themselves as a 'brand', Barr believes, and be aware that personal revelations posted to social networks might well inform a professional appraisal.

"Many people move on from one social network to another as new ones become popular, and leave a trail of redundant data about themselves," Barr adds, "and it's possible for a prospective employer to see that data as current."

Modified video game used to test fire drills

By Dominic Lenton

Programmers at Durham University have discovered a more benign application for the software code behind violent 'first person shooter' video games like 'Doom' and 'Half Life'. They are using it to create three-dimensional virtual models of their department building for testing emergency evacuation plans.

As well as being less disruptive than real fire drills, simulations promise to give a more realistic idea of how people behave when they are trying to negotiate smoke-filled corridors and blocked exits. The problem is that building realistic environments from scratch is complex, expensive and time-consuming. Features such as fire and smoke are particularly hard to incorporate.

Researchers at Durham's Computer Science Department realised that suitable technology already existed in commercial games where the player has to move around a hostile virtual world using weapons to fight a variety of enemies.

As well as being generally robust and extensively tested for usability and performance, games work on off-the-shelf systems and incorporate code that makes it easy to program features such as wind, smoke, fire and water.

A single developer took three weeks to create a model of a three-storey building, with offices, meetings rooms and a reception area. The Source engine that underlines the game 'Half-Life 2' was used to program it with features such as fire alarm triggers, fire exit signs, and spreading fires. Volunteers then tackled three scenarios to see how easily they could get out when different areas were on fire and exits were blocked.

Reporting the results of their work in the Fire Safety Journal, the researchers claim that their technique is significantly quicker and more cost-effective than using standard virtual reality toolkits or writing the code from scratch.

According to lead author Dr Shamus Smith, it can be used to help identify problems with the layout of a building, help familiarise people with evacuation routines and teach people good practice in fire safety.

"Although virtual environment toolkits are available, they usually only provide a subset of the tools needed to build complete virtual worlds," said Smith. "You can create fire and smoke for example, but it is not very straightforward. In order to include these features using toolkits, it often requires additional programming skills and a substantial time investment on the part of the developer. By using readily available computer games, these features can be easily simulated and are obviously vital in creating a virtual evacuation scenario."

However, testers used to playing video games probably acted more rashly than they would in real life. Few avoided approaching doors with smoke coming under them that had been included to test how they would respond. Three-quarters went ahead and opened them, a course of action that in real life would have resulted in death or serious injury.

The local fire and rescue service has expressed interest in using virtual models to train firefighters.

William Dennis reports from Tokyo and Jakarta

EU ban stays

The European Union recognises efforts made by Indonesia to improve civil aviation safety, but it is not ready to let the country's carriers back into its airspace.

According to Julia Wilson ambassador and head of delegation for EU and European Commission to Indonesia and Brunei, the EU was impressed with the new safety regulations and upcoming operating standards.

"This is an encouraging move for enhancing safety in Indonesia and for addressing the concerns of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)," Wilson told E&T in Jakarta. However, she could not guarantee the ban would be lifted any time soon.

All Indonesian carriers were barred from the EU in April 2007 after a string of air disasters involving aircraft belonging to state-owned Garuda and the now defunct Adam Air, and negative findings by ICAO following a safety audit.

Wilson said more work had to be done for the regulations to be strictly enforced and effective.

Japanese airline tests biofuel

Japan Airlines (JAL) is the latest airline to make a demonstration flight using biofuel, and the first to use a fuel primarily refined from the energy crop camelina.

The flight on 30 January, by a Boeing 747-300 with no passengers or cargo, follows closely on similar trials by Air New Zealand and Continental Airlines.

This was the first flight using a combination of three sustainable biofuel feedstocks, as well as the first using Pratt & Whitney engines.

A blend of 50 per cent biofuel and 50 per cent traditional Jet-A (kerosene) fuel was tested in the No 3 (middle starboard) engine during the 90-minute flight, which originated from Haneda Airport. No modifications to the aircraft or engine were required for the biofuel, which is a 'drop in' for petroleum-based fuel.

