Surfthechannel.com's Anton Vickerman jailed over internet piracy

 

An internet pirate who made up to £60,000 a month from his site which allowed people to download TV shows and films was jailed for four years today.

Anton Vickerman's surfthechannel.com attracted 400,000 visitors a day at its peak and was close to the top 500 most popular websites at its peak.

The site cost the film industry tens of millions of pounds, and ultimately huge loses to the Inland Revenue, the prosecution said.

It provided links to films, sometimes before they were released in cinemas. Volunteers searched the net for links and moderators checked the titles were usable.

Vickerman, 38, originally from Gateshead whose latest address was Citygate, Newcastle, valued the site at 400,000 US dollars (£255,000) when he offered it for sale in 2008.

Over two years the site, run via the former DJ and BT employee's firm Scopelight, turned over £1m with a profit of £250,000, Newcastle Crown Court heard.

He was jailed after being convicted of two counts of conspiracy to defraud in June.

Judge John Evans told him: "Ultimately films will not be made if the producers cannot make them at a profit."

He said the public may suffer from piracy by having to pay more to watch films at the cinema.

Ari Alibhai, prosecuting, said Vickerman made between £12,000 and £60,000 a month from advertising on his site.

He said: "It is clear that the website, due to its popularity, was accruing hundreds of thousands of pounds."

He said in July 2008 surfthechannel.com was listed 514 in an index of most popular websites. Mr Alibhai said it was more popular than Facebook at the time.

And he said that it was impossible to calculate the losses it caused the film industry.

It was revealed that surfthechannel.com allowed access to more than 5,600 films and TV shows and experts have estimated the damages to be between £52m and £198m depending on different ways of calculating lost sales.

"Once one reaches figures of tens of millions of pounds of loss it becomes irrelevant what the figure is," Mr Alibhai said.

"The scale of loss was immense and it does run to tens of millions of pounds.

"Due to the number of films available and the frequency they were downloaded the scale of loss is considerable.

"And the losses should not just be seen as a loss to moguls in Hollywood but to hundreds of people in the industry."

Judge Evans said the losses would have also stretched beyond the film and music industry.

He said: "The loss is considerable but also there is here the loss of tax revenue because if the industry was generating this kind of revenue then it would have been shared with a net benefit to the taxpayer."

Vickerman's wife Kelly, who had faced the same charges, was cleared by the jury.

The court was told that since then their relationship had broken down due in part to the stress of the case.

David Walbank, defending, said: "The overwhelming strain has contributed to the break down of his marriage.

"The proceedings sounded the death knell of their marriage."

But Judge Evans said it was in fact Vickerman's obsession with his website that had contributed to his marriage failing.

He said: "Had you told your wife about what you were doing she would have done her best to stop you.

"It was an obsession with the popularity of your website which contributed to the break up of your marriage."

Mr Walbank also said the case had left Vickerman financially ruined.

He said: "You know a great deal about him and know that he has already paid a great deal.

"It has left him financially ruined and he currently owes about £50,000 in contributions.

"He is personally insolvent and the likelihood is that he will be declared bankrupt."

The conspiracy charges covered the period February 2007 to November 2009 and ended with a seven-week trial.

Within 24 hours of the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's release in cinemas in May 2008, it was available on Vickerman's website, the court heard.

And the Chronicle of Narnia, which was in cinemas in June 2008, could be downloaded a month before.

Judge Evans branded the defendant the most arrogant he had encountered in his career, said Vickerman knew full well what he was doing was unlawful, despite his protestations of innocence.

The judge said film producers could exploit their products how they wished, and it was "difficult to comprehend" how Vickerman thought he was entitled to do so, "given you had not contributed a penny" towards making them.

Vickerman suffered a back injury while working for BT and during his recovery he became obsessed with the web and developed the knowledge he needed to set up surfthechannel.com which he ran from his home in Gateshead.

"The possibilities of the internet became a passion," the judge said.

Vickerman tried to mask his involvement in the site by registering the domain name remotely and setting up its servers abroad.

He sought legal advice from top lawyers which consistently warned that his site was operating contrary to the law, the judge said.

Later, Vickerman appeared to comply with the authorities, but was merely playing a game of cat and mouse, the judge said.

Even after he was arrested, he continued to run the site, obtaining a computer within hours of his arrest. The judge said this carried on up to the eve of the trial.

Kieron Sharp, Director General of the Federation Against Copyright Theft, said it was a "satisfactory" result after a long investigation.

"I'm absolutely sure it will set a precedent as people will look at it and say if this was me hiding behind the internet and making things available that weren't mine it's not worth doing if it means going to prison."

He also declared that there were other sites his organisation were monitoring and he expected to bring similar charges against them.

"We're looking into other sites and we will be investigating them and the outcome will inevitably be the same." he said.

"There's plenty of other people out there in the world who are trying to defeat copyright and let's be absolutely clear this is about fraud.

"This is about people's jobs, not one or two highly paid actors in Hollywood. This is about people who service the film industry, like caterers, stuntmen, technicians and everyone that works on films.

"They depend on them for their livelihoods and if films don't make a profit new films don't get made they don't get jobs. It contributes a massive amount to the gross domestic product of this country so it's really important that as an industry it continues to thrive."

PA

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