In what has become its typical draconian style, the UK government plans to bring in new legislation that will increase the maximum penalty for online copyright infringement to 10 years in jail. Baroness Neville-Rolfe, parliamentary under-secretary of state and minister for intellectual property said:
"We are now proposing changes that include increasing the maximum sentence, but at the same time addressing concerns about the scope of the offence. The revised provisions will help protect rights holders, while making the boundaries of the offence clearer, so that everyone can understand how the rules should be applied."
The incredibly harsh sanction means that non-violent online pirates who have committed what many see as a victimless crime face the same maximum penalty as:
- Administering poison so as to endanger life
- Indecent assault
- Making threats to kill
and twice the maximum penalty for individuals convicted of:
- Possession of a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence
- Unlawful wounding
- Assault occasioning actual bodily harm
This shockingly disproportionate sentencing proposal follows the publication of a public consultation. The government argues that this demonstrates that the current maximum sentence of 2 years does not have a sufficient deterrent effect.
"The consultation asked one question: Should the maximum custodial sentence available for online and offline copyright infringement of equal seriousness be harmonised at 10 years?"
Unsurprisingly, it is Businesses/Organizations who overwhelming showed support for heavier sentencing, and equally unsurprisingly, it is their input which has the government has used to justify pushing ahead with the proposal (which will be introduced to parliament at the “earliest available legislative opportunity.”)
The government does recognize that there are concerns over disproportionate sentencing, but argues that the intention isn't for “low-level infringement” to be subject to maximum sentencing.
"The Government accepts that there are concerns and the policy intention is that criminal offences should not apply to low-level infringement that has a minimal effect or causes minimum harm to copyright owners, in particular where the individuals involved are unaware of the impact of their behavior…
"The Government believes that a maximum sentence of 10 years allows the courts to apply an appropriate sentence to reflect the scale of the offending. An example where copyright infringement was deemed to warrant longer than a 2-year sentence is where five defendants received sentences totalling 17 years for releasing more than 2,500 of the latest films onto the internet."
Last year, the British and Irish Law, Education and Technology Association (BILETA) published a scathing attack on the government’s plan to sentence copyright pirates to 10 years in jail, calling the idea "not acceptable," "not feasible," and "not affordable."
In addition to questioning the “reasonableness” of such a harsh sentence, BILETA points out that the UK’s already overcrowded prison system is ill-equipped to cope with an increase in custodial sentences, and that the legislation “should not be compatible with the right to freedom of expression contained within article 10 of the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights).”