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Computer Misuse Sentencing

The case of R v Maxwell-King (Court of Appeal Criminal Division, reported in January 2 2001 The Times) illustrates one or two interesting points about the Computer Misuse Act.

The defendant manufactured a small number of electrical boxes which on being attached to cable TV sets, ensured that the viewer had access to all cable channels, not just those for which he had paid. He manufactured and sold 20 such boxes at a price of 30. He had been ordered to pay some 10,000 in costs.

In view of the relatively small scale of the manufacture, and the costs award, and the fact that the the cable companies could themselves have taken steps to prevent such activities, the court felt that a sentence of imprisonment was wrong, and he was ordered to do community service.

He was convicted of the offence of incitement to committe offences contrary to section 3 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990. this section relates to un-authorised modification of the contents of any computer. At first sight, the offence might have more properly be understood as unauthorised access (s 1). But the case goes to show just how widely the provisions of the act have come to be interpreted. The defendant stood several stages removed from any actual offence committed by an actual user of the box.

The court indicated that the threshold of imprisonment might have often be reached in such cases. Only the particular circumstances of this case saved this defendant.

It also might be noted that the defendant was prosecuted not by the police, but by FACT, the Federation Against Copyright Theft. It would be interesting to learn to what extent the prosecution dealt with issues of abuse of copyright featured in this case. Those contemplating such activities might recognise that although the rather more sensible statutory prosecuting authorities migt not be interested in pursuing such cases, the private body, FACT, see themselves as being sufficiently important to pursue such cases as far as is necessary to make their point, and that they do not now rely so much upon civil as criminal measures.

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Copyright and Database Rights: David Swarbrick 2012
18 October 2013 399 18 October 2013