SurfTheChannel Owner Anton Vickerman Sentenced To Four Years In Jail For 'Conspiracy'

from the nods-and-winks dept

In June, we underlined the disturbing UK ruling that found Anton Vickerman guilty of “conspiracy to defraud” for operating SurfTheChannel, a TV link indexing website that hosted no infringing content whatsoever. The case raised huge concerns from the very start, when police invited FACT (a private anti-piracy group) to join the raid on the STC offices—and it culminated in a man facing up to 10 years in jail for building a popular website, despite not actually facing charges of copyright infringement since he did no such thing. The “conspiracy” charge allowed a conviction on the basis of Vickerman maybe-kinda-sorta being adjacent or somehow connected to infringement even though no specific copyright laws were broken.

Now, the sentencing has come down, and Vickerman will be spending four years in prison. Four years of his life… for operating a non-infringing website. All on the basis of a charge that failed against two extremely similar sites. Not only does this seem like an insane punishment, it is going to create a massive chilling effect on innovative online services. Of course, FACT is extremely proud of both these things:

“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,” FACT Director General Kieron Sharp says.

“The sentencing indicates the severity of the offenses committed and the sophistication of [Vickerman’s] 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.”

That’s quite the picture to paint of STC. In reality, the site did not aim to direct users to illegal copies—merely to help users find film and TV content online. There happens to be a lot of it—including lots of legitimate content from a variety of sources like Hulu and the networks own websites. STC, with its community-driven model where users submit and vote on the quality of links, indexed all those legitimate sources—as well as many infringing links that were also submitted. STC even had commercial partnerships with networks like A&E and the Discovery Channel—and there were suggestions that the MPAA pressured those networks into ending the relationships before the trial, in order to better paint STC as a dedicated piracy service. And there was little or no evidence that Vickerman was involved in uploading or even sourcing the community content, infringing or otherwise, which is why a direct charge of copyright infringement didn’t happen. Meanwhile, merely linking is not a crime. So what’s left? Just the vague charge of “conspiracy to defraud”, which sounds a lot like “felony interference with a business model”, or basically “doing something we just don’t particularly like.” This isn’t the first time UK conspiracy laws have been used in highly questionable ways—in fact, it’s been a subject of controversy there since the 70s, when a judge infamously stated that a conspiracy charge could be based on as little as “a nod and a wink.”

Anton Vickerman is paying the price for doing nothing more than making it easy to find content online. It’s not unlike Google being browbeat into filtering results from supposed pirate sites—the entertainment industry doesn’t want to compete by offering more legitimate options, and it doesn’t want to go after the actual people doing the infringing, so it tries to find ways to put all the pressure on intermediate third parties who aren’t directly guilty of anything, just because it’s easier and faster. Innovation gets blocked, innovators get put in jail, and the industry doesn’t have to lift a single competitive finger. This is an unfortunate outcome that, once again, does absolutely nothing to stop piracy, since eliminating one ultra-popular site like STC only clears the top spot for the hundreds of similar sites that are jockeying for the position. Even if it was effective at scaring all such sites out of the UK, they would only pop up in other countries, or people would just move on to the next easy method of finding what they want. Vickerman’s questionable conviction and ridiculous sentence send only one message that has any impact: don’t operate user-driven websites in the UK.

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Companies: fact, surfthechannel

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Comments on “SurfTheChannel Owner Anton Vickerman Sentenced To Four Years In Jail For 'Conspiracy'”

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104 Comments
Duke (profile) says:

4 years for facilitating

Interestingly, if they had managed to convict him for online copyright infringement (under s107(2A) CDPA), the most he could have got would have been 2 years in prison. So ‘facilitating’ online copyright infringement = 4 years in prison, whereas online copyright infringement itself = < 2 years.

Conspiracy to defraud is a ridiculous law. The Law Commission attempt to repeal it a few years ago, when English Fraud laws were updated for the 21st (or 20th) century. The Government accepted that the law was bad, but refused to repeal it just in case they wanted to use it later…

And now it is being used by the Hollywood types to ruin people’s lives through private prosecutions, where, I guess, they feel that locking someone away for 2 years just isn’t enough.

