A teenager charged with distributing copyrighted material using the BitTorrent site Oink has been acquitted due to lack of evidence
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has dropped its charges against a teenage boy – who was charged in 2007 with illegally distributing copyrighted material – in a move that is bound to reflect badly on the government’s decision to crack down on Internet piracy.
Matthew Wyatt was only 17 when he was arrested by Cleveland Police, after sharing three albums and one single on popular BitTorrent file-sharing website Oink. According to his lawyers, Wyatt was not responsible for uploading the copyrighted material, but found the music files on a publicly accessible music site and moved them to Oink.
Lack of evidence
On 10 September 2007, several police officers and industry representatives entered Wyatt’s family home and seized more than 160 items. He was charged with distributing copyrighted material so as to prejudicially affect the copyright holder – a criminal offence that carries a maximum custodial sentence of ten years.
“Matthew Wyatt was the victim of a cynical attempt by the record industry to legitimise its heavy-handed tactics and dubious methods by using police resources and the public purse,” said David Cook, of Burrows Bussin Solicitors, which represented Wyatt.
However, the CPS has been forced to drop the case a few weeks before Wyatt’s trial was due to start, due to an oversight by the CPS and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. The two bodies failed to trace the digital watermarks of the copyrighted material back to the source, preventing Wyatt from being prosecuted.
“At no time during the course of this prosecution did the CPS actually produce any evidence that the material in question was in fact copyrighted,” said Cook. “In a world where kudos can be gained through early leaks, and fake tracks consisting of live versions, white noise and loops are rife, we believed that this was a dangerous gap in the evidence. We also found it extraordinary that the copyright holder was never asked to identify the tracks as being theirs.”
Making an example
Cook also claims that charging Wyatt with a criminal offence, rather than treating it as a civil case, was inappropriate. “Case law definitively states that copyright offences arising out of BitTorrent should be put before a civil judge,” he said. “In this case, there appeared a simple reason behind the decision to charge with a criminal act – the IFPI wanted to make an example of Matthew Wyatt.”
The British Recorded Music Industry (BPI) expressed disappointment with CPS’s decision to drop the case, but said it did not undermine the case for tackling the “serious damage done by pre-release piracy”.
Last week, the leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, rejected calls for full debate on the government’s controversial Digital Economy Bill – which could oblige Internet service providers to disconnect illegal file-sharers. The Bill has already passed its third reading in the House of Lords, and the government plans to pass it swiftly, as part of the “wash up” process at the end of the current government’s term. The bill will get a second reading in the House of Commons, which is expected to be the date on which the General Election will be announced. Protesters say this will prevent a full debate on the bill, despite widespread criticism of it.
In January, Alan Ellis – computer programmer and founder of Oink – was unanimously acquitted of conspiracy to defraud, in the UK’s first illegal file-sharing trial. When police raided Ellis’s home in October 2007 they discovered that the site had 200,000 members, who had downloaded 21 million music files. They also found almost £185,000 in his accounts.
However, Ellis explained that Oink did not host any music itself but simply indexed the files users had available on their computers. This allowed members to download music from other users for free. “All I do is really like, to really provide a connection between people,” he told police officers.
Despite the verdict, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), said the verdict was a “terrible disappointment”, showing that “the law is so out of touch with where life is these days”. Head of IFPI John Kennedy, said at the time that the industry was considering civil proceedings against Ellis, in a bid to retrieve the £185,000 he raised from the website.