First Brit jailed for film, TV piracy

Trade org. Fact won private prosecution against Vickerman

LONDON — A British man who operated a website linking to pirated films and TV shows has been sentenced to four years in prison, following a private prosecution brought by the U.K.’s Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact).

Anton Vickerman, 38, whose surfthechannel.com had 400,000 users a day in 2009, is the first Brit to be jailed in the U.K. for online piracy.

At its peak, the service ranked among the top 500 most popular websites in the world.

He was sentenced on Tuesday at Newcastle Crown Court, in North East England, after being convicted in June on two counts of conspiracy to defraud by facilitating copyright infringement. The conviction carried a maximum penalty of 10 years.

“This case can leave no-one in any doubt that Internet piracy is controlled by criminals whose profits threaten the ongoing reinvestment in our creative industries,” said David Puttnam, president of the Film Distributors Assn.

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Fact is a trade organization backed by the U.K.’s main distributors, exhibitors and broadcasters, plus the Hollywood studios.

Fact’s investigation found that Vickerman’s website was not merely passively linking to illegal material, but actively sourcing pirated films, including those not yet released at the cinema, which he and his staff secretly uploaded to other websites, before linking to them from surfthechannel.com.

Members of the site’s community were also encouraged to scour the web for material, to ensure that it was one of the most up-to-date databases of illegally copied material.

Vickerman ran surfthechannel through a limited company, Scopelight, which generated income of over £300,000 a year. Profits were channelled to a bank account in Latvia, operated by an offshore company based in the Caribbean island of Dominica.

Fact director general Kieron Sharp said, “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.”

The prosecution was based on the fact that, unlike regular search engines such as Google and Bing, Vickerman’s website was specifically and deliberately designed for pirate material, and that Vickerman was fully aware of what he was doing when he launched the site in 2007, having been involved in the pirate community for some time.

“Surfthechannel was created specifically to make money from criminal activity, and it became the biggest site of its kind on the Internet within two years,” Sharp said.

Another Brit, 22-year-old student Richard O’Dwyer, is currently facing extradition to the U.S. for running TVshack.net, which was shuttered in 2010 because it linked to other sites where its users could watch U.S. TV shows.

O’Dwyer has not been charged with any offence in the U.K.