Just linking could get you 10 years in jail

UK citizen Richard O'Dwyer faces the possibility of ten years in the slammer for having a site that linked to pirated content

So you live in another country, say somewhere in Europe, maybe, oh I don't know, England. In your perambulations around the Internet you find a load of stuff that interests you and you think "Hmmm, other people might be interested in this, I'll share it online."

You build a Web site that just lists the links ... and links are the only thing on the site ... and you turn it loose.

Next thing you know, your domain name is seized by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the various United States government agencies are trying to extradite you so you can be prosecuted for "violations of Federal criminal copyright infringement laws", a crime that could send you to prison for 10 years!

Sounds ridiculous? Well, that's exactly what has happened to Richard O'Dwyer, a 24 year old British citizen who is a student at Sheffield Hallam University in England.

Richard O'Dwyer who is accused by US authorities of violations of Federal criminal copyright infringement laws for linking to sites that host pirated TV programs and movies.

In 2007 O'Dwyer set up a Web site, TVShack.net, listing links, nothing else, no copyrighted materials at all, and included the disclaimer "TV Shack is a simple resource site. All content visible on this site is located at 3rd party websites. TV Shack is not responsible for any content linked to or referred from these pages." The site also noted that it was hosted in Sweden.

On June 30, 2010, ICE seized seven domains, including O'Dwyer's TVShack.net, for "violations of Federal criminal copyright infringement laws" and alleged the sites were "involved in the illegal distribution of copyrighted movies and television programs over the Internet".

Particularly telling that the seized sites were cited as "linking websites" providing "access or links to other websites where pirated movies and television programs are stored". In essence, the charges are for linking. Not for distributing pirated content, but for simply pointing to another site where pirated material might be found.

What, I suspect, made The Man ("The Man" being U.S. authorities prodded into action by, no surprise, the Motion Picture Association of America) go after O'Dwyer was that he was making money from advertising on his site (U.S. authorities claim his site earned advertising revenue of something like $230,000 since January 2008).

What is totally insane about the charge that O'Dwyer's site was infringing anyone's copyright is it was just a list of links ... a list of links much like one that you might get from Google, Bing, or Yahoo. Will any of those companies be hauled into court for the same charge? I think not.

Should O'Dwyer be extradited to the U.S. (in March this year the UK Home Secretary very unwisely approved extradition, but the case is currently in appeal) and is found guilty the consequences will be biblical. Tweet or post to Facebook a link to some site that is considered to infringe someone's copyright, and you could find yourself and or your company liable.

This case is attracting a lot of attention not just because of the potential for a real miscarriage of justice, but because it will have a profound chilling effect on free speech and openness. A major campaign by Demand Progress and supported by Wikipedia and its founder Jimmy Wales is underway to pressure the UK, through public opinion, to not allow extradition.

I can't encourage you strongly enough to sign the petition ... if O'Dwyer is prosecuted and found guilty, we all lose.

Gibbs is free, for now, in Ventura, Calif. Voice your support at backspin@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.