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UK government considers sentences up to 10 years for internet pirates

The UK government has launched a consultation seeking views on equalising the maximum custodial sentence for online and physical copyright infringement at ten years, now that online infringement is so much more significant, it says. Currently, the maximum sentence for online piracy activity is two years. If changes are implemented, they will amend the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act.

The consultation document published by the Intellectual Property Office notes that feedback from enforcement agencies and prosecutors suggests that in certain circumstances, the Fraud Act and the common law offence of conspiracy to defraud are used where a custodial term of more than two years is sought. The copyright provisions for online offences were used only twice in 2013.

In fact, the case for harmonising the maximum custodial sentence for physical and online copyright infringement goes back many years. The Patent Office paper recalls that the 2005 Gowers Review recommended that the penalty for online copyright infringement should be increased from two to ten years because, as it stated "The intention and impact of physical and online infringement are the same." The UK government at the time consulted, but did not make the change due to its policy to only imprison serious and/or dangerous offenders. It did, however, increase the statutory maxima fine from £5,000 to £50,000. This has subsequently been made unlimited.

Following on debate stages of the IP Bill in the House of Commons last year, the government accepted that online offences should be seen as no less serious than their physical counterparts and are capable of causing serious harm. Also, the vast majority of online copyright offenders turn out to have links to further criminality and seek to monetise their illicit activities online via advertising or subscription fees. "Criminal gangs are making vast sums of money through exploiting the creations of others, causing real harm to those individuals, their industry and the wider economy."

Increasing the maximum sentences available under the specific online copyright offence provisions is expected to have a deterrent effect on criminals seeking to make money in this way. The Conservative election manifesto is also committed to "... toughen sentencing and use new technology to protect the public."

The document's consultation question is Should the maximum custodial sentence available for online and offline copyright infringement of equal seriousness be harmonised at 10 years? The government is seeking evidence that is 'open and transparent in its approach and methodology.'

Story filed 21.07.15

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