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August 15, 2012

First Englishman sentenced to jail for movie ‘piracy’

Anton Vickerman is the first UK citizen to be sentenced to jail for allowing his website to link to pirated material.

By Allan Swann

Vickerman ran surfthechannel.com, a popular site which indexed and linked to pirated material for users to download. It did not host the illegal files.

Unusually, he was not prosecuted under copyright law, but under common law. Vickerman was charged with ‘Conspiracy to Defraud’, as he was ‘facilitating’ the infringement of copyright – he was found guilty at Newcastle Crown Court after an eight week trial and will now go to jail for four years.

It is effectively the first time a UK citizen has been sent to jail for media piracy.

The Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) claims that at its peak two years ago, it was attracted 400,000 visitors per day, and ranking amongst the top 500 websites globally.

"This case conclusively shows that running a website that deliberately sets out to direct users to illegal copies of films and TV shows will result in a criminal conviction and a long jail sentence.
"Mr Vickerman knew what he was doing from the outset, having been involved in the pirate community for some time. This was not a passive search engine. Surfthechannel was created specifically to make money from criminal activity and it became the biggest site of its kind on the internet within two years," said Kieron Sharp, FACT’s Director General.

Vickerman ran surfthechannel as a business through a limited company, Scopelight Ltd, and was generating income of over £300,000 per year. Profits from the company were funnelled to a bank account in Latvia operated by an offshore company based in Dominica.

This appears to have been the problem – he wasn’t merely linking to copyrighted material (which would come under copyright law), but profiteering from it.

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The decision has been controversial, as previous attempts try website owners in similar positions under copyright law have been unsuccessful by jury.

The UK Pirate Party’s leader Loz Kaye believes that the sentence is too punitive, and double what would have been received if tried (and found guilty) under the UK’s copyright laws.

"As we have said before, this was not a case brought using copyright law. The interest groups involved couldn’t present a case of copyright infringement and decided to press for the use of the common law offence of "conspiracy to defraud". This offence is incredibly controversial in English law as it criminalises conduct by two or more parties that would not be criminal when performed by an individual."

However, Adam Rendle, Intellectual Property lawyer at Taylor-Wessing believes that the use of common law in this case is not unwarranted.

"In these cases prosecutors have the option of using conspiracy to defraud, which has a longer maximum sentence than the relevant criminal offence in the copyright legislation, which carries a maximum sentence of two years," he said.

"In the wider context, this prosecution is one example of a number of steps that industries harmed by online piracy are taking against pirate websites to protect their rights and business models. These include obtaining orders that ISPs block access to them, taking civil action to shut them down and working with search engines, advertisers and payment service providers to reduce the traffic and revenue they can generate."

The Conservative Government has placed a focus on developing the UK’s technology industries, and in particular placed a large focus on copyright protection, claiming that it is worth £3bn to the national GDP. It is also in the process of rewriting the UK’s dated copyright laws to strengthen legal remedies against criminals, while protecting individuals rights.

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