The owner of popular film- and TV show-linking site Surfthechannel has been sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted on charges of conspiracy to facilitate copyright infringement.
Anton Vickerman, of Gateshead, founded the website in 2007, building up its reputation as an exhaustive database of links to legal and illegal online videos hosted by other sites. Before being shut down in May, Surfthechannel pulled in some 400,000 users per day, who trawled the site’s index to find streaming videos on sites like YouTube, Tudou, and the now-defunct Megavideo. Prosecutors said the 38-year-old earned £35,000 a month through advertising at Surfthechannel’s peak popularity.
The case was brought by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) who hired a private investigator to take photographs of Vickerman’s house and computer equipment by pretending to be a prospective buyer for the property. Other investigators were hired to gather details about his bank accounts, telephone records, and other personal information.
A month later, Vickerman’s home was raided and he was arrested, along with his wife, who was also charged with a number of counts of conspiracy and fraud. She was later found not guilty by a jury. Vickerman was convicted of conspiracy to defraud the film industry, and faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
In late July, his attorneys filed an appeal against the conviction, contesting 24 alleged errors and biases in the trial. However, it will be quite some time, possibly up to a year, before the appeal goes to court.
Unsurprisingly, FACT, one of the groups behind the prosecution, has said it is pleased with the outcome of the case.
“The sentencing indicates the severity of the offences committed and the sophistication of his 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,” said its director general Kieron Sharp.
"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," he added.
But others are less enthused. The decision to charge Vickerman with conspiracy to defraud, rather than simply copyright infringement, is a potentially controversial one that some have described as relying on a vague law.
Loz Kaye, who heads the Pirate Party UK, described the sentence as “"deeply concerning, inappropriate and disproportionate,” adding that it prioritises the interests of private entities over those of the public.
In a lengthy account published on Surfthechannel.com, Vickerman lodged complaints against the judge and those involved in the prosecution.
“If had received a fair trial and was convicted then I would accept my fate and that would be that, it really would. But I didn’t receive a fair trial,” he wrote.