A man has been convicted on conspiracy charges relating to his operation of surfthechannel.com, a website offering links to TV and video content.
Newcastle crown court heard Anton Vickerman’s site had up to 400,000 users a day and made about £35,000 a month in revenue. While UK prosecutors did not pursue a case on copyright offences, Vickerman was found guilty of conspiracy to defraud and faces sentencing next month.
The conviction increases pressure to halt plans to extradite Sheffield student Richard O’Dwyer to the US on copyright charges relating to a far smaller website. At its peak, O’Dwyer’s site reached about 300,000 users a month and was estimated by prosecutors to have taken approximately £147,000 in revenue over around three years.
Supporters of O’Dwyer argue that if he is to face trial it should be in the UK rather than the US.
Among them were two members of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee – its Labour deputy chairman, Tom Watson, and Conservative MP Louise Mensch.
Politicians of all parties have raised the O’Dwyer case, including home affairs committee chair Keith Vaz, former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, Lib Dem president Tim Farron, Conservative MPs David Davis and Dominic Raab, and Green MP Caroline Lucas.
Also among the signatories of Wales’s petition was Graham Linehan, writer of the sitcoms The IT Crowd, Black Books and Father Ted, who said the prosecution itself – not just the potential extradition – was a cause for alarm.
“It just seems to me that people like Richard are being punished for being able to navigate the modern world,” said Linehan. “The internet has changed everything, they’re doing what comes naturally in these new, uncharted waters and suddenly they’re getting their collars felt by people who still have Hotmail addresses.
“And then [there's] the sheer shocking arbitrary nature of it all … to be told that you could face up to 10 years for sharing links? When I heard that Nora Ephron died, I shared on Twitter a link to the full version of When Harry Met Sally on YouTube. Am I a criminal now? Why? Why not?
“The internet means that commerce and communication and culture and morality is changing, and changing so fast that we struggle to keep up.”
The Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), a trade organisation of rights owners, was a driving force behind the prosecution of Vickerman, passing a dossier of evidence to police, who then arrested him in 2008. The body welcomed his conviction.
“These are landmark criminal convictions proving that those operating pirate websites are not outside the law but can be tracked down and brought to justice,” said FACT director general Kieron Sharp.
“This was a criminal conspiracy for criminal profit to fund a criminal lifestyle and Vickerman is now paying the price.”
Others, however, raised concerns about the nature of the conviction against Vickerman and the involvement of industry groups in obtaining it.
“This was not a case brought using copyright law. The interest groups involved couldn’t present a case of copyright infringement and instead decided to press for the use of the common law offence of ‘conspiracy to defraud’,” said UK Pirate party leader Loz Kaye. “This is one of the most controversial crimes in English law – it criminalises conduct by two or more people that would not be criminal when performed by an individual.
“The offence was notoriously used in the 1970s to prevent people sharing film cassettes as the TV and film industry believed video was a threat to their existence.
“In addition to flying in the face of recent findings in similar cases, this prosecution was driven by private interests. It is well known that the very groups representing the victim helped with the investigation, were present at the arrest, given access to the evidence and were present at police interviews. This is deeply concerning.”
In another UK case Alan Ellis, who ran a website directory of BitTorrent links, was cleared of conspiracy to defraud in 2010 as the court deemed he could not be held responsible if his users used his platform to share links to copyrighted material. In a similar manner, Google is not generally held to be responsible for the contents of its links.
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