The JAL pilots checked the engine's performance during normal and non-normal flight operations, which included rapid accelerations and decelerations, and engine shutdown and restart. A ground-based preflight test was carried out the previous day to ensure that the craft functioned normally using the blended fuel.

According to the commander of the flight, Keiji Kobayashi, there was no obvious difference in the performance of the engine powered by biofuel blend and the other three engines containing regular jet fuel.

Data recorded on the aircraft will now be analysed to make a detailed comparison of the performance of the engines with the different fuels. The initial analysis will take several weeks and will be carried out by a team of engineers from Pratt & Whitney, Boeing and JAL.

The biofuel component tested was a mixture of three second-generation biofuel feedstocks - camelina (84 per cent), jatropha (slightly less than 16 per cent) and algae (less than 1 per cent).

The primary benefit of using biofuels in a commercial jetliner is their ability to reduce greenhouse gases throughout their lifespan, while also helping to improve the environmental performance of the current fleet of aircraft.

"The flight brings us closer to finding a 'greener' alternative to traditional petroleum-based fuel," said JAL group president and CEO Haruka Nishimatsu. "When biofuels are produced in sufficient amounts to make them commercially viable, we hope to be one of the first airlines in the world to start powering our aircraft using them."

The fuel for the flight was converted from plant-based crude oil to biofuel, then blended with standard jet fuel using proprietary hydro-processing technology.

Boeing Japan president Nicole Piasecki said the company is hopeful that within the five years, commercial aircraft will begin flying revenue passenger flights using next-generation biofuels.

"There are hurdles, including gaining the support of regulators, airports, fuel distributors and others, as well as increasing the production of environmentally and socially responsible fuel sources," Piasecki commented.

Airport decision reversed

The Malaysian government has backtracked on its decision to allow construction of a privately-funded low-cost carrier's airport (LCCA) just 10km away from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (see E&T vol 4 #1).

Ministry of Finance spokesman Jalal Shamsudin said the government reviewed input from several quarters, including Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB); the Air Traffic Controllers Association (ATCS); Department of Civil Aviation - the regulatory body; and Khazanah Nasional, the government investment arm.

Jalal said submissions from the four parties were strong enough to convince the government that there was no need for the new airport.

"ATCS said air traffic controllers at the Lumpur control centre at Subang Airport, 22km from Kuala Lumpur, would be burdened with additional workload when LCCA started operations. It would also not make sense operating two airports within 10km," the official pointed out.

Jalal denied that safety was the main issue for the change of heart. On why the approval for the LCCA was given hastily, Jalal acknowledged that the government had earlier heard only one side of the story, but declined to be drawn into further comment.

As well as handling the civil and military operations at Subang Airport, Lumpur is also responsible for all aircraft entering Malaysian airspace. Subang was the former international airport for Kuala Lumpur.

Power management becomes Intel priority

By Paul Dempsey

Intel retained the record for device count in a single microprocessor at this year's International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco, but the real story lay in the chip giant's assault on low-power design techniques and what it said about its attempts to expand its business.

The unveiling of the 2.3bn- transistor 45nm Xeon enterprise chip (set to ship later this year) was merely a prelude to Intel's description of what underpins the architecture at the heart of this and its next generations of silicon for the mobile, desktop and server market.

Three Intel fellows - Mark Bohr, Stefan Rusu and Rajesh Kumar - were on hand to describe Nehalem features such as an integrated microcontroller that not only monitors chip performance and sets a "unified power management state" but can also be upgraded through firmware.

The chip can totally remove idle power thanks to core-level power-gate transistors that shut down inactive cores.

A 'turbo' mode allows the chip to transfer voltage from inactive cores to one or two that might be running software and increase their performance level towards the chip's maximum.

In its bid for low-power performance, Intel even found that it could reach back into a technique developed for the Pentium 4 processor, simultaneous multi-threading, which exploits parallelism in software. Nine years ago, Intel had the technology, but software could rarely benefit from it; today, parallelism is mainstream.

