updated 09:56 pm EDT, Tue May 22, 2012
US defendant offered deal to implicate UK couple
It is a terrible cliché when a writer begins a story by claiming that a series of real-life events "reads like a Hollywood movie script," but occasionally dramatic stories occur that are hard to distinguish from the intricate plottings of screenwriters or novelists. An unusual operation involving the US-based Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) hiring investigators to spy on a UK couple that ran a "links to streaming video" site has resulted in prosecution with the help of a US defendant.
According to The Sunday Times, UK residents Anton and Kelly Vickerman were running a "site directory" called SurfTheChannel.com that offered links to worldwide video streaming sites. SurfTheChannel did not actually host any of the films, which were usually pirated blockbusters or new-release movies or TV shows, but acted as a homepage of links to foreign sites that did the actual streaming, supported by advertising.
In 2008, the MPAA and the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) hired a former Dutch policeman to contact the site's owners under the pretense of being a go-between for a buyer. At a meeting in London, Anton Vickerman claimed that the site made $50,000 per month in revenue and averaged 400,000 visitors. At the time Vickerman said he ran the site with two other people. After the meeting, the investigator tailed Vickerman to his home in Gateshead, about 250 miles away.
Once the MPAA and FACT had the couple's address, the two organizations hired private detective Paul Varley to pose as a prospective home buyer. Once inside the house, Varley took pictures of the residence, including the computer equipment. The information was turned over to local police, who raided the home a month later. According to the Vickermans' lawyer, MPAA representatives took part in the police questioning and were allowed by police to examine the computer equipment.
Perhaps as a result of the illegal searches, UK authorities eventually declined to prosecute the couple. However, two years later the MPAA discovered the third person in the operation, programmer and system admin Brendan DeBeasi, 21, who was working for the couple from his home in Los Angeles. Acting on information provided by the MPAA, US attorneys launched a criminal investigation. DeBeasi had been paid nearly $10,000 for his work on maintaining the site.
Eventually DeBeasi was charged with conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, which carries up to five years in prison and a hefty fine. He agreed to testify in any new UK trial against the Vickermans in exchange for having the US charges dropped, and had to pay the MPAA the $9,850 he made for his work with SurfTheChannel.com. Now armed with a credible co-conspirator, the UK authorities filed criminal charges against the Vickermans.
The trial is expected to go for another month or so, but defense attorneys have already pointed out that the actual servers for the site are located in Sweden and may be immune to prosecution in the UK. A previous and similar case in 2010 regarding a site called TV-Links failed when the site was judged to be just a "conduit" to illegal sites outside the country and thus the admins were acquitted, however the Vickermans are being charged with fraud rather than copyright violation, which may prove to be a crucial difference.
What role the US-based MPAA has played in the case up to this point is sure to be the main point of contention between the attorneys. A strikingly similar fraud case against a site called OiNK also failed, but the political climate has changed over recent years and authorities are even more determined to disrupt illegal movie and TV sites, even if the sites aren't actually the ones doing the illegal streaming.
Former front page of SurfTheChannel.com
DeBeasi's plea agreement excerpt