Several months ago, government agents with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement kicked off a controversial new method of enforcing the nation’s copyright laws, shutting down dozens of websites without notice. The sites stand accused of either hawking counterfeit goods or proffering copyrighted material. Now it’s clear that ICE is going even further shutting off websites without notice-the agency will actually be arresting the people who ran the sites. Federal agents have arrested Bryan McCarthy, a 32-year-old Texas resident who is accused of streaming pirated sports broadcasts over his website, channelsurfing.net.
McCarthy has been charged with one count of criminal copyright infringement, which has a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison. He’s accused of pirating telecasts of sporting events held by various sports leagues, including the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, World Wrestling Entertainment and Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Copyright violations are nearly always litigated as civil violations, and it’s rare for law enforcement to pursue copyright cases as criminal matters. Even when it does, success is far from ensured. Last year, federal prosecutors went after a California man who was accused of violating copyright law by modifying Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) Xbox consoles; that case fell apart at trial, and prosecutors were excoriated in open court by the judge overseeing the case.
ICE said that McCarthy made $90,000 from advertising on the site, but doesn’t specify over what time period those profits were made. McCarthy first registered channelsurfing.net back in 2005. The site has received more than 1.3 million hits since it was seized last month.
McCarthy’s site was taken down in a batch of seizures that took place last month, just before the Superbowl, which focused on sports-streaming sites.
The ICE campaign against websites has caused controversy over whether ICE has side-stepped due process. Compare the treatment of the creators of peer-to-peer sites that were ultimately ruled to be illegal, like Grokster and now Limewire. Entertainment companies had to engage in years of litigation to shut down those sites, and the idea of putting the creators of those sites in prison wasn’t even on the table. McCarthy, on the other hand, will have to fight an uphill battle to keep himself out of prison-at no expense whatsoever to the sports leagues who, according to court documents, helped the government target his site.