Taken together, the innovations indicate Intel's latest attempt to break free from being seen as just a desktop microprocessor company by expanding into new and emerging markets, most notably the extremely power-sensitive spaces for mobile Internet devices and stripped-down laptops.

However, in an ISSCC keynote, Mark Bohr also made a pitch for Intel's technology to be seen alongside the complex systems-on-chip that now dominate other silicon markets, arguing that his company's chips exhibit at least the same degree of integration.

Intel's launch of the Atom processor has given it an early lead in the 'laptop lite' market, alongside its domination of the traditional laptop sector.

Industry leader calls for TV power cuts

By Paul Dempsey

An LCD TV is "a pretty stupid thing" according to one of the men who has played a key role in popularising them.

Rene Penning de Vries, chief technology officer of NXP Semiconductors, laid into flat panel displays at ISSCC on the grounds that some smarter investment in silicon could greatly reduce their power consumption.

Before it was spun off from Royal Philips Electronics, NXP supplied its former parent with much of the technology behind its LCD products.

De Vries explained his position in a broad keynote address looking at the role of semiconductors in addressing 'green' issues.

Power, he said, had been seen as no more than a "resource" during most of the chip industry's growth and was only now being seen as part of a "cradle-to-grave puzzle".

He also offered some solutions. For LCDs specifically, de Vries described a series of innovations that could save 36TWh a year in global energy consumption, assuming that the displays accounted for about 10 per cent of TVs.

First, he said, only 7 per cent of the light from a typical screen backlight reaches the viewer. By breaking down the panel's area into a series of regions, applying signal processing to the video input, and then localising the backlight's output, major power reductions were possible, although the algorithms need to be developed with care.

He also suggested obviating the need for colour filters in a panel - they block 70 per cent of light, typically - by using red, green and blue LEDs.

De Vries also looked at short-term innovations that can make compact fluorescent lights more efficient, with chips that offer features such as glow-phase control and power-factor correction, and at new techniques now being applied to photovoltaics.

NXP itself markets a GreenchipPC family of products that it says can reduce losses in a PC power supply by 60 per cent.

MOD advertises for apprentices

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) plans to recruit nearly 200 engineering apprentices over the next two years to work on some of the UK's most advanced military equipment projects.

MoD Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), which employs 7,500 staff at its north Bristol headquarters and some 24,500 personnel across the UK, is offering suitable candidates a three-year advanced apprenticeship in engineering, with the opportunity to pursue one of four specialisations: Electronic, Electrical, Mechanical and Constructive.

Over each of the next two years DE&S hopes to recruit 70 technician apprentices in the Bristol area, six in Scotland and 13 in south-west England. In 2010 the scheme will be extended, with 16 places in the Midlands and southern England.

On completion, the apprentices will become qualified Engineering Technicians, and will fill engineering management roles liaising with the military users and commercial suppliers of equipment managed by DE&S teams. Some may choose to progress to Incorporated and/or Chartered Engineer status through their career.

Adverts have appeared in local newspapers and on local buses, as well as on social networking sites like Facebook and Bebo.

Naval firms launch careers campaign

By Lorna Sharpe

Eighteen organisations have joined forces in a bid to attract more graduate engineers into the UK's naval defence industry, in order to stave off a predicted 'talent gap'.

The UKNEST consortium, comprising major defence engineering businesses, the Royal Navy and the professional organisations IMarEST and RINA, has created a graduate awareness campaign under the banner of 'NETWORK' (Naval Engineering Talent at Work).

The campaign will promote the industry as a whole, rather than individual employers. Advertising in selected graduate media and on campuses across the UK will showcase naval defence careers to engineering students, supported by a website that provides further insights into the industry. The site also allows students to apply for work placements.

UKNEST was founded in 2005 to provide a forum for naval engineering and technology in the UK. Its executive co-ordinator, Ben Dobson, commented: "The future health of the UK industry will rely on persuading the next generation of engineering talent that naval defence offers a compelling long-term career option."

Roy Quilliam, technical director at BMT Defence Services, added: "We were concerned that we were not reaching a broad enough pool of science and engineering graduates to sustain the intellectual resource needs for current and future naval defence programmes in the UK.

