An unprecedented intellectual property fight is underway involving a British university student who is under extradition order from the U.K .to the U.S. to face charges that could land him in prison in a country he has never visited. Richard O'Dwyer, a U.K. citizen and an interactive media student at Sheffield Hallam University, is under extradition order to the U.S.t o stand trial for criminal infringement of copyright and conspiracy to commit copyright infringement. If convicted, he could wind up in a U.S. prison for ten years for a crime that would carry only a five-year sentence in the U.K.
In 2007, as a 19 year-old student, O'Dwyer founded a website, TVShack.net, which offered links to online TV shows, both legal and unauthorized. O'Dwyer had no control over the links that TVShack.net's search engine produced and responded to requests by copyright holders to remove any offending links. TVShack.net hosted no content of its own.
In 2010, under a program operated by the U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), O'Dwyer's domain was seized. In May 2011, the U.S. Justice Department asked for O'Dwyer to be extradited to the U.S. under a controversial 2003 US-UK extradition treaty, which makes it easier for either country to honor extradition requests from the other in criminal cases. In January 2012, a UK judge granted the U.S. request and in March Conservative Party member and Home Secretary Theresa May granted the request. O'Dwyer immediately appealed May's ruling, but for now the extradition order stands.
Along the way, O'Dwyer has become something of a cause célèbre in the U.K., highlighting what many of the country's political observers believe is an overly solicitous attitude by the British government toward the U.S. and its military and commercial interests. And it's clear that U.S. commercial interests, very specifically the Hollywood studios, are behind ICE's push to make an intellectual property poster child out of O'Dwyer.
Hollywood, which has backed stern and often harshly punitive legislative, legal and international treaty efforts to strike at individuals whom the studios believe to be content pirates, has managed to keep a relatively low profile in the O'Dwyer fray. Part of the reason could be the public drubbing the studios experienced earlier this year,when Hollywood so riled the Internet and human rights communities that a Hollywood-backed bill, the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), was defeated following massive international and web-based protests by leading Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others.
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is doing his part to elevate O'Dwyer's cause by launching a petition to stop his extradition. Wales points out "that no US citizen has ever been brought to the UK for alleged criminal activity on US soil" and Britain's own Crown Prosecution investigated O'Dwyer and chose to bring no charges against him. Moreover, "America is trying to prosecute a UK citizen for an alleged crime which took place on UK soil," an absurdity which would few Americans would tolerate if the UK tried to prosecute an American for a crime that took place on American soil.
Another salient aspect of the case: O'Dwyer's efforts are likely not even illegal in the U.S. O'Dwyer hosted no content himself; he merely provided the links to TV content available on the web, only a portion of which was infringing content. U.S. law permits content linking and O'Dwyer responded to take-down requests from copyright holders. All of which is permitted under U.S. law. At most O'Dwyer might have encouraged others to post links to unauthorized content (the conspiracy charge).
But as the UK's Guardian newspaper put it in an editorial, let's keep things in perspective.
To understand the absurdities of the case to extradite Sheffield undergraduate Richard O'Dwyer to the US, you can do one of two things. The first is to study internet and copyright law (on both sides of the Atlantic), and extradition precedent. The somewhat easier alternative is to imagine a giant sledgehammer hovering over a walnut, because what this case is really about is proportionality.
(Image from CinemaBlend.com)