On first sight, it may have seemed an open-and-shut case: a software engineer accused of running one of the world's largest music-sharing websites was found with $300,000 (£185,000) in his PayPal accounts, running a site with 200,000 members who had downloaded 21 million files.
But yesterday, 26-year-old Alan Ellis – who ran the Oink website and was the first person in the UK to be prosecuted for illegal file-sharing – was unanimously acquitted of conspiracy to defraud. He had told jurors that he used the site he created in his bedroom while a student as a project to "better my skills for employability".
He insisted that Oink did not host any music itself but merely indexed the files users had available on their computers. The system allowed members to find people on the web who were prepared to share files – meaning users could download music for free. The £35,000-a-year software engineer added that the money had been donated by the site's users in return for permission to invite a friend to join. He said those funds were then used to pay for the server's rental, while any "surplus" went towards buying his own server.
Mr Ellis, a former Teesside University student, admitted he had around 10 bank accounts with approximately £20,000 in savings when in October 2007 police raided the house he shared in Middlesbrough.
He said that the website was developed from a free template, which had a Torrent file-sharing facility included in it. Opening the case for the prosecution at Teesside Crown Court earlier in the week, Peter Makepeace said: "This is not about prosecuting some poor minnow who has taped a record one night and circulated it to their friends. This is about large-scale, professional, clever, technical ripping off."
Mr Ellis had earlier told police officers: "All I do is really like Google, to really provide a connection between people. None of the music is on my website."
A spokesman for the BPI, which represents the music industry, called the verdict "disappointing" and "out of line with decisions made in similar cases around the world, such as The Pirate Bay".
In April 2009, the creators of the Swedish file-sharing website were jailed for a year and ordered to shut down their site after a joint civil and criminal court case was brought against them by a consortium of media, film and music companies led by The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).
He added: "The defendant made nearly £200,000 by exploiting other people's work without permission." He claimed that musicians and labels need better protection.
Mr Ellis declined to comment as he left court after his acquittal.