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Aug. 15, 2012
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In June, we underlined the disturbing UK ruling that found Anton Vickerman guilty of "conspiracy to defraud" for operating SurfTheChannel, a TV link indexing website that hosted no infringing content whatsoever. The case raised huge concerns from the very start, when police invited FACT (a private anti-piracy group) to join the raid on the STC offices—and it culminated in a man facing up to 10 years in jail for building a popular website, despite not actually facing charges of copyright infringement since he did no such thing. The "conspiracy" charge allowed a conviction on the basis of Vickerman maybe-kinda-sorta being adjacent or somehow connected to infringement even though no specific copyright laws were broken.
Now, the sentencing has come down, and Vickerman will be spending four years in prison. Four years of his life... for operating a non-infringing website. All on the basis of a charge that failed against two extremely similar sites. Not only does this seem like an insane punishment, it is going to create a massive chilling effect on innovative online services. Of course, FACT is extremely proud of both these things:
"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," FACT Director General Kieron Sharp says.That's quite the picture to paint of STC. In reality, the site did not aim to direct users to illegal copies—merely to help users find film and TV content online. There happens to be a lot of it—including lots of legitimate content from a variety of sources like Hulu and the networks own websites. STC, with its community-driven model where users submit and vote on the quality of links, indexed all those legitimate sources—as well as many infringing links that were also submitted. STC even had commercial partnerships with networks like A&E and the Discovery Channel—and there were suggestions that the MPAA pressured those networks into ending the relationships before the trial, in order to better paint STC as a dedicated piracy service. And there was little or no evidence that Vickerman was involved in uploading or even sourcing the community content, infringing or otherwise, which is why a direct charge of copyright infringement didn't happen. Meanwhile, merely linking is not a crime. So what's left? Just the vague charge of "conspiracy to defraud", which sounds a lot like "felony interference with a business model", or basically "doing something we just don't particularly like." This isn't the first time UK conspiracy laws have been used in highly questionable ways—in fact, it's been a subject of controversy there since the 70s, when a judge infamously stated that a conspiracy charge could be based on as little as "a nod and a wink."
Anton Vickerman is paying the price for doing nothing more than making it easy to find content online. It's not unlike Google being browbeat into filtering results from supposed pirate sites—the entertainment industry doesn't want to compete by offering more legitimate options, and it doesn't want to go after the actual people doing the infringing, so it tries to find ways to put all the pressure on intermediate third parties who aren't directly guilty of anything, just because it's easier and faster. Innovation gets blocked, innovators get put in jail, and the industry doesn't have to lift a single competitive finger. This is an unfortunate outcome that, once again, does absolutely nothing to stop piracy, since eliminating one ultra-popular site like STC only clears the top spot for the hundreds of similar sites that are jockeying for the position. Even if it was effective at scaring all such sites out of the UK, they would only pop up in other countries, or people would just move on to the next easy method of finding what they want. Vickerman's questionable conviction and ridiculous sentence send only one message that has any impact: don't operate user-driven websites in the UK.