First UK File-Sharing Trial Ends In Acquittal

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The founder of large-scale pirate music website, Oink’s Pink Palace, has been cleared of defrauding thousands of pounds from record labels and musicians

A computer programmer accused of “ripping off” record labels and musicians has been unanimously acquitted of conspiracy to defraud. Alan Ellis – who is the first person in the UK to be prosecuted for illegal file-sharing – claims he created Oink’s Pink Palace in his student bedroom from a free template on the web as a project to “better my skills for employability”.

Oink’s Pink Palace – frequently abbreviated to Oink – has been described by music industry organisations as an “online pirate pre-release music club”. When police raided Ellis’s home in October 2007 they discovered that the site had 200,000 members, who had downloaded 21 million music files. They also found almost £185,000 in his accounts.

During the trial, Ellis explained that Oink did not host any music itself but simply indexed the files users had available on their computers. This allowed members to download music from other users for free. “All I do is really like Google, to really provide a connection between people,” he told police officers.

According to the programmer, the money in his accounts was generated from users, who were required to make a donation to be able to invite friends to join Oink. He said he never intended to defraud copyright holders, and that donations made by members were used to cover the cost of renting a commercial server in Amsterdam, which was required because of the amount of Internet traffic the site was attracting. Any “surplus” funds were earmarked for buying his own server, he claimed.

A spokesman for the British music industry’s trade association BPI said the verdict was “disappointing” and “out of line with decisions made in similar cases around the world, such as The Pirate Bay”.

Infamous Swedish website The Pirate Bay, which indexes BitTorrent files, has more than 4 million registered users. On 17 April 2009, the site’s administrators were found guilty of assistance to copyright infringement and sentenced to one year in prison, as well as a fine of 30 million SEK (£2.39 million). The defendants have appealed on the grounds that, since they do not actually host the pirated content, they are not guilty of infringement.

The news of Ellis’s acquittal comes amid widespread controversy and debate surrounding the UK government’s strategy to tackle illegal file-sharing. Business Secretary Lord Mandelson laid out in the Digital Economy Bill how the government would impose an escalating series of sanctions, starting with sending letters to illegal downloaders and culminating in slowing down the connection speed of offenders or temporarily suspending their connections.

However, the proposal has caused concern among Internet campaigners, including the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) and TalkTalk. More than 30,000 people have also signed a petition on the government’s website, complaining that the measures would penalise innocent people. The government was even forced to water down a copyright clause in the Digital Economy Bill last week, which gave Mandelson the power to alter copyright law without the need for further legislation, after being hit with a barrage of complaints.

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“This case is the first – and possibly the last – in Britain against file-sharing,” Robin Fry, copyright expert at Beachcroft, told the Financial Times. “Under English law they cannot be prosecuted for copyright violations because all they have is the software, they don’t hold any of the music files themselves. It will be very rare indeed that anyone will be cut off.”


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