A British man who ran the highly successful video-linking site SurfTheChannel has been sentenced to four years behind bars, for conspiracy to defraud.
Gateshead resident Anton Vickerman had been found guilty on two counts in June, and was sentenced on Tuesday at Newcastle Crown Court. His wife Kelly was arrested but subsequently cleared.
SurfTheChannel acted as a search engine that provided links to video content — some of it unlawfully copied — which could then be streamed over the internet. This in itself is not illegal in the UK, but then Vickerman was not charged with copyright offences as such.
Indeed, when police and the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) raided Vickerman's home in 2009, the police declined to prosecute him at all. The police then handed over Vickerman's servers, financial records and mobile phones to FACT, so the rights-holder group could pursue a private prosecution over conspiracy to defraud, rather than copyright infringement.
That raid followed an sting operation set up by FACT and the MPAA, which uncovered the fact that Scopelight — Vickerman's company — generated £300,000 a year, much of which was funnelled to an offshore bank account.
"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 Kieron Sharp said in a statement on Tuesday.
"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."
"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" — Kieron Sharp, FACT
FACT's statement added that Vickerman and his staff had "secretly and anonymously uploaded [videos] to third party sites before linking to them".
The UK Pirate Party was markedly less enthusiastic about Vickerman's sentence. Party leader Loz Kaye said the way the case was investigated, prosecuted and concluded was "deeply concerning, inappropriate and disproportionate given the activities that Anton Vickerman was engaged in".
"A four-year prison sentence is twice the maximum that could have been handed down if Vickerman had been charged with online copyright infringement," Kaye said in a statement.
"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."
The SurfTheChannel case has some similarities to that of TVShack, also a site that provided links to content hosted by third parties. TVShack proprietor Richard O'Dwyer has not been prosecuted in the UK — again, common law has not established linking to infringing content as a crime — but the government is preparing to extradite him to the US, where he faces criminal charges.