How a Kid Running an Obscure Music Forum Became the Target Of the UK's Biggest Ever Piracy Case
Illustration by Dan Evans.
It’s 5pm on a Friday and Kane Robinson is sat in his parents home in North Shields, a fishing town on the North bank of the River Tyne in the North East of England. He's patiently watching the new Call of Duty slowly download - legally of course. His young niece runs into the room wearing her brownies uniform and he takes the mick out of her for a few minutes. Last week, Kane was released from Kirklevington Grange prison, and now he’s on tag, with a curfew of 7pm to 7am. Home is where it’s at right now, by necessity.
The first time I saw Kane's name was on the front page of the newspapers. A 23 year old male had been arrested as the brains behind a music forum called Dancing Jesus, and would be facing court imminently. A year passed, until I saw his name again, this time on the Daily Mail online, and with a lot more criminal gravitas attached. He was now described as “an internet pirate who set up music sharing website that cost industry £240million.” He had been sentenced to 32 months in prison; the longest prison sentence ever given to an internet music piracy case in the UK.
The prosecution, brought forth by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), made the case that Kane Robinson was one of the most damaging and ruthless music copyright infringement operations the UK had ever seen. The heavy sentence not only put Kane behind bars, it painted him as a monumental villain of the digital era; the bane of the music industry, or as the newspapers called him: “a cyber crook”.
I talked with Kane while he was in prison, via the robust interface of EmailaPrisoner.com. My emails would be printed off and slipped under his cell door, and he would post me replies a few weeks later. But whether by mistake, or by some sort of third party interference, a lot of my most pertinent questions about his case would be missed off in replies, despite Kane insisting he answered everything he received. Eventually, we agreed to wait until he was free from prison, and we finally talked face to face just five days after his release.
For a few thousand people, the Dancing Jesus music forum will wreak nostalgia for a time period when you deeply considered buying a Libertines jacket and were proud to know every word to Bloc Party’s “Banquet”. For those unaware, it was a no fuss music message board of around 12,000 users operational between 2006 and 2011. Fans of mostly British indie music would gather to discuss albums, rate gigs, share mixtapes, swap MegaUpload, Mediafire, or Rapidshare links to new and unreleased music, and explain to each other how the hell to use WinRAR.
These days, music forums are less central to the way music is disseminated, with KanyeToThe.com a notable survivor and specialist Reddit music boards picking up all in-between. But in the mid-noughties, forums were hot, and places like Dancing Jesus thrived. This particular message board had its own character: an intellectualised, passionate and kinda pretentious identity to rival that of Pitchfork or Drowned in Sound at the time. It would house seething arguments (was nu rave bullshit? were The Automatic enemies of taste?) and spark hundreds of friendships - even going IRL at times on threads for lone gig-goers to find themselves a willing +1. To me and my friends it felt immeasurably wise, and way cooler than us in our pin-badge blazers and New Look jeans. We safely assumed it was set up by some sort of East London dark web indie libertarian with seventeen disk burners, four monitors, and a black book of crooked industry contacts.
But the bossman behind the entire operation was a young lad living with his parents in the North East of England, just using the home iMac in his bedroom between college and a part time job pushing trolleys at his local Tesco. “It always makes me laugh when people emphasised in the news stories about me that I’d ran this whole thing from a bedroom on the North East coast,” says Kane. “Where else am I gonna run a fucking website from like? You make a website at home!” And the more I talked with Kane and investigated his story, the less I found the nefarious, industry destroying, £240million plundering, criminal mastermind I’d been led to expect, and the more I become acquainted with a slightly naive and over-enthusiastic music fan who made silly mistakes at a very serious time.
When Kane was a kid, a friend’s older brother from the house across the road opened his eyes to the blurrier edges of the web – namely the surreal weirdness of stuff like SteakandCheese.com. Kane was hooked. By 12, he was making websites on Geocities: Jackass fan websites, football websites, and wrestling websites – “a lot of wrestling websites” – before becoming totally enamoured with doing fansites about his love for The Simpsons.
At school, a 14 year old Kane made his own custom website, undetected by school firewalls, and hosted all the flash games his IT teachers had blocked. “I shared the link around the school and put a daft guestbook up there too,” he says. “The whole school would go on, play, chat to each other, leave messages - stir a lotta shit basically.”
