UK Man Gets Four Years For Linking To Copyrighted Video

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At its height in 2010, SurfTheChannel.com received almost half a million hits a day. The site, operated by Anton Vickerman, of Gateshead, England, did not host any video files on its own servers, but linked to full seasons of TV shows, plus the latest movie streams. A large network of volunteers kept the links current, and removed links to deleted videos. The site is estimated to have made £35,000 a month in advertising revenues, before it was shut down, following an especially elaborate sting, as explained in The Guardian:

[A] private investigator posed as a prospective house buyer and filmed computer equipment in Vickerman’s home. Other private eyes had already obtained detailed information about his bank accounts, cars and telephone records[...].

Even with the site shut down, though, prosecutors had to be creative when bringing charges against Vickerman. As The Independent says:

Due to the fact that these directory-based sites do not actually host any infringing content directly, it has been notoriously difficult to charge the owners for copyright infringement, especially if there has been no financial gain. However, that hasn’t stopped authorities from prosecuting link indexing sites that make a profit via advertising revenue.

Earlier this year, Vickerman was convicted on two counts of conspiracy to defraud after a two-month trial, and yesterday he received a four-year prison sentence. This outcome could have huge implications for anyone that shares links. Here in the US, we know from Viacom v. YouTube that sites are shielded from liability by the DMCA’s safe harbor provision, when users upload copyrighted content. Apparently, this verdict in the UK keeps site operators on the hook, regardless of whether they personally provide any protected content. As comedy writer (The I.T. Crowd, Father Ted) and Twitter superstar Graham Linehan told The Guardian recently:

 “The internet has changed everything, they’re doing what comes naturally in these new, uncharted waters and suddenly they’re getting their collars felt by people who still have Hotmail addresses.

“And then [there's] the sheer shocking arbitrary nature of it all … to be told that you could face up to 10 years for sharing links? When I heard that Nora Ephron died, I shared on Twitter a link to the full version of When Harry Met Sally on YouTube. Am I a criminal now? Why? Why not?

“The internet means that commerce and communication and culture and morality is changing, and changing so fast that we struggle to keep up.”

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