To some, he’s a video game-playing British college student who started a search engine out of his dorm room. To the U.S. Justice Department, he’s a felon who raked in big money — around $230,000 — pointing people to illegal download sites for American movies and TV shows.
The DOJ is trying to extradite 24-year-old Sheffield University student Richard O’Dwyer on criminal charges for creating TVShack.net. The site, which has since been taken down, didn’t host or distribute movies, but it did have links to “the most popular movies today” — and where to get them for free.
Prosecutors say that could net O’Dwyer ten years in prison. Meanwhile, supporters including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launched a campaign against extradition, with a petition that has reached over 225,000 signatures.
So was TVShack a gateway to piracy, or a search engine? Is O’Dwyer guilty of “aiding and abetting” thieves to download illegal content? If the DOJ is successful in making criminal charges stick, what does that mean for other online search sites? Can a search tool be held liable for what its users download?
“I wouldn’t want to condone copyright infringement but, having said that, we do need to try and preserve the freedom of the internet,” said Julia O’Dwyer, mother of Richard O’Dwyer, the computer science student up for extradition. “Despite that the website no longer exists, those places where [you were] directed to go and look at this material, they still exist on the internet. Closing down his site and prosecuting him has not gotten rid of that material that’s freely available on the internet.”
But Mike Robinson, executive vice president, and content protection and chief of operations at Motion Picture Association of America, disagrees. He says Richard O’Dwyer’s site was not merely a search engine but that the young Brit was actively “pursuing” and distributing the copyrighted material by providing links.
“If you went to that site, you would see that it clearly identified the most popular and available television shows and films that were still in theaters,” Robinson said. “Even though the domain’s name was seized twice by the U.S. Federal Government, Mr. O’Dwyer continued to engage in the activity.”
Robinson and the MPAA were proponents of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, shot down earlier this year.
Attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mitch Stolz said prosecution of a middle-man like O’Dwyer is unheard of, describing it as “a stretch … an attempt to break new ground.” He said links are essentially speech and that any criminal prosecution of speech needs to be considered and evaluated critically.
Stolz said SOPA actually included, “a provision to criminalize infringing streaming of TV shows...which are exactly what the charges against Mr. O’Dwyer are.”
“It’s interesting that the U.S. government is going after someone, not even a U.S. citizen, for a crime the U.S. voters have pretty decisively rejected,” he said.
Listeners were split, some overwhelming supporting O’Dwyer while others believed he was just as accountable as those illegally uploading content.
“How is it that once a product is on the internet it is magically transformed into a free product? “ wrote John on AirTalk’s website. “Would it be alright if I posted a site that had links to another site that had visa and MasterCard numbers that were available for use, even though they belonged to another?”
But Brian from Moreno Valley called the case “ridiculous.”
“They’re trying to prosecute somebody who’s not forcing that person to click on the copyrighted or uncopyrighted material,” he said.
Robinson from the Motion Picture Association of America remained steadfast that the goal was to create “an internet that works for everyone, one that protects everyone’s freedom and protects the rights of the creators as well.”
Despite Robinson’s insistence, listeners and members of the online community seem unconvinced -- and frankly — undecided.
Julia O’Dwyer, mother of Richard O’Dwyer
Mike Robinson, Executive Vice President, Content Protection and Chief of Operations, Motion Picture Association of America
Mitch Stoltz, staff attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation