Web designer sentenced after building torrent website

Web designer sentenced after building torrent website

Summary: In a court turnaround, a website designer has been found guilty of copyright infringement -- even though they did not run the website in question.

TOPICS: Piracy
student bay website designer charged copyright infringement

What happens if you design a website and the client puts it to potentially illegal services? According to one court, you're just as culpable.

First reported by TorrentFreak, a website designer who was contracted to work on a now-dead torrent search website, StudentBay, has been found guilty of copyright infringement offences.

The StudentBay was launched in 2008, and was designed to distribute free textbooks across Sweden to students. However, less than a year after launch, Swedish police became involved and the site was taken down.

The case has lasted three years. The website designer in question, an unnamed 23-year-old man, was originally prosecuted for running the website. This claim had no basis in reality and he was acquitted. However, the prosecution took the case to the Court of Appeals, where the designer stated he received payment in commission based on the site's traffic in leu of a fixed price -- which is not uncommon as a practice. In total, the website designer was paid around 52,000 kronor ($7930).

The Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that "the designer must've known the site would be put to infringing use," and so was charged accordingly.

The defendant said he was simply a contracted designer, and had no control over website users or the sharing of content. However, the Court of Appeal did not believe this was a good enough excuse, and he has been ordered to complete 75 hours of unpaid work and pay $6405 in damages. In addition, the money he earned through designing the site has been confiscated.

If you can take the website designer to court, should the companies that ran the website's servers be next?

It's not easy being a website designer. Some months, work floods out of your ears and in others, you scrabble around creating bargain-basement priced logos to put bread on the table.

If someone calls, you create a design specification based on their thoughts -- often difficult if the client is new to the web or have no design elements in mind -- but you get it done, and pray that you might get paid for it. Sometimes, you may resort to taking websites offline to ensure your time wasn't put to waste. That's how it is for freelancers.

However, once the design is complete and the invoice is paid in full, usual practice -- whether as a gentlemen's agreement or written contract -- means that the intellectual copyright of your work then belongs to the client. Sometimes this is not the case, but in the same way that you purchase a car, once you've paid, generally it's yours, even though the design and manufacture was performed by a company. Most clients insist upon this, as designers are there to perform a function, and shouldn't have any more involvement in someone's project.

What stands out about this case is that a contractor has been charged as an accessory to copyright infringement. Surely, if a designer can be charged, then firms running website servers, domain name registrants, even broadband suppliers could potentially be liable. Or, on the other hand, this may simply be a scapegoat case to try and chip away at the piracy industry by scaring off not only those considering running torrent websites -- but anyone on the periphery who may have a hand in a site's construction.

Better start changing your contracts folks. You "must know" what your design is going to eventually be used for, and make sure your client isn't up to anything dodgy.

Topic: Piracy

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  • I like this!

    If we can do this to a web designer for creating the tools used in a crime, then it should be an easy thing to charge gun manufacturers with murder.
    • different country though

      I guess different laws.
    • If the gun manufacturer got a cut

      On every contract hit that used his gun, why, yes you could. Which is essentially what was happening here.
      • Copyright infringement is not in the same league as murder

        Not even close.
        John L. Ries
        • Re: Copyright infringement is not in the same league as murder

          So which ones should be prosecuted, and which ones let off?
          • In cases like this...

            ...I think criminal intent has to be proven. There are a lot of things Bit Torrent can be used for besides copyright infringement (distributing Linux, for starters).

            And no, I don't think gun manufacturers should be liable for the murders their customers commit either (but if one or more of them wants to try for criminal incitement, then there are definitely laws to deal with it).
            John L. Ries
          • Criminal intent...

            "In cases like this...I think criminal intent has to be proven."

            So, this isn't evidence enough:
            1) The website was for downloading "free" textbooks for students - most of which would normally cost in the hundreds of dollars.
            2) The website logo and name was modeled after the most popular "free download" (read - pirate) site on the internet.
            3) The designer was getting a cut of the proceeds of that site.