"NETWORK offers a unique opportunity for us all to join forces in this industry and tackle the lack of engineering talent in the pipeline and safeguard the future of naval defence in the UK."

 UKNEST members:
  • Aveva solutions;
  • Babcock Marine;
  • BAE Systems Submarine Solutions;
  • BMT Defence Services;
  • BVT Surface Fleet;
  • Converteam;
  • DSTL;
  • IMarEST;
  • Lloyd's Register;
  • Ministry of Defence;
  • QinetiQ;
  • RINA;
  • Rolls-Royce;
  • Royal Navy;
  • SEA;
  • Thales Naval;
  • Weir Strachan & Henshaw;
  • WS Atkins.

Wireless research partnership

CSIRO's Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Centre is to join forces with the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications to establish the Australia-China Research Centre for Wireless Communications. It will be the two nations' largest research collaboration in this field, and is intended to put both countries at the leading edge of research into future wireless communications technologies, including the development of 4G and 5G mobile networks.

Dr Jay Guo, research director of the CSIRO ICT Centre's Wireless Technologies Laboratory, commented: "The new research centre will be a hub for long-term and broader collaboration between the wireless research communities in Australia and China."

View from Brussels:

File-sharing site owners to go on trial

By Pelle Neroth

As I write, an important court case is looming in Stockholm as the people behind a Swedish file-sharing website face charges under copyright laws.

The Pirate Bay describes itself as the world's largest BitTorrent tracker (BitTorrent is a peer-peer file-sharing protocol.) Millions of people around the world have downloaded multi-gigabyte collections of artistic or software program output: the Beatles' collected works, 'The Lord of the Rings' film trilogy, Office 2007. You think of anything that Hollywood, software or the music industries have come up with in the last 30 years and it's all there: free for anyone with a broadband connection. This is the hub of the global file-sharing culture.

The Pirate Bay guys are a funny lot: their symbol is a pirate ship whose signature cassette and crossbones logo was itself pirated - from the anti-piracy industry. They started out, three young men, with a handful of users worldwide benefiting from the work of a couple of servers in a Mexico City office block. Today, 60 per cent of the Swedish under-35 male population regularly indulges in illegal downloading.

The website logs several million users a day, according to Sam Sundberg, a national newspaper journalist who has spent two years writing a book-length account of the enterprise. (The book, ironically, appeared on Pirate Bay, pirated of course, even before it hit the shops.)

This sort of activity from The Pirate Bay and other sites obviously worries the creative content industry, since it means lost revenue for them, and it has acted.

While attempts to cover the whole of Europe with a single sweeping restriction have failed, several countries are going ahead with their own legislation. The UK requires Internet service providers (ISPs) to write warning letters to persistent offenders; and after the summer they will have to collect information on repeat offenders. France and others are introducing harsh 'three-strikes-and-you're-out' policies that warn, then curb, then cut-off busy downloaders.

So what will happen in the Stockholm court in March? The prosecutors are calling for two-year jail sentences for the three main protagonists. The Pirate Bay's argument is that it doesn't upload the digitised stuff on people's hard drives onto its servers: it just brings file sharers together. It is a tracker.

On the other hand, the small team make their money from adverts placed on their site, so their critics would say they are the knowing abettors of large-scale intellectual property exploitation.

There is sure to be a debate about how harmful pirating actually is, predicts Sundberg. The Motion Picture Association of America reported near-record US cinema attendance figures for 2007. Although global CD music sales are down by half since 2001, some of that is due to the breakthrough of DVD and the soaring popularity of computer games. Many musicians support file-sharing as a means to grow audiences who will attend their live concerts - concerts being where big money lies.

Arguments about the true value of copyright are sure to be aired too, says Sundberg. File-sharers assert that changing the rules of copyright could bring benefits to society as a whole. All the culture and information not exploited commercially but still protected by IP rights and therefore not available would be freed if the protection dates were shortened, they argue, and The Pirate Bay is part of that beneficial movement. The industry, and many struggling artists, may beg to differ.

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