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Significant jail time for former Dancing Jesus file-sharers

By | Published on Tuesday 11 November 2014

Dancing Jesus

Setting a precedent for the first time, in the UK at least, that operating an online file-sharing community can equate to running a bootleg CD factory in your garage, two men linked to a defunct forum called Dancing Jesus were respectively sentenced to 21 and 32 months in prison yesterday.

As previously reported, Kane Robinson operated Dancing Jesus while Richard Graham was a prolific user. The site provided thousands of links to unlicensed content – included pre-release music – stored in cyber-lockers like Rapidshare and Filesonic. The two men were subject to a private prosecution led by record industry trade body the BPI after an investigation by the City Of London Police.

Robinson pleaded guilty to copyright crimes before trial, though Graham initially planned to fight the charges until seeing the evidence against him and changing his plea at the last minute. Of the 8000+ tracks Graham shared via the Dancing Jesus site, about two-thirds were pre-release.

The jail terms – four years five months collectively – are pretty severe, and are the kind sentences you would more commonly find in criminal copyright convictions relating to the manufacture and sale of bootlegged CDs or DVDs.

Most of the early legal battles instigated by the music and movie industries against the operators of file-sharing services were civil litigation rather than criminal actions, even though there is a criminal element to copyright law that was traditionally used in the CD domain against those who prolifically infringed copyright, especially if for commercial gain.

The problem with civil action is that if defendants are of limited means they are unable to pay damages, and even if successful litigation forces a service offline, because new services can be launched with nominal investment there is always a new platform to replace those shuttered through legal action. The threat of civil action never seems to be a deterrent.

The record industry, presumably, will be hoping that the threat of a custodial sentence will do more to deter potential infringers. The last time a UK file-sharing service was targeted with criminal action – the Oink case – it sort of backfired when the main man was charged with conspiracy to defraud rather than straight copyright infringement, resulting in acquittal because the case for fraud was never very strong.

There have been some other convictions resulting in jail time for the operators of file-sharing operation elsewhere – most famously, of course, the three men behind The Pirate Bay when tried in Sweden – though the handful of similar cases in the UK and US have centred more on the file-sharing of movies and software than music.

Commenting on yesterday’s sentencing, David Wood, Director of the BPI’s Copyright Protection Unit, told reporters: “Today’s sentencing sends a clear message to the operators and users of illegal music sites that online piracy is a criminal activity that will not be tolerated by law enforcement in the UK or overseas. Piracy – particularly pre-release – can make or break an artist’s career, and can determine whether a record label is able to invest in that crucial second or third album”.

He went on: “In this day and age with so many quality digital music services available offering access to millions of tracks through free and premium tiers, there is no good reason to use pirate sites that give nothing back to artists and offer a sub-standard experience for consumers. Speaking as a music fan, it just doesn’t make sense to help criminals when you can support artists”.

While it’s not clear whether Dancing Jesus distributing so much pre-release content was a factor in the length of the sentences dealt out to Robinson and Graham, judge Deborah Sherwin noted that fact in her pre-sentencing remarks. Labels argue that pre-release piracy is particularly damaging, as it screws up carefully planned marketing campaigns as well as resulting in potentially lost sales (or legit streams). Sherwin also stressed that while it’s easy to see online piracy as “a victimless crime”, it reduces the ability of the record industry “to promote and fund new artists”.