Despite widespread publicity and overt campaigns warning of the criminal consequences, there’s still no shortage of people prepared to openly sell piracy-configured set-top boxes and pirate IPTV subscriptions.
In broad terms, awareness has improved over the last couple of years but, for those who got involved many years ago, historic perceptions may have been somewhat different. In the case of two men from Northern Ireland, an investigation by Sky and the police shouldn’t have come as a surprise but the fact that it took five years to reach its ultimate conclusion probably wasn’t anticipated.
Pirate Set-Top Boxes, Pirate IPTV Services
This week the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) revealed that detectives and broadcaster Sky carried out an investigation into the sale of devices “used for provision of pirated TV channels” and the “supply of streaming services (IPTV).”
Between September 2018 and January 2019, the operation focused on a Belfast business run by two local men, 43-year-old Padraig McVicker and 27-year-old Gary Doherty. While PSNI provide no further details on the nature of the business, Companies House data reveals that McVicker was the sole director of a company involved in various aspects of the satellite TV trade.
A second company, Free TV NI Limited, in which McVicker and Doherty both held directorships, was initially registered as a seller of second hand goods. While that may have been the case, adverts on platforms including Yell show that the company was also involved in satellite TV sales, installation, and repair.
According to the ads, the company also sold various IPTV devices. In terms of legality, that’s not an issue provided they’re not configured for piracy but when they are, prosecutors have several opportunities available to them.
Prosecutions and Guilty Pleas
PSNI notes that after being arrested and charged, McVicker and Doherty both entered guilty pleas to a number of offenses under various legislation.
Under Section 297A(a) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, both men admitted “Selling, Distributing Or Letting For Hire Or Exposing For Sale Or Hire An Unauthorized Decoder.”
The legislation states that “a person who makes, imports, sells or lets for hire any unauthorized decoder shall be guilty of an offense.” Those who can prove they didn’t know that a decoder was unauthorized do not commit a crime, but that doesn’t appear to have been the case here.
McVicker also pled guilty to an offense contrary to Section 126(1) of the Communications Act 2003, which relates to the possession of “apparatus” for dishonestly obtaining electronic services.
Under that legislation, a person is guilty of an offense “if he has in his possession or under his control” anything that may be used for obtaining an electronic communications service or connection with obtaining such a service. Again, intent plays a key role here.
McVicker further admitted possessing criminal property, contrary to Section 329 (1)(c) of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
Sentencing at Belfast Crown Court
At Belfast Crown Court on Tuesday, McVicker was sentenced to eight months in prison, with a further eight months on license for offenses under Section 297A(a) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act.
For possession of apparatus for dishonestly obtaining services contrary to Section 126(1) of the Communications Act, he received a prison sentence of six months, although that will be served concurrently.
Gary Doherty’s offenses contrary to Section 297A(a) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act earned him 175 hours of community service.
PSNI and Sky Welcome Convictions
Commenting on the sentences, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Phillips, Police Service Lead on Intellectual Property Crime, highlighted the key differences between standard IPTV devices and those that have been modified.
“IPTV devices are legal when used to view free or legitimate paid-for subscription services and channels, but once adapted or reconfigured to stream content without the appropriate licenses and consent of creators, they become illegal,” he said.
“People think these are victimless crimes but often behind these services are international organized crime gangs, who engage in the most serious of offenses,” he added.
PSNI made no claims that the Belfast men were part of an international organized crime gang but took the opportunity to extend a warning to users of IPTV services.
“Users and subscribers of illegal services should also be aware that they too are committing an offense for which they can be prosecuted,” he said.
Broadcaster Sky said it welcomed the sentences and joined PSNI in issuing a warning to users.
“We were pleased to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland in taking this action, both to prevent access to stolen Sky content and also to protect consumers from the real risks of accessing content in this way,” said Matt Hibbert, Sky’s Director of Anti-Piracy, UK and Ireland.
Sky did not clarify what risks, if any, users of the convicted men’s devices were exposed to.