Last week's arrest of a 26-year-old Cheltenham man, and the related closure of the TV-links website, has prompted a flurry of speculation that the very foundations of the internet (linking to stuff) might be under threat.
Although this might be a worry too far, legal eagles at Pinsent Masons say that it could be an important test case of UK law.
After an investigation by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) and local trading standards office, police swooped on an address in Cheltenham on Thursday last week, cuffing a 26-year-old for "offences relating to the facilitation of copyright infringement on the Internet" according to the FACT announcement. The man has been released pending further investigation.
TV-links, by all accounts, was (it is no more) a place where users could post links to content from TV shows, movies and so on, so that other web users could view them. The site didn't host the material directly, but did, according to reports, embed some video clips.
But if TV-links merely organised and indexed links to allegedly dodgy clips, surely we are all at risk of arrest. After all, when you post a URL on a blog, in a forum or send it to friends via email, do you check, everytime, that copyright law has been satisfied?
According to Struan Robertson, lawyer at Pinsent Masons: "Nobody should knowingly link to infringing material. But that has always been the case. Most sites don't knowingly link to infringing material. If they do so unwittingly, there's certainly no crime, and provided they remove the link quickly if and when they're told about its existence, they won't risk any civil damages either."
But what is interesting, Robertson says, is that it is not immediately clear how a case like this would be prosecuted.
"We don't have a simple offence of facilitating infringement in the UK," he told us. "Though we do have offences concerned with distributing or offering infringing copies or communicating works to the public... to such an extent as to affect prejudicially the owner of the copyright. The maximum penalty is 10 years. However, I've never heard of links being characterised in this way in a British court."
In a statement, FACT said the site was:
...providing links to illegal film content that has been camcorded from within a cinema and then uploaded to the internet. The site additionally provided links to TV shows that were also being illegally distributed. Sites like TV Links contribute to and profit from copyright infringement.
"There is a culture... we like to think that people are, or intend to be, honest," a FACT spokesman told us. "But there is a proportion of people who believe that content should be free just because it can be made available online. What we do is act on what is out there. People are quite willingly trying to circumvent the law."
However, because it is a "pending investigation", he couldn't tell us whether or not his organisation has been in contact with TV-Links' owner prior to calling for the long arm of the law. Nor was he prepared to elaborate on how the prosecution might be handled, or even the specific details of the arrest.
Gloucestershire police could not confirm exactly what the 26-year-old was arrested on suspiscion of, saying that the case had most likely now been handed over to trading standards officers.
Gloucestershire Trading Standards confirmed that it was involved in the investigation, but declined to elaborate on what the owner of the site had been arrested for, beyond saying it was "offences under the Copyright Act".
"All our information is being coordinated by FACT," a spokeswoman told us.
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