            And the designer's main argument - "I didn't know". Yet in most places, ignorance is not considered a defense.

            So.. how much more criminal intent do you want?
    • Nice try

      It's not legit in this case, and it's already been tried here in the States. Sorry, but you'll have be more imaginative with your anti-freedom drivel.
  • Maybe....

    Lee Harvey Oswald should sue JFK's estate for vandalising his bullet?
  • Strange decision

    I'm amazed this stood up in law, what prosecution evidence was presented to show the designer knew it was going to facilitate IP theft, after all, the original concept sounds like sharing of non-copyright material?

    In other news, I'm now suing a uk car manufacturer and showroom as I'm pretty sure they knew their cars could be used by the scum that broke into our house. I may even sue the government as they must have known thieves would be using their roads. Plenty more to go after, trainer maker, crowbar maker.........
    Little Old Man
    • The difference is that the web

      Designer was making money off the site. Now, if you got a cut off if every robbery that used your car, or a car you helped buy, you would be held culpable, too.
      • Really?

        So if a criminal gets a lease on a car and uses that car in a robbery the bank who earns money on the lease should be liable?
        • Bzzt. Try again.

          If the bank got a portion of the robbery proceeds, then yes. The web designer was getting a cut of money earned on the web traffic. That means he was directly profiting from illegal activity. It really isn't that hard to understand.
          • The money

            they used to pay the lease came from their crimes! You can't have it both ways.
          • You're right

            If commission payments were during a time the website was used for trading copyrighted files, then so be it, his only defense would be he never went back to check what files were passing through the website. Clearly that wouldn't be enough if he was still deemed to have some control during the remuneration period.
            Little Old Man
          • baggins_z are you saying

            that the designer of the website knew which users were uploading illegal content and which were uploading legal content? He's getting paid per user not exclusively for users that are using the site for illegal purposes, right? Should he have to police what each user does? In this case he's not even the owner he was the designer.

            Sticking with the bank lease comparison; if the robber used the some of the money from his robbery to pay the lease the bank is now liable?

            Or what about a gun manufacturer or the designer of the gun? If that said gun is used to shoot and poach illegal animals and the poacher sells those animals for profit is the gun designer now liable? What if the gun designer licensees the right to his use his gun design and gets paid per user/buyer/sale of his gun. Should the gun designer have to watch over all people who bought his gun to make sure they don't use it for illegal money making activity?
          • re: Bzzt. Try again.

            > The web designer was getting a cut
            > of money earned on the web traffic.

            This is not uncommon. The article offers no evidence he *knew* he was being paid from infringement proceeds. I'd say civilly he'd be liable for the return of the money, but he should not have been charged with a crime based on the information given.

            What got my attention, though, was that his original not-guilty verdict was appealed by the prosecutor? Did I read that right? I know in some countries prosecutors can appeal not-guilty verdicts.
            none none

    C'mon! this is just sheer stupid! I see this happen in Europe/Sweden... but I suppose it could happen anywhere! And I am not a freelance web designer, but honestly Charlie, no contracts shouldn't have to be changed... if a designer doesn't understand the results of the design, then they shouldn't be working on it... even if it is updating pages. I think I would want to know what my product is doing before I design/work it!
  • No liability without control

    That ruling makes no sense whatsoever for the simple reason that the designer has no control on what the website owners allow or not on their site. That he made money out of it does not change anything. Picture the designer finding out by himself the site is breaking the law. What can he do? Nothing. You can't be held responsible for something outside your control.
    You would have to argue that he should have designed the site as to make it impossible to infringe copyrights. That would not be a matter of liability anymore, but one of regulations of the website building business. And to my knowledge, god forbid, no such absurd regulation exists.
    • What do you mean he can do nothing?

      He can contact the police and tell them a web site he designed is being used for illegal activity. Let's cut to the chase. Your problem with this is that you don't like anti-piracy laws. If the web designer had designed a site for exchanging pictures of child pornography and was getting a cut on web traffic, you'd be first in line calling for his imprisonment.