The jailing of Anton Vickerman – recording industry wants to make harsh examples

16 Aug 20121 Share

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Yesterday the first person in the UK for linking to pirated copies of TV shows and movies was jailed for four years. To many advocates of net freedom this is an injustice since Anton Vickerman never hosted the content himself, but for the wider internet community it’s a wake-up call that shows the recording industry is getting tough and has the law on its side.

The reality of the internet in 2012 is that everybody links to content elsewhere – be it links to YouTube videos of their favourite artists via their Facebook or Twitter profiles – or bloggers liberally linking to articles that please or displease them.

To many young people that is the way they’ve grown up with the web. They know no different and to many the simple act of linking to another piece of content sidesteps any charges of plagiarism or copyright theft.

Well, oh no it doesn’t!

After yesterday’s jailing of Anton Vickerman of Gateshead in England, an inconvenient and unwelcome new truth has emerged.

The law is not on the side of linking to content full stop.

But there is a difference here. Most people link to content that inspires them, saddens them, angers them and enlivens them. For most new media, the virtue of being shared actually means traffic.

The difference in Vickerman’s case is he ran a website called Surfthechannel.com that attracted 400,000 visitors and earned him anything between stg£35,000 and stg£45,000 per month in advertising. The site was considered among the top 500 most-visited sites in the world.

Vickerman’s arrest followed a sting operation by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT).

That Vickerman never hosted the content was not considered a defence and he faced four years in prison.

The case brings into sharp perspective the plight of another potential online hero or villain, that of Richard O’Dwyer a 24-year-old student in the UK who faces extradition to the US following a case brought against him by the Motion Picture Association of America.

O’Dwyer, a student at Sheffield Hallam University, created a website called TV.Shack.net, which linked to places on the internet where users could watch TV and movies online.

The site generated advertising revenue of US$230,000, according to US prosecutors.

UK Home Secretary Theresa May recently confirmed that despite her powers to veto a court’s decision, she decided not to intervene and O’Dwyer is looking at the prospect of five years in a US prison.

Both O’Dwyer and Vickerman’s cases should resound like a clarion call for online users to beware of the dangers that can be incurred by simply linking to online content. Albeit in both their cases they appear to have run sophisticated operations that generated substantial revenues.

O’Dwyer’s plight has attracted the support of major online personalities, including Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales.

Despite complying with requests to remove copyrighted content from his website and a disclaimer pointing to the fact that none of the content was hosted on his website, there is clearly a determination from copyright holders to make examples. Harsh examples.

Is this censorship? Is it theft? The fact that both Vickerman and O’Dwyer earned such substantial revenues from advertising gleaned from the content created by others is not helping either case and should be seen as a wake-up call to the wider internet community about the need for transparency of motives and respect for copyrighted material.

It’s been more than 500 years since the invention of the Gutenberg press, yet the internet as we know it is a little more than 20 years old. Peer-to-peer file sharing that began the music industry’s nightmare began 13 years ago with Napster.

The price Vickerman and O’Dwyer are likely to pay is only the start of a long process of traditional media reclaiming ownership of its content amidst a never-ending flow of technological change that has turned media – and the value of media – on its head forever.

When you consider the recent arrest of Kim Dotcom, this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com