SurfTheChannel Owner Gets Four Years In Prison
FACT and MPAA celebrate victory over Anton Vickerman
Anton Vickerman, the owner of the video indexing platform SurfTheChannel, has been sentenced to four years in jail, after being found guilty of two charges of conspiracy to defraud by “facilitating” copyright infringement at Newcastle Crown Court in June.
Anton’s wife Kelly, who shared the charges, was acquitted by the jury.
For several years, SurfTheChannel remained a popular online destination, hosting free links to TV shows and films, but not storing any of the illegal content on the site itself. It was eventually brought down by private investigators, operating on behalf of US and UK copyright holders.
The sentencing marked the first time the owner of a “linking” website has been found guilty of conspiring to defraud the entertainment industry.
According to the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), at the peak of its popularity SurfTheChannel attracted more than 400,000 visitors a day, generating over £35,000 every month in advertising revenue.
Vickerman, 38, designed the website himself. It was hosting user-submitted links to both legal and illegal content, uploaded to various online video platforms, such as the now-defunct Megavideo.
Creator of Megavideo Kim Dotcom is currently awaiting an extradition hearing that could see him go to trial in the US over copyright infringement charges.
According to TorrentFreak, in 2009 FACT hired an investigator to confirm Vickerman was running the site. This “undercover agent” earned Vickerman’s trust by pretending to be a venture capitalist under the name “Roger Van Veen”. By doing this, he gained access to the innermost workings of the site, including information on administrators, numbers of visitors and sources of income.
Van Veen even followed Vickerman 250 miles to his Gateshead home. Another investigator later visited Vickerman’s family, pretending to be a potential house buyer. He took a series of pictures, focusing on computer equipment.
The findings of the investigation eventually resulted in a raid. The ensuing court case has seen involvement of the Motion Picture Association of America and US authorities.
“Mr Vickerman knew what he was doing from the outset, having been involved in the pirate community for some time,” FACT director general Kieron Sharp told the BBC.
“The sentencing indicates the severity of the offences committed and the sophistication of his criminal enterprise and should send a very strong message to those running similar sites that they can be found, arrested and end up in prison.”
“The conviction sends a clear message that the kind of website run by Anton Vickerman is unlawful and may be the target of criminal prosecution by FACT and other bodies representing the creative industries,” added Adam Rendle, intellectual property lawyer at legal firm Taylor Wessing.
“Hopefully, that will dissuade others from getting involved in piracy. Hopefully, that will dissuade others from getting involved in piracy. That surfthechannel.com generated substantial revenue from its unlawful activities demonstrates that online piracy can be big business, which illegitimately competes with authorised sources of content.
“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.”
Cause for alarm
Certain onlookers have been shocked by the size of the sentence, especially when compared to similar cases. In 2010, TV-Links, a website very similar to SurfTheChannel, was deemed to be a ‘mere conduit’ of information and its administrators were acquitted of copyright infringement charges.
“The way this issue was investigated, prosecuted and the resulting sentence are, deeply concerning, inappropriate and disproportionate given the activities that Anton Vickerman was engaged in,” commented Loz Kaye, leader of the Pirate Party UK. A four year prison sentence is twice the maximum that could have been handed down if Vickers had been charged with online copyright infringement.”
“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’.
“In addition to coming to a conclusion that is out of line with findings in similar cases, this prosecution appears to have been driven by private interests. It has been reported that the very groups representing the victim helped with the investigation, were present at the arrest, present at police interviews and given access to the evidence. It has also been reported that unorthodox and intrusive measures were used during the investigation and a worrying amount of pressure was reportedly put on overseas witnesses.”
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