Is it Time To Make File-Sharing a Criminal Offense?

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All the media reports about cracking down on file-sharers in the UK are starting to annoy me. I'm sick of hearing about Topware, their 2nd rate pinball game and their hired-gun lawyers. This needs sorting out, once and for all. Is it time to make file-sharing a police issue in future, one for the criminal courts?

If the UK government suddenly announced that it was bringing in legislation to criminalize personal-use non-profit file-sharing, there would probably be an uproar, probably supported by me. The thought of a petty file-sharer up in a criminal court facing a magistrate or judge seems outrageous.

However, the thought of Miss Isabella Barwinska picking up a £16,000 bill from the civil courts recently for sharing one £10 game is outrageous too, but maybe even more so. Miss Barwinska didn’t turn up or defend her case, no-one seems to know why, but for a lot of people facing similar actions, the prospect of facing a legal system they don’t understand and can’t afford to participate in, financial issues are at the forefront of doing nothing about the threatening letters.

These people simply cannot defend themselves and this is why it might make sense to criminalize personal-use file-sharing. In a criminal case if you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you by the state and you get the benefit of proper justice at least, a right of reply within a proper structure, not grubby threatening letters designed to wear people down.

I’ll let you into a little secret. When people say file-sharing is “as bad as shoplifting”, in the UK that comparison is pretty ridiculous. Many shoplifters are let off with a simple caution and even the most persistent would have to be uniquely unlucky to get fined £6,000 (plus £10,000 costs) for a £10 game. If Miss Barwinska had been caught physically stealing it, a police caution would be likely, or perhaps a very small fine. In the ‘real-world’ she’d need to smash through the storefront with a truck to end up with a fine the size of the one she got.

The other reason why there might be benefits in bringing file-sharing out of the civil domain and into the criminal is because even fairly large-scale commercial piracy on and off the Internet is treated with extreme leniency in the UK.

Last week we reported that the UK’s Hull city council said it had such a massive piracy problem at its biggest market in Walton Street, it had to ban legitimate traders too in order to stamp it out. Well, it seems that a part of this ‘problem’ was one Robert Guiness.

Mr Guiness had been using the Internet to download movies, music and computer games which he then burned onto DVD and CD and sold them at Walton Street market. When the police searched his van and raided his house, they found over 10,000 pirate movies, more than 600 audio CDs, a couple of hundred DVDs filled with MP3s and 283 computer games. He was a commercial pirate and his long-term considered actions certainly contrast nicely with Miss Barwinska’s civil tort involving a £10 game uploaded for one second.

So, taking Miss Barwinska’s punishment as a guide, presumably Mr Guiness should enjoy a minimum fine of 283 games at £6,000 each? Plus the movies and music. Oh boy, Mr Guiness would be in some big kind of trouble if Davenport Lyons had got to him first. Luckily for him, he got arrested by the police instead and had the good fortune of having a criminal trial.

Due to the “exceptional circumstances” in the case (“i’m but a small cog in a big machine guv’nor”), he was given a suspended sentence and walked out of the court a free man. No fine.

Just to be clear, I don’t really want file-sharing criminalized and I certainly don’t want the UK courts jammed full of petty file-sharing cases. For their part, the police don’t even have time to come to household burglaries or car thefts, so we could never waste their time on non-profit file-sharing issues. However, I wonder how many of the UK’s ‘pinball pirates’ would wish they could be labeled a criminal in order to be excused a massive fine, picking up a criminal record in the process but walking away a free person instead? Desperate people will do desperate things – people have committed suicide over smaller debts than this. No-one in financial difficulty should ever have to aspire to criminal status in order to mount a defense, or aspire to a criminal conviction like that of Mr Guiness, in order to be treated with leniency.

But hold on just one moment. What about the OiNK users that are currently the subject of police criminal action for uploading ONE album each. Has petty file-sharing already become a criminal offense? The Crown Prosecution Service seems to think so.

In a country like Britain, which prides itself on its sense of justice and fairness, it can’t be right to have such a huge imbalance in the legal system, where an ordinary single mother of two making a single mistake is treated more harshly than a for-profit criminal like Mr Guiness. Equally, how can one set of file-sharers be the subject of a simple ISP ‘warning letter‘, another pick up a £16,000 bill and others get hauled off to the police station for interrogation, fingerprinting, DNA sampling and subsequent trial, for the same offenses?

It’s crystal clear – to the man in the street the legal system to deal with file-sharing right now in the UK seems just about as clear as mud and maybe, just maybe, it’s time for the government to step and decide once and for all. Should file-sharers be warned, bankrupted or jailed? Don’t forget Mr Brown, there are an estimated 6 million of them. Choose wisely.

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