For all we know, Anton Vickerman may have had simple aims when he launched his website surfthechannel.com – Likely just providing a service to the Internet at large, and getting himself a bunch of traffic (and maybe a little profit) in the process – but both he and the website have ended up going down in Internet history nonetheless as Vickerman becomes the first UK citizen to be sentenced to jail time for linking to illegally-uploaded copyright infringing material.
The 38-year old Vickerman was said to be making somewhere in the region of £35,000 per month from the site through advertising, according to prosecutors in the case. He had originally set up the site in 2007 as an online index to video content both legal and otherwise throughout the Internet; the following year, he attempted to sell it for £400,000, claiming that it had generated a profit in the twelve months previous of around £250,000. Both Vickerman and his wife, Kelly, were arrested later that year following an elaborate sting operation during which investigators gained access to his house by pretending to be potential homebuyers interested in the property; Kelly Vickerman was charged with conspiracy to defraud, but cleared in June of this year.
Perhaps tellingly, Vickerman was not charged with copyright offences directly, but instead faced – and was ultimately convicted on – two counts of conspiracy to facilitate copyright infringement. Initially faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, the sentence finally handed down at the end of the eight-week trial was a far more lenient 4 years.
According to Kieron Sharp of the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), one of the organizations that led the investigation against Vickerman, “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.” That stands in opposition to last week’s overturning by the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeal of a judgment against MyVidster.com, an American-based social video site that essentially does the same thing; in that ruling, Judge Richard Posner likened the sharing of/linking to pirated videos to the reading of stolen books, explaining that “MyVidster is giving web surfers addresses where they can find entertainment,” likening it to entertainment listings: “By listing plays and giving the name and address of the theaters where they are being performed,” Posner reasoned, “the New Yorker is not performing them. It is not ‘transmitting or communicating’ them.”
Such legal discrepancies between nations and jurisdictions are unlikely to give Vickerman much comfort, however; in addition to the jail term, his lawyer David Walbank told the court that the case had not only led to his bankruptcy, but also the break-up of his marriage. Crime doesn’t pay, we’re often told, but this particular one appears to have cost more than anyone might have anticipated.