Duke (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: 4 years for facilitating

Dishonesty isn’t the same thing as not being honest (law is weird that way). Or rather, it is, but “honest” in the sense of honourable, rather than truthful.

In the case of actual fraud, pretending to be a copyright owner (something that certain large companies who will remain nameless seem to do quite frequently) could amount to a fraud (by false representation) but in conspiracy to defraud (which wasn’t created for, but was greatly expanded to cover copyright cases back in the 70s, before the 1988 law closed some holes) the dishonesty is more about conduct.

Here, I imagine the argument was “this guy is making huge amounts of money doing something obviously illegal therefore must be dishonest” – even though what he was doing seems to only be illegal because he was dishonest in doing it…

Duke (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Because prosecuting people is expensive and it is far cheaper to get a government to do your dirty work for you. The SurfTheChannel case has been going on for 4 years now and is a private prosecution, meaning FACT and the MPAA are paying for it (the UK prosecution service quickly dropped the case). However, with O’Dwyer they were able to convince the US authorities to bring a case themselves, so the US government pays for everything.

As usual, it’s all about the money. Hollywood may claim that these sites are costing them tens of millions of dollars a year, but they don’t want to spend a penny more than they have to to stop them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Thanks for the information. The police are still involved in the prosecution though, I think they have to be for a criminal case, I did not realise, if it is the case that the CPS can not be involved.
Bizzare land.
But then so is the conspiracy charge, it used to be used against unions and anyone who the state disapproved of, even Peter Hain back in the day was done for conspiracy to trespass in protesting about apartheid.
Great 70’s John Pilger documentary about the use of conspiracy back then to silence dissent that I got to from techcrunch I think.
http://escapeesblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/john-pilger-a-nod-and-a-wink-the-use-of-conspiracy-laws-in-british-justice/

Quinn Wilde (user link) says:

He wasn’t charged with copyright infringement, because he didn’t do it.

He wasn’t charged with contributory copyright infringement, because that’s not a crime.

Instead, he was charged with ‘conspiracy to defraud’, the passed sentence for which is double the the maximum sentence for the crime he didn’t commit, and the thing he may have done which isn’t a crime.

bob (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, I think arresting the execs at Big Search might be a bit much, but they’ve known for a long time that they’ve been facilitating infringement and they’ve avoided changing things very much. It was only lately that they actually started downgrading links.

And your notion that he didn’t commit a crime is pretty bogus. If you’re riding around with some friends and they decide to rob a convenient store, you go to jail too. If you’re just a bag man on a robbery and someone else pulls the trigger, you can still be tried for murder. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t commit the act with your own fingers. If you’re part of the group, you can go to jail.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

One problem wih your brilliant real world analogy there bob, nothing done on the site was criminal and he wasn’t tried for ‘murder’ because no ‘murder’ was committed. He was tried for conspiracy to defraud absent any other crime being committed by anyone on the site. There is no crime to abet here, which is the analogy you are so desperately trying to draw but utterly failing at.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Aug 14th, 2012 @ 11:07am

Knowledge of? So what? Its not his responsibility to know what is and isn’t infringing of all the links in the world. That’s the rightsholders job. Boohoo.

Intent? Can you prove that?

Criminal? If he is, so are you. I bet you do at least one thing illegal (in the criminal sense) every day.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Criminal got caught, criminal goes to jail.”

Caught for what? They couldn’t pin anything on him and had to resort to an ambiguous piece of legislation to send him to jail.

Care to explain (since apparently it is so obvious) what exactly did the guy do wrong, and how “conspiracy to defraud” applies to that?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The thing about “various attempts to repeal it” does not tell you anything?

Obviously some people have problems with this piece of legislation (in this case a law, but ultimately an irrelevant fact in this case). Ambiguous seems like something every interessent agrees on…

If he is caught in a “conspiracy” wouldn’t it be appropriate to look at the consequences of what he is conspiring to do?

“Conspiracy to defraud” seems so disconnected from the rest of the legislation that it has essencially become a rubber-stamp for “we don’t like ya!”-cases.

Dave Reed (profile) says:

Re: Criminal got caught

Interesting?

