We've been following the Surfthechannel/Scopelight case since early on, and there have always been serious questions about it. More than three years ago, we were wondering why a private, Hollywood-financed anti-piracy operation called FACT wasn't just able to take part in the raid of Anton Vickerman's house, but also got to take the computers
that were seized. A private party should never
be able to get the computers of those that they're accusing in a criminal case. Soon after Vickerman was declared guilty, we discussed some anonymous courtroom notes that suggested extremely serious oddities
with how the case was conducted -- including (again) FACT more or less running the show, and having trouble keeping important data.
Following Vickerman's sentencing
last week, even more info came out about the case that raises incredibly important questions
about its validity. Tim Lee over at Ars Technica has gone through the issue in great detail, highlighting how FACT didn't just take part in the raid, but it financed the government agency that did the investigation
and then financed and ran the criminal prosecution
Lee explains that this is an oddity/antiquity of UK law, in which private parties are actually allowed to bring criminal charges against other private parties, rather than (as in the US) needing the government to decide to bring charges. In fact, in this case, government prosecutors expressly refused to bring charges
noting that they didn't think there was a case
-- information that was kept from Vickerman. From the Crown Prosecution Service:
I understand from [Northumbria Detective Constable] Watkin that there have been no other successful prosecutions that he is aware of where we could point to this type of website being classified as amounting to "making available... by electronic transmission," the legal standard needed to find Vickerman guilty of copyright infringement. At present it appears uncertain if in fact what the suspect has done does infringe this particular legislation. Certainly on the evidence thus far provided it is impossible for me to determine if this is the case and therefore I cannot advise any prosecution on the evidence presented.
The CPS found the whole thing bizarre:
His 'crime' is to make it easier for others to find what is already there. This begs the rather obvious question of why he is being pursued rather than those who actually breach the copyright by displaying the material.
And yet, FACT went through with the case, because of an oddity in UK law that lets a private party pursue a criminal charge if they're willing to finance it. And FACT was more than willing to finance nearly ever aspect of this case, apparently. It did the original "investigation" in which it apparently recorded a key meeting. The two sides dispute what was said in that meeting... but FACT can't seem to find the recording (of course). The report also explains how FACT funded the Bedfordshire Trading Standards Financial Investigations Unit (BTSFIU), officially a government agency, but one that was directly funded by FACT to be its own private police force, and which apparently took the job gleefully.
Of course, you would think that some of this info would get out before a judge, but the judge seemed equally unconcerned with the law, as focused as he was on Vickerman apparently being arrogant. Even more bizarre, the judge didn't seem at all concerned about precedents that went the other way. For example, the TV-Links case, which was quite similar, ended up with an acquittal
, so you might think that any reference to it would be in Vickerman's favor. Not in this judge's mind
TV-Links had already engaged in a similar operation but you believed you could do better. You
pressed on knowing that TV Links had been taken down following the intervention of FACT on
the basis that what it had been doing was unlawful
Yes, you read that right. Even though TV Links was found to be lawful, in this judge's mind, the fact that it had been taken down by FACT (the same group prosecuting this case), should have been evidence to Vickerman that STC was illegal. Think about that for a second. It's almost mind-blowingly ridiculous. The mere accusation
that another site was illegal, even though that later turned out to not be true
was enough evidence for this judge that STC's actions were illegal. How does a judge who thinks that way keep his job?
The judge also does not seem to understand the nature of the internet or links, or how user generated content works. He seems to think that before anyone can post a link to a website, the owner of that website should need to contact a copyright holder to find out if the posting of that link and the underlying content it points to are legal. Seriously:
When it was suggested in cross examination that it was obvious that the films that you were
posting links to were to links to recent films and that you were helping people to link to
copyright infringing films, you insisted that you couldn’t know if it was infringing copyright, that
the studious might have granted right holder licences to the films of which you had no knowledge. That was certainly true and bound to be true if you didn’t bother to check with the
copyright owners and check you most certainly didn’t.
The judge also takes a movie studio exec at face value, when she tells the court that "piracy" means fewer blockbuster movies -- despite the fact that approximately four times as many movies were made last year than were made 15 years ago. Actual facts don't appear to be this judge's strong suit. He also uses the fact that since the movie industry pays taxes, if it struggles, fewer taxes are paid. But, if that's a crime, then any industry that is declining suddenly can implicate any upstart competition for those same reasons.
The whole thing is both bizarre and scary.
One hopes that, given these rather horrifying details, conflicts of interest and inconsistencies, it will be possible to revisit much of this on appeal.