An internet pirate who banked up to £60,000 a month from a site which shared links to downloadable TV shows and films was jailed for four years today.
Anton Vickerman’s surfthechannel.com website attracted 400,000 visitors a day at its peak and was close to the top 500 most popular websites.
But it cost the film industry tens of millions of pounds in lost revenue, and ultimately huge losses to the Inland Revenue, the prosecution alleged.
The site provided browsers with links to films, sometimes before they were released in cinemas.
Volunteers searched the net for links and moderators checked the titles were usable before posting them on the site.
Vickerman, 38, originally from Gateshead but whose latest address was Citygate, Newcastle, valued the site at £400,000 when he offered it for sale in 2008.
Over two years the site, run by the former DJ and BT employee’s firm Scopelight, turned over £1million with a profit of £250,000, Newcastle Crown Court heard.
Vickerman was jailed after being convicted of two counts of conspiracy to defraud in June.
Judge John Evans told him: ‘Ultimately films will not be made if the producers cannot make them at a profit.’
He added that the public may suffer from piracy by having to pay more to watch films at the cinema.
Ari Alibhai, prosecuting, said Vickerman made between £12,000 and £60,000 a month from advertising on his site.
‘It is clear that the website, due to its popularity, was accruing hundreds of thousands of pounds,’ the he said.
In July 2008 surfthechannel.com was listed 514 in an index of most popular websites, Mr Alibhai said, which at the time made it more popular than social network Facebook.
He added that the losses the site caused to the film industry were impossible to calculate.
It was revealed that surfthechannel.com allowed access to more than 5,600 films and TV shows. Experts have estimated the damages to be between £52million and £198million, depending on how lost sales are estimated.
‘Once one reaches figures of tens of millions of pounds of loss it becomes irrelevant what the figure is,’ Mr Alibhai said. ‘The scale of loss was immense and it does run to tens of millions of pounds.
‘Due to the number of films available and the frequency they were downloaded the scale of loss is considerable.
‘And the losses should not just be seen as a loss to moguls in Hollywood but to hundreds of people in the industry.’
Judge Evans said the losses would have also stretched beyond the film and music industry.
He said: ‘The loss is considerable but also there is here the loss of tax revenue because if the industry was generating this kind of revenue then it would have been shared with a net benefit to the taxpayer.’
Vickerman’s wife Kelly, who had faced the same charges, was cleared by the jury. The court was told that since then their relationship had broken down due in part to the stress of the case.
David Walbank, defending, said: ‘The overwhelming strain has contributed to the break down of his marriage.
‘The proceedings sounded the death knell of their marriage.’
But Judge Evans said it was in fact Vickerman’s obsession with his website that had contributed to his marriage failing.
He said: ‘Had you told your wife about what you were doing she would have done her best to stop you.
‘It was an obsession with the popularity of your website which contributed to the break up of your marriage.’
Mr Walbank also said the case had left Vickerman financially ruined.
He said: ‘You know a great deal about him and know that he has already paid a great deal.
‘It has left him financially ruined and he currently owes about £50,000 in contributions.
‘He is personally insolvent and the likelihood is that he will be declared bankrupt.’