Let’s see – no copyright infringement, no theft. He has defrauded SOMEONE, or so they tell us. No.. that’s not right he DIDN’T defraud anyone. He conspired (with whom?) to defraud someone.

I may just be old-fashioned or simple-minded, but in my day when you practice fraud on someone you trick them out of their money. For example, if I came up to you and said “Hi, I’m priest and I’m collecting for the poor orphans” and you give me money, but I’m NOT a priest and I spend it on beer you’ve been defrauded!

If I sit down with a friend and plan to get money from you that way, I have conspired to defraud you.

Who, exactly got defrauded out of what? Where was the deception? What was the valuable thing he got?

It seems to me that he’s a criminal that’s committed no crime.

RD says:

Re: Re:

“Ahh yes, he is totally innocent. He had absolutely no knowledge of the content of his site, and certainly didn’t intent to allow anything illegal on his site.

What a crock of shit.

Criminal got caught, criminal goes to jail. Work with it.”

So when can we expect Google to be shut down and its execs jailed? I mean, they only link to things too (and dont actually host any of the content that appears on their site) so they are guilty as well, right?

silverscarcat says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Shouldn’t the MPAA and RIAA execs be sent to prison for conspiracy to defraud?

After all, they’re trying to defraud people with their lies.

Except, in the MPAA and RIAA’s case, their conspiracies end up getting stuff taken down that people found useful and offer no alternatives.

Anonymous Coward says:

Another message

> Vickerman’s questionable conviction and ridiculous sentence send only one message that has any impact: don’t operate user-driven websites in the UK.

It also sends another message: even if your website is completely legal, create and operate it anonymously.

Those who think they are safe because what they are doing is legal, are the ones who are the most at risk.

Anonymous Coward says:

this is so very scary! i hope there is going to be an appeal and the corruption involved is exposed, along with what the judge received to make up this bullshit verdict. when will courts realise that Google does the same thing and the only reason it isn’t prosecuted is because it has much more money and clout on it’s side than the entertainment industries. what has happened to this guy is pure victimization brought about by a failing to adapt industry that only manages to survive due to the bribes it puts out.

daviedavedave (profile) says:

Weird one...

This is a weird one, because he wasn’t actually hosting illegal content (charges were dropped), so wasn’t technically infringing copyright… but it’s unarguable fact that his site was being used by hundreds of thousands of people to access illegal material, and he knew it. Not only that but he made a lot of cash for himself on the side (hence the “fraud” part of the charge). I studied law at university and annoyingly never came across anything about Conspiracy to Defraud, but it seems as flimsy as the Scottish “Breach of the Peace” charge, which kind of covers “doing something indeterminate, but bad, in a public setting”.

I feel sorry for him in a legal sense, but not really in a moral sense because he must have known what he was getting himself into. Anybody claiming that innovation will be stifled by this ruling is, frankly, desperate for arguments against the conviction & sentence (the simple legal technicality side of things should suffice IMO). If nothing else innovation will just accelerate to the point where it’s beyond the reach of the authorites, as it always does, before they actually twig what’s going on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Weird one...

The simple legal technicality involved here is that you can be guilty of a crime without committing a crime, you might not even have committed any offense at all.

When they start convicting city planners of conspiracy to commit bank robberies because the road system allows access to banks for robbers or ditto for map makers or tour leaders then you might have a point his site provided links to things that were available on the internet. If some of those things were infringing copyright then the people who put them there should be taken to court not people who have no way of knowing whether something is infringing or not.
Given that the publishers themselves have trouble with that why on earth is any 3rd party expected to know.

Anonymous Coward says:

The best Bribes Money Can Buy

Clearly this guy screwed up.

He thought that he could run an honest and legitimate website without paying off all the appropriate officials.
If he had done so this would not have been an issue.

I believe that this incident has created an opportunity for enthusiastic entrepreneurs to develop a new class of website that could be setup to facilitate bribery and payoffs
It could list the who’s who of Government and corporate people,in each country, and what their authority is and how much money they would need (or “other” considerations) to protect the new business venture.
It would also list convenient contact info to streamline the process.

In my opinion it is time to get this practice out of the closet and into the mainstream of acceptable business and government practices.

Identify it.
Process it.
Legalize it
Tax it.