He left school at 16, with his enthusiasm for computing at a high, and enrolled for a BTEC in IT at Tyne Metropolitan College. It was late 2005, and a new wave of indie rock was vibrating beneath the winklepickers of British indie kids. The NME’s Essential Bands box set featured Razorlight, Bloc Party, Maximo Park and the Futureheads and was something people genuinely got excited for; Oasis were charting successive number ones with “Lyla” and “The Importance of Being Idle”; and Beneath the Boardwalk, a fan-made collection of 18 demos (including “Scummy” and “Cigarette Smoker Fiona”) by hype Sheffield band the Arctic Monkeys, was redefining the positives of peer-to-peer filesharing in a post-Napster world – its digital snowballing would be instrumental in sending their first official single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”, straight to number one. “When they turned up, it was like nothing I’d heard before,” says Kane. “It felt like they were painting a picture of our life. We’d download whatever we could get off Limewire.”
He set about making an Arctic Monkeys fansite with his friend (“he’s a bit more technical than me, I’m more ideas”) called Mardy-Bum.com. He filled it with news, rumours, demos and rips. It garnered a passionate following very quickly, and Kane got the bug for making something people actually wanted.
The Arctic Monkeys were a unique concoction, in that they were unmistakably blasé about their early music being horsed out by fans – “We never made those demos to make money anyway,” drummer Matt Helders told Prefix Magazine in 2005. Mardy-Bum.com became so popular that websites like NME.com started to use it as a news source, and lads magazine Zoo gave it a spread feature. Kane read the Zoo feature straight from the shelf of the Tesco he worked in.
Eventually Geoff Barradale, who still manages the band to this day, gave Kane a call. “He loved the romance of our site,” he explains. “He said the current website manager wasn’t doing the best job, and how would we like to run it. If you’d asked me at the time: ‘What would be your dream job?’ It would be managing the Arctic Monkeys’ website. Now, here’s someone ringing me at college and offering me it. I was only 20 at the time.” He was called down to Sheffield for a meeting, and found himself in their management office. When Barradale popped out the room to get something, Kane quickly got his friend to take a photo on his phone of him holding the Arctic Monkey’s recent Q Award for 'Best Act in the World Today'.
Splitting his time between the Arctic Monkeys and his job in Tesco, Kane was also nursing online side projects. He'd noticed loads of band forums which were rocketing in members amidst an endless tide of British indie music. The Cribs had a particularly buzzing forum, as did many others, and the “Off Topic” sections often became a haven for rampant peer-to-peer music sharing. “It was happening everywhere on different forums,” explains Kane, “but nowhere was dedicated to it. I wanted to put it in one place.”
He acquired a proper paid server – the only one he could afford was £50/month and just so happened to be in Dallas. Then he rented some webspace and created a forum: a minimal design that was basic to look at and easy to use. Early on, he promised users there would never be any advertising on the forum, that he would make no money from it, and the bill would always be footed by Kane alone. He already had a job; he just wanted this to be a hobby.
He made two rooms – one for music and an off-topic one called The Lounge – and avoided excessive sub-topic threads. And, of course, he gave it a name; inspired by The Simpsons episode, ‘The Computer Wore Menace Shoes’ - the one where Homer visits a website on his new PC which simply shows Jesus Christ disco jiving in front of a blue background. Just like that, in mid-2006, Dancing Jesus was born. Finally, Kane nabbed a picture from the only other actual Dancing Jesus website currently in Google search results - an online store for novelty bobble heads - and made their product image his forum logo. Then he chose his username: Jesus.
“I never fucking liked the word ‘Admin’,” he laughs, when I ask him what his online username was on the forums. “I called myself Jesus. Because I was the boss, wasn’t I? I was in charge of it all."
He started out by just telling his mates about it. "I was saying, ‘Look, I’ve set up a forum here, if you wanna share music then come to me because I’ve bought a server so I won’t get shut down as quick as these other websites.’ To start with, there was nothing making people come back, so, yeah, I would go get links from big torrent sites like Oink’s Pink Palace. Because, these were the places where the music did actually leak first. No music ever leaked first on Dancing Jesus, we were just a message board.”
