Hollywood undercover agents involved in what may be the biggest UK copyright fraud case to date
The owner of the pirate video platform SurfTheChannel, Anton Vickerman, has been found guilty of conspiracy to defraud by “facilitating” copyright infringement at Newcastle Crown Court.
He will be sentenced late next month and could spend up to 10 years in prison. Anton’s wife Kelly, who shared the charges, was found innocent.
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 brought down by private investigators, operating on behalf of US and UK copyright holders.
Today’s ruling is the first in which the owner of a link directory website has been found guilty of conspiracy to defraud the entertainment industry.
Charlie don’t surf
According to the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), at the peak of its popularity SurfTheChannel attracted more than 400,000 visitors a day, generating more than £35,000 every month in advertising revenue.
It was hosting user-submitted links to films and TV shows, uploaded to various online video platforms, such as the now-defunct Megavideo, part of Megaupload.
According to TorrentFreak, 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 the US authorities.
“Mr Vickerman set up Surfthechannel with the aim of it being one of the world’s top destinations for pirated films and TV programmes,” commented Kieron Sharp, FACT’s director general. “This was a criminal conspiracy for criminal profit to fund a criminal lifestyle and Vickerman is now paying the price.”
However, it is believed the case had many irregularities, which led some commentators to claim it was nothing but a public spanking, organised by the powerful interests in the entertainment industry.
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.
“This was not a case brought using copyright law. The interest groups involved couldn’t present a case of copyright infringement and instead decided to press for the use of the common law offence of “conspiracy to defraud”,” said Loz Kaye, the leader of the Pirate Party UK.
“This is one of the most controversial crimes in English law, it criminalises conduct by two or more people that would not be criminal when performed by an individual. The offence was notoriously used in the 1970s to prevent people sharing film cassettes as the TV and film industry believed video was a threat to their existence.
“In addition to flying in the face of recent findings in similar cases, this prosecution was driven by private interests, it is well known that the very groups representing the victim helped with the investigation, were present at the arrest, given access to the evidence and were present at police interviews. This is deeply concerning.
“Add to that the unorthodox and intrusive measures reported to have been used during the investigation and pressure likely put on overseas witnesses and it becomes deeply worrying.”
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