No more need for stupid laws or expensive and time consuming court battles.
Then business can get on with the business of business

So if you’re looking for a new web adventure this may be for you.

PS
Don’t forget to pay off the right people first!

Anonymous Coward says:

if he had stolen something and then sold it or copies of it when it was not his to begin with, i could understand the charge of ‘fraud’. as he didn’t do that but only supplied links to other places where various pieces of media could actually be found, how is that ‘fraud’? making money through advertising is forward thinking but again, not ‘fraud’. plus, he was supposedly uploading files anonymously. if that was the case, how did they manage to find out it was him? the person, whoever it was, was either anonymous or not. this has been a set up from the start, just like TPB and Mega. the sentence in the UK is less for violent crime, burglary and robbery. try to explain that. this guy is being used by the UK government (probably Vaizey as a favour to his buddies in the entertainment industries) as a scape goat and to try to set an example. all involved should be exposed for the corrupt arse holes they obviously are!

wild_quinine (profile) says:

The biggest issue with the law they used...

By far the most significant problem with the law they used to get him on is that it is awful. It completely pre-supposes that he’s the bad guy.

Conspiracy to defraud in a nutshell:

an agreement by two or more by dishonesty to deprive a person of something which is his or to which he is or would be entitled and an agreement by two or more by dishonesty to injure some proprietary right of his, suffices to constitute the offence of conspiracy to defraud

Say for just one moment that we don’t prejudiciously assume that SurfTheChannel is an illegitimate operation.

Doesn’t it sound like all these private interest firms working together in secret to destroy this guy’s business and put him in jail fits the definition of ‘conspiracy to defraud’ a whole lot better than running a links site? Doesn’t it?

Don’t you have to assume that there are good guys and bad guys to see it otherwise?

Justice does not presume that there are good guys and bad guys. Ever.

Anonymous Coward says:

look at that, the law works !!!!..

does masnick like it??????

LOL WHO CARES !!!!!

so masnick, how many people are going to jump in and take his place ?? are you ??.. oh thats right law enforcement is not having an effect on the freetards…. except in cases like this.. does it make you reconsider your stance ??? not a chance…

daviedavedave (profile) says:

Weird one...

That’s the only thing for me.. the charge itself is dodgy. I really don’t feel sorry for the guy at all.

People saying that gun makers should be charged with conspiracy to murder are missing the point… murder charges come with much higher legal ‘tests’ attached to them, and with good reason! Those saying map makers should be charged with conspiracy to rob are also missing the point… maps are overwhelmingly used for law-abiding purposes, and the same cannot have been said for STC (quite apart from the fact that nearly all burglaries are opportunistic, amd not pre-planned).

Anonymous Coward says:

Weird one...

Ah so laws should be based on how one believes people will use a neutral item.
Maps are fine, because my belief is that more people use them for legal purposes, guns are fine because even if only really stupid people desire them; because when they do inevitably injure themselves and/or others there are high legal ‘tests’ around whether they meant to or not.
But having a website which has user provided links to material that may or may not be copyright infringing is simply asking for trouble.

Anonyslush says:

Few more details

1. Vickerman also uploaded stuff to cyberlockers like MegaUpload himself and then put the links on Surfthechannel
2. He didn’t tell his buddies about the money he was making
3. He exclusively linked to pirated material (preferably stuff that hadn’t been released yet)
4. He tried to obfuscate the links he had stolen from other sites to protect them against ‘theft’

And you may be interested in a bit of background information about the guy who continued to operate this site and other similar sites all the way to his conviction, causing his wife to leave him and his mother to kick him out of her house:

Suprnova.org could never have run without the forum been there, the forum has been run by a few different people in the past, but is now in the hands of a guy called anton Vickerman (FD aka TheShadow)

This is a money driven guy, If the is no cash there, he wont be either.
Over the last few months we have seen a massive change in nova, this is due to methlabs paying slon an extreamly large amount of money to drop Bittorrent and use the mass amount of people that come to nova to promote there new p2p software to, As the forum is the heart of suprnova, everyone from the site can go there and talk to eachother, MY advice to anyone going there still is ask lots of questions,

Its a shame to see so many people sticking up for suprnova when they are unaware of what they are actually sticking up for.

