Court Hits Piracy Topsite Operators With 2100% Damages Increase

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Two years ago it was discovered that a so-called 'topsite', an operation at the top of the piracy food-chain, was being run by men working for Finnish Internet companies who had hidden the site within a leading ISP's infrastructure. The men were sentenced to prison and ordered to pay compensation in 2012, but the anti-piracy group behind the investigation still weren't happy. Now the court of appeal has responded, by boosting the damages award by 2100%.

The tight-knit network of suppliers, couriers, pirates and servers of the so-called ‘warez scene’ remain inaccessible to all but a tiny percentage of the file-sharing community and as a result manages to maintain its mystique year after year.

On occasion, however, usually as a result of a court case, the veil is lifted and the general public is given a taste of the kind of subterfuge employed by those operating the servers behind The Scene, the so-called ‘Topsites’. A 2012 case in Finland provided one such intriguing example.

It involved a topsite known as Hayabusa / Rainbow (HBR / RBW), which was used by famous movie and TV show release groups including MEDiEVAL and DoNE. The topsite only had about 50 members and was reportedly kept running by just four individuals. How they did so was fascinating.

Three of the men, who worked for a pair of Finnish Internet service providers, were employed in positions that enabled them to not only run but hide the site. The site’s servers were installed by employees of Saunalahti, a company owned by Finnish ISP Elisa. The topsite itself was run from the IP address of a man from Helsinki, who worked for Elisa and had access to their fastest fiber connections.

Then the really clever bit. As employees of Elisa the topsite operators were able to modify the ISP’s network monitoring software in order to hide the existence of their topsite. Unfortunately, however, the police were already on their trail following claims that they had illegally distributed copies of movies including The Bourne Ultimatum, Spiderman 3 and Ratatouille. Despite receiving a timely tip-off, the operators were eventually arrested.

During a 2012 trial at the Espoon District Court the site operators stood trial for copyright infringement offenses. Three were handed suspended jail sentences ranging between four and six months and ordered to pay compensation. A fourth received a fine equivalent to 60 days pay.

That said, things could have been worse. Rightsholders had originally demanded 70,000 euros, so a compensation award of 1,000 euros against the soon-to-be-jailed operators was a relative drop in the ocean. However, the entertainment companies behind the action, headed by anti-piracy group CIAPC/TTVK, aired their dissatisfaction by taking the case to appeal.

This week the Helsinki Court of Appeal handed down its decision and it’s yet more bad news for the site operators. The court increased the amount awarded by the district court from 1,000 euros to 22,000 euros.

“The District Court had sentenced three operators to pay about 1000 euros as compensation for the right holders. The Court of Appeals regarded this as a remarkably low amount of compensation with regard to the specific features of the case,” CIAPC Deputy Director Jaana Pihkala informs TorrentFreak.

Although the amount was considered low, fortunately for the defendants the rightsholders’ claim for more than 72,000 euros was not accepted in its entirety.

“One of the facts that the Court took into consideration as lowering the amount of compensation was that the operators had limited possibilities to control how much the works were copied,” Jaana explains.

The Court of Appeal also said that the claim, which was based on items to be found in the physical domain (DVDs etc), did not directly relate to items which had been electronically created and distributed in the online world. Lower cost of production and distribution meant a lower damages award.

While overturning the District Court’s ruling on compensation, other issues relating to the original sentencing remained untouched as the prison sentences of the defendants were not appealed by the entertainment companies.

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