Cleveland police have extended the bail granted to the former administrator of an alleged music piracy site for a second time, in a bid to collect more evidence for a case that could mark a watershed for UK internet law.
Alan Ellis, a 24-year-old IT worker from Middlesbrough, was arrested in October on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and copyright infringement offences, over his site OiNK's Pink Palace.
A police spokeswoman said today that he had been briefly reinterviewed today for clarifications and granted police bail to reappear on May 6. The extension has been sought to allow more time for computer forensics, she said.
The deadline for investigators to gather evidence and decide whether or not to bring charges was originally scheduled for 21 December. Early in December however, police extended the cut-off to today, 4 February. At the same time the servers were returned wiped to OiNK's Dutch ISP.
Now the reckoning has been postponed again, bringing the total length of the inquiry to more than seven months.
From 2004 until his arrest last year, Ellis ran OiNK as an invitation-only BitTorrent tracker that focused on high-quality music files. It was shut down by a high profile dawn raid on his flat, coordinated with Dutch authorities seizing servers and a search of his parents' home in Cheshire. The swoop was dubbed "Operation Ark Royal".
Since his arrest, Ellis has publicly argued that OiNK merely provided a Google-like indexing service, and cannot be held accountable for the actual music files that the trackers poined to. It's the same defence that's set to be used by the administrators of the Swedish BitTorrent tracker Pirate Bay in their upcoming trial.
If a copyright prosecution is ever brought against Ellis, it would be a test case for a 2003 amendment to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act that states a criminal offence may be committed by a person who "distributes otherwise than in the course of a business so as to affect prejudicially the honour or reputation of the author or director".
It would be a break with the tradition of copyright infringement being a civil matter, but it's been suggested by lawyers the amendment could be taken by a court to include the operators of filesharing trackers or even their users. Ellis himself is clearly aware of the significance of his case. Shortly after the raids he told The Telegraph: "If this goes to court it is going to set a huge precedent. It will change the internet as we know it."
The conspiracy to defraud investigation is likely to be centred on the "hundreds of thousands of pounds" of proceeds from OiNK Clevleand police's press release said they expected to uncover.
Operation Ark Royal was UK police's first raid targeting a filesharing site, and provoked anger online, particularly for its media handling.
Critics accused Cleveland police of allowing itself to be misled by the record industry anti-piracy lobby. In the BBC News report of the raid, for example, Ellis was accused of "illegally downloading music on to his website" and Detective Inspector Colin Green wrongly stated that OiNK users paid subscriptions. ®