It use to be a very good torrent dump site, now its a cash machine for the owners.

Its time for you guys to wise up and relise that suprnova is dead, now is the time for them to rake in as much money as possible.

I wouldnt be suprised if slon was on the run, someone did put his real home address in the irc channel (he used it when he first registerd suprnova) also i wouldnt be suprised if FD aka the shadow had something coming to him aswell as he made the same misstake when first registering his old sites, i know his real home address was even floating around as a torrent so quite a few people must have it.

So il say it again, suprnova is dead, now is the time of the money makers

by Family Friend on January 29, 2005 at 2:13 pm

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Only gotten embarrassed now?
How about the fact that there has been no reporting and no word of any kind on the rnbxclusive takedown.
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120214/11083717758/uk-now-seizing-music-blogs-with-american-domains-over-copyright-claims.shtml

Despite the claims at the time and recently that there was actual criminal theft involved amongst other bizarre claims, no charges have been made against anyone.

“It is important to appreciate that the alleged manner in which music files were obtained involved individuals illegally accessing data from the personal accounts of artists and persons associated with them. This theft of pre-release material can have a damaging effect on those concerned.”

Amongst the claims made at the time was
“If you have downloaded music using this website you may have committed a criminal offence which carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine under UK law.”

Which SOCA have since clarified as meaning you may be guilty of conspiracy to defraud.
“The warning message was primarily directed at those persons who had been knowingly downloading stolen music from the rnbxclusive website. These persons may have committed the offence of conspiracy to defraud, which carries a maximum penalty on conviction of 10 years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine, as stated in the warning notice.
In addition there is potentially an offence of distributing an article infringing copyright.”

Given the case against Anton Vickerman appears to have happened without the CPS, it is somewhat surprising that SOCA have recently justified the lack of prosecution in relation to rnbxclusive with the following recent response
“At this stage, I am not able to comment further, including on whether SOCA is taking action against the operators of the site. Decisions regarding whether or not prosecutions can be brought rest with the Crown Prosecution Service.”

But how can this be, that a site can be taken down and allegations of criminal activity thrown about by law enforcement officers who then make no effort whatsoever to support them, what can they possibly say to allow us to consider all this to be reasonable.
I’ll leave the last words to them again

“SOCA was formed by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and has a responsibility to prevent, detect or mitigate the consquences of serious organised crime. A key means of preventing criminals from exploiting websites to profit from the distribution of stolen or illegally obtained music files is to reduce demand by deterring persons from using those sites.
SOCA therefore needed to indicate clearly the nature of the criminal activity linked to the operation of the rnbxclusive website and to draw to the attention of the relevant parties the legal jeopardy indicated above.”

All quotes from the DG of SOCA

Anonymous Coward says:

Anonyslush must be one of those third party surrogates the leaked MPAA communications strategy to deal with the fallout was on about. And his comments given the appropriate degree of attention.

WTF does what sort of person Vickerman is or is not. He represents us all as regards the excesses of rights holders in imposing their will on the polulation (or do I mean their customers)

Ninja (profile) says:

Few more details

[citation needed]

And it’s ok to make money from the service. You know, you have to spend work hours cleaning the code, managing the site, helping moderating the community (or manage the moderation teams). So he made money on a service that people loved that incidentally had some infringing content. Problem? None. If the MAFIAA were smart enough they’d be offering such services.

As for the possible money made, well I’ve yet to see some1 that operates such sites that is actually rich.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just checked out the http://www.surfthechannel.com website. Seems that Vickerman left an explosive legacy i.e. a 20,000 word account of the past five years together with a mass of archive material all for download.

It is a very serious and concerning insight into the way that the MPAA/Fact organisations go about their work of ‘policing’ the internet and it goes some way to providing a bit of balance against the rubbish of the Fact PR strategy.

You all should have a look before anonyslush and his MPAA/Fact trolls in their dirty tricks department get to work on the site. It really is a perspective we don’t normally get because Fact/MPAA prefer to work in the shadows.

FYI I am close to being able to announce the real name and job of the face behind anonyslush based on the content of his comments. Watch this space….

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