Dancing Jesus never actually hosted any illegal files. It didn't have the means to. It was simply a forum. Users would find files or links elsewhere, and use the forum as a place to share and discuss them. If MegaUpload or Pirate Bay were kalashnikov guarded Colombian cocaine meccas, then Dancing Jesus forum was a dead end British nightclub one thousand miles away, with a small crowd of regulars and a handful of part time dealers - and Kane was the owner. Yes, he was breaking the law - guilty of what is called 'authorising copyright infringement' - but he was so far down the food chain, it was barely worth thinking about.
He’d heard that one of the users on Dancing Jesus was perhaps getting some leaks direct – ”through a contact who used to be a writer for Kerrang back in the day” – but even that was just a rumour. He noticed a user named Trix, a married woman according to her forum profile, building a reputation for always posting quite high quality copies on the forum, but nobody really questioned where they came from.
During its golden years, Dancing Jesus epitomised a unique time in British music. It felt like there was a hype new band every fortnight, and the concept of physical release dates was getting battered by the immediacy demands of the internet and its consumers. Leaked records and file sharing became pretty much the norm amongst youngsters. Internet service providers had not yet started to crackdown on suspect websites, 28% of Britons admitted to downloading copyright material without paying for it, and 80% admitted they desired a legal form of P2P file sharing going forward. For tech-savvy music fans, it was like the roaring twenties; for label owners, it was like the Great Depression.
Kane on the trollies at Tesco
But in this peer-to-peer sharing storm, new music prospered. Acts like Patrick Wolf, Foals, Hadouken!, Little Man Tate, Bombay Bicycle Club, Klaxons, Bromheads Jacket, Maximo Park, the Futureheads, Cooper Temple Clause, Forward Russia, and The Sunshine Underground, were staple names on the Dancing Jesus forum. And the Arctic Monkeys obviously. Nu rave came and went, certain electronic artists (Burial, Aphex Twin, Four Tet) were championed, and there was also a distinctive taste for more experimental American indie; established acts like Neutral Milk Hotel or Modest Mouse would be dissected and debated regularly. Fanmade end of year compilations became a ritual, and I’ll admit my first ever experience of Burial was the sound of “Archangel” sandwiched quite nobly between “The Photos on My Wall” by Good Shoes and a long-forgotten Towers of London track, on an unofficial Dancing Jesus mixtape. But it was still a niche prospect - in all the years it was active, the site never topped 12,000 users at any given time.
“It got popular, but I was still dead against making money off it,” says Kane. “I had no desire to, and I knew that would just get me into trouble. So, I had no adverts, and I paid for it all myself. I got pleasure from seeing the community grow. People were sharing music with each other, sharing recommendations - just being mates online really. I do suspect some relationships even started on there.”
As admins and mods took on the little work there was to do, Kane paid less and less attention to the small but fervent community he had began. Things were changing in real life, and he focused on his university studies. He pursued more work in website design, travelling to London after being approached as a digital producer for NME.com. He’d hear his friends talk about Dancing Jesus, but he never mentioned his involvement. Although Kane, perhaps naively, made no attempts to protect his real identity online. “If people wanted to know who I was, they could find out, and they did. Users would find my Myspace and post pictures of me on the forum - I wasn’t bothered. I never made insurances to hide from the police though, because I never really believed there was any danger.”
Kane didn’t see himself as a cyber criminal. He wasn’t part of some dark cabal exchanging links on encrypted messenger services, gleaning leaks straight from CD pressing plants, or sending ship loads of pirate copies to China. He’d never heard of the warez scene and he didn’t use the darknet. He was just a reasonably tech-savvy indie fan with a little forum, who dabbled in a bit of file sharing. Didn’t everyone?
His feeling of innocence was probably what blinded him from seeing the hurricane that was beginning to gather at sea. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic were beginning to invest more manpower than ever into internet piracy cases. In 2010, Alan Ellis, the founder of Oink’s Pink Palace, the prominent BitTorrent tracker Kane had himself used in the past (and coincidentally also from the North East of England), became the first person in the UK to be prosecuted for illegal file sharing. While the arrest grabbed headlines, the punishment did not. Some users were given community service and fines of £500, but Ellis himself was found not guilty, thanks to the defence work of hotshot cybercrime solicitor David Cook and the prosecution's regretful decision to pursue him for fraud rather than copyright infringement.
