The Inside Story of the TV-Links Bust

In October 2007, while most tech media attention was focused on the OiNK raid, another large site got police attention. TV-Links, which linked to videos on YouTube-like sites was raided and shutdown, with the admin arrested. A year later, we catch up with the ex-admin of TV-Links for the entire story.

When it became apparent that TV-Links.co.uk had been raided by police and the admin arrested, the news was met with some disbelief. TV-Links was a site that linked to videos that were hosted on video sharing sites like YouTube. It carried absolutely no illicit video content of its own.

TV-Links

Nevertheless, following an investigation by UK Trading Standards, the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) and the police, the admin was arrested. At the time, FACT claimed that he was detained due to “offenses relating to the facilitation of copyright infringement on the Internet.” Except there was a problem.

There is no criminal offense of ‘facilitation of copyright infringement’ under English law. There would have been at least a civil offense if TV-Links had hosted the videos themselves, but they did not. Sites like YouTube and Dailymotion did, but the police or anti-piracy groups didn’t go after these giants. Indeed, the police themselves seemed to disagree with FACT’s reasoning for the raid, saying that the admin had been arrested for “supplying property with a registered trade mark without permission.”

…which raised another problem. The Trade Marks Act 1994 (specifically section 92) was designed to deal with physical, real-world counterfeit goods. Supplying links, if anything, could only be considered a service – definitely not a sale of physical goods. Getting a conviction on these grounds would be tricky, if not impossible. Considering the problems highlighted above, it’s no surprise that the TV-Links case has disappeared from the news radar.

TorrentFreak tracked down the now ex-admin of the site, 26 year-old Dave Rock, for the lowdown on this important case which seems to ask two questions: Can someone be held responsible when 3rd parties merely link to copyright works that are hosted by someone else, and furthermore, does this constitute a criminal offense under an act designed to protect physical goods?

It all starts on the morning of 18th October, just five days before the police raided OiNK. Dave had some unwanted visitors. At 06:20, two police officers, three FACT members, and around five Trading Standards officials descended on Dave’s home. Fortunately for him, in his case the media wasn’t tipped off, so there were no photographers and reporters outside his house. Alan Ellis of OiNK was not so lucky.

“The police and Trading Standards officers were always polite and professional, I wasn’t man handled like you see with the over acting police on the TV,” Dave told us. “I was arrested as soon as I opened the door, not cuffed and was allowed to grab a few bits, like my wallet and phone. They seized my laptop, my old PC and annoyingly, my girlfriends PC too, along with random CDs and four or five old hard drives, ranging between 8GB to 15gb.”

TV-Links Homepage (large)

When we asked Dave what was on the search warrant, he said: “They ticked Video Recording Act 1984 – Section 16A and Trade Marks Act 1994 – Section 93. But, thinking about some of the questions during the interview I got the impression they were looking for DVD copying kit or they hoped to find this type of thing. FACT’s website always boasts about DVD pirate busts.”

The police officers then took Dave to the station where he was questioned. Not by the police, but by people from Trading Standards and FACT, a well known private anti-piracy company-come-lobby group. Quite why a private company is allowed to directly question someone in a criminal case that they may wish to prosecute privately is another question, and one that many people will find unpalatable.

It seemed that both outfits were disappointed, they must have expected more than just hyperlinks. In common with thousands of forums around the world, Dave didn’t know any of the TV-Links staff personally, and obviously didn’t know anything about the users. Almost 75% of the site’s visitors came from China, 10% from the US and next popular was the UK, at just 3.8%. Hardly a threat to Great Britain Ltd, but of course the implication was that Dave was making money. The reality was that he was receiving around $2 to $5 per day in donations from random site users, which he used to cover the server costs.

After six hours, Dave was released – without being charged and with no restrictions. Now, well over a year later, not much has changed. For the last 6 months or so, Dave has had no contact with the police and no contact through his lawyer with FACT or (Gloucester) Trading Standards. In fact, GTS has no further involvement in the case and has deferred to FACT, just in case they want to make a private prosecution. But, everything has gone very quiet.

TorrentFreak asked Dave if it had ever been raised that he was arrested under laws ill-placed to deal with the situation. He told us, “When it comes to law there isn’t really any point arguing after the point, you need to concentrate on identifying [in this case] how FACT will interpret the current law and, if/when this ends up in court, how they will use it to their advantage.”

Until then, it just seems like a waiting game. “I guess you could call it being in limbo, but recently I haven’t given it much thought, I’m just getting on with my life,” Dave told us. “The only thing that’s a little annoying is that FACT still have all the gear seized by GTS, apparently they’ve been given it for “forensic analysis”. Do I hear you cry ‘breach of Data Protection Act‘, for passing private data to a private company? Again this is something we are still looking into.”

So how on earth did TV-Links end up on the radar in the first place? Why was such significance put on the site and why did the response include a raid with so many people in attendance from the police, government trading standards and Hollywood-funded private company FACT?

“One thing I’d like to mention, Gloucester Trading Standards were always polite and professional,” said Dave. “In my eyes they were led up the garden path by FACT. My personal opinion is that Gloucester Trading Standards were lead to believe I was copying and selling DVDs. But, when they entered my home they only found crappy old PC gear, Laptop and no DVDs, and lost all interest – if they were ever interested in the first place.”

Despite the lack of interest and indeed grounds for a conviction, it doesn’t change the fact that TV-Links is gone as a result of the above actions. Why did it even find a place in people’s lives in the first instance? Dave believes it’s down to sheer lack of choice. “TV-Links and other linking sites are only around because the big media companies haven’t supplied the viewing public with any viable alternatives, at least until recently in the UK. The BBC iPlayer is very good, but it’s a shame it’s only 7 days of TV.”

So, with the authorities backing away, what are the chances of TV-Links making a comeback? “Running the site did take up all of my free time, it was good fun running it but I’m happy I now have my evenings and weekends free,” Dave told us. He has no intention of bringing the site back, particularly since a TV-Links.co.uk replacement site popped up many months ago at TV-Links.ws.

Finally, when sites are busted, many people are interested in exactly how the owners were tracked down by the authorities. With TV-Links, the techniques weren’t mysterious at all. They didn’t need to be. The reason why it was so easy is the very reason Dave felt free to run the site in the first place:

“To be honest I didn’t really attempt to hide my ID, as under UK Law linking to another site isn’t illegal, so I didn’t see the need.”

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