I think that copyright matters, and is important. Creators ought to be legally able to give their work away freely, as so many do for the betterment of humankind, and to set certain conditions on how their work is used. And I think creators ought to be able to release their work under traditional copyright and have legal recourse against those who are illegally profiting from it.
It’s important to say this up front, because much of what you will hear about the case of Richard O’Dwyer will be misleading propaganda designed to persuade you that people who defend him are defending copyright violation or “piracy”. At least in my case, nothing could be further from the truth.
O’Dwyer created a website, called tvshack.net, that acted as a search engine for people to find out where they could watch and in some cases download popular TV shows, typically programmes not yet available outside the US. Some of the links led to legal sources, others to unauthorised sites. In that respect his site was no different from hundreds of thousands of services where the general public gathers to talk.
O’Dwyer respected the rules – deleting content when he received properly formatted take-down notifications. Given the state of US internet law, it is extremely difficult to see how he can be convicted of copyright violation. But that is what he is now threatened with, a conviction that could carry a sentence of 10 years in a US prison, after the British home secretary, Theresa May, signed an extradition order in March.
US authorities claim that O’Dwyer illegally made around £147,000 from advertising displayed on the site over three years. His lawyers contend that linking to other content is not illegal under UK law, and point out that Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service did not pursue charges against him.
Copyright is an important institution, serving a beneficial moral and economic purpose. But that does not mean it can or should be unlimited. It does not mean that we should abandon time-honoured moral and legal principles to allow endless encroachments on our civil liberties in the interests of the moguls of Hollywood.
One of the important moral principles that has made everything we relish about the internet possible, from Wikipedia to YouTube, is that internet service providers need to have a safe harbour from what their users do. There are and should be some limits to this. Under US copyright law, there are notice and take-down provisions requiring service providers to remove content under a properly formatted notification. And there is a distinction between hosting copyrighted material and telling people where it is. The latter is protected under the first amendment.
When I met Richard (along with his mother), he struck me as a clean-cut, geeky kid. Still a university student, he is precisely the kind of person one can imagine launching the next big thing on the internet. Enthusiastic, with a sharp mind and a quick wit, he reminds me of many great entrepreneurs. He tried to follow the law, and I would argue that he very likely succeeded in doing so.
Given the thin case against him, it is an outrage that he is being extradited to the US to face felony charges. No US citizen has ever been brought to the UK for alleged criminal activity on US soil. There is a disparity here that ought to raise concerns at the highest levels of government in both the US and UK.
From the beginning of the internet, we have seen a struggle between the interests of the “content industry” and the general public. Due to heavy lobbying and much money lavished on politicians, until very recently the content industry has won every battle. Internet users handed the industry its first major defeat earlier this year with the epic Sopa-Pipa protests over planned copyright laws that culminated in a widespread internet blackout and 10 million people contacting the US Congress to voice their opposition.
O’Dwyer is the human face of that battle, and if he’s extradited and convicted, he will bear the human cost. That’s why I’ve launched a petition on change.org to ask the home secretary to stop his extradition – and why I hope you will sign it. Together, we won the battle against Sopa and Pipa. Together, we can win this one too.