All Richard O'Dwyer did was start a website that linked to external sources where people could watch U.S. TV and movies online. He didn't even get rich doing it.
Now the 24-year-old U.K. student is being targeted for extradition by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has decided to make O'Dwyer its prime target in its battle against digital copyright infringement.
O'Dwyer has been charged with criminal infringement of copyright, and conspiracy to commit criminal infringement of copyright. Each carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
How is this possible, when O'Dwyer's site merely functioned as the middle man? The Guardian explains:
To sell a counterfeit CD or DVD of a copyrighted work is an offense, as is deliberately uploading such a work to the Internet.
American customs officials, after campaigning from industry bodies, contended that linking to such items on other sites (as search engines and others automatically do) would also be covered by such laws.
This is a contentious interpretation of the law, even in the U.S., where linking has in some court cases been regarded as protected speech under the first amendment. Part of the reason for the huge backlash against proposed copyright laws, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect [Intellectual Property] Act, was that this provision would come under attack.
It's been two years since ICE agents first knocked on O'Dwyer's door in the U.K. and hauled him in for questioning.
Since he was released on bail, U.S. officials have taken over O'Dwyer's domain, tvshack.net, and replaced it with a large warning against copyright infringement; seized his computer and paperwork relating to the site; and frozen the site's PayPal and email accounts.
O'Dwyer's mom is campaigning online to keep her son from being made a scapegoat, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has started an online petition to raise awareness. But so far, they've had little luck.
Adding insult to injury, officially challenging the details of the case can only be done in U.S. courts -- not in the U.K.
As he waits for his case to progress, O'Dwyer is perplexed at how his life has turned into one big, bad dream.
"There's literally no reason I can think of why it has to be heard in America… at no point was the site ever in America," O'Dwyer says. "I think they're trying to use my website as a sort of guinea pig to try to scare everyone else making linking websites."
(A complete timeline of the case, in reverse chronology, can be found here.)