There were other warnings though. New users would spring up on Dancing Jesus, writing that they had been driven there because all their usual hangouts had been closed down and prosecuted. But Kane was unperturbed. "We’d been going for years by now, and purposefully made no money. I was sure that if anyone was annoyed with what I was doing, I would hear from them. I was never told to shut Dancing Jesus down." (I contacted the BPI Copyright Protection Unit to ask if they ever issued Dancing Jesus with a takedown request. They declined to comment.)
Then, on September 1st 2011, there was a hard knock at the front door. “Just three weeks earlier, I had been to London for that interview with NME.com. I’m lying in bed, it’s about 6am in the morning. Me mam comes into my bedroom. She says, ‘Kane, the police are here.’" As he walked down the stairs, he heard London voices, and in his sleepy haze assumed illogically that he’d skipped a fare on the tube after his job interview. But there were six officers in the house, two of them from City of London, two from his local police station, and two from an investigative unit of the music industry. And when the latter two introduced themselves, Kane realised what was coming.
They went into his room with a view to seizing evidence. “I think they expected some piracy operation, but all they found was my laptop blaring fucking It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. That probably didn’t help things actually. The first thing they saw when they opened my computer was two full season torrents of that and Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Kane was arrested. He was 22 at the time.
Despite the drama of the arrest, the gravity of Kane’s situation didn’t really hit him, nor his parents, friends, or even the officers involved in his case. One of the London officers muttered to him that, “It might seem a serious matter, but you’ll probably be alright.” And when Kane arrived at Gateshead Police Station, he was greeted with the chirpy sound of a local officer: “Eee! We’ve never had anyone in for this before!”
In his first interview, he accepted all of the blame for the website and rejected opportunities to put any of it onto moderators or forum admins. He was released on bail and surprisingly told that Dancing Jesus, which had been taken down by authorities, could be set online again if he wished, as long as he ensured no download links were hosted on there anymore. Apart from that, the only other thing they wanted to know: who was Trix? Kane had no idea. He rebooted the forum, told the users what had happened, and banned the posting of links.
Then his case went cold. Attempts to answer bail were repeatedly cancelled by the authorities, and in June 2012, almost a year after his arrest, he was given strange news. ”I rang to ask if he wanted me to come down on the train to answer my bail and they said, ‘No, don’t come down. You’re officially not on police bail anymore’.” Kane told his friends and family and the assumption was that he had been excused, albeit mysteriously.
It wasn’t until he appealed to get his seized possessions back, that the next, more fateful chapter began. Kane was being privately prosecuted by the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), and, from there, things gradually fell apart. His cheap Dallas server had been seized by US Homeland Security, landing Kane in the crosshairs of the world’s most vociferous piracy hunters, and making his case one of the first copyright infringement cases in which US and UK authorities had worked together. Kane started to get a feeling in the back of his mind that this could be getting bigger than he first thought. The BPI were prosecuting him, and it was a big deal. It was time to get some legal aid.
Months passed. The NME job fell through, Dancing Jesus was taken down permanently, and at the age when most twenty-somethings would be looking to leave home, Kane was struggling to make any plans further than the month ahead. It wasn’t until October 2013, almost two and a half years since his arrest, that Kane was summoned to Newcastle Crown Court.
Arriving in the docks that day, Kane saw prolific forum user Trix for the first time. She wasn’t a married woman, but a 22-year-old man from Leicestershire called Richard. Kane pleaded guilty to his charge of copyright infringement. He was not called back for sentencing for another year.
“Those whole 3 years from arrest to sentencing, people were asking me what’s happening? Are you gonna get jail? Maybe. I’ve no idea. Nobody knew. There were no sentence guidelines for a case like mine. Everybody around me thought I’d get a slap on the wrist, and maybe a big fine. But deep down I knew something was afoot. I knew the music industry wanted to make a big example of me.”
To understand Kane's case, you need to look at the mood surrounding it. The high profile failure to prosecute Oink’s Pink Palace and ongoing international case of Kim Dotcom and his expensive defence team, left bad tastes in the mouths of the music industry. These cases portrayed a message that online piracy prosecutions, as opposed to often punished CD bootleggers, could be dodged and wormed out of if you played your cards right and forked out for a good legal team. The BPI had spent the summer of 2014 fighting Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other search engines to start pushing illegal file sharing sites down their rankings, to little success. Hundreds of cases launched by the BPI throughout the 2000s had resulted in nothing more than fines (the most of around £5,000) and suing. But since suing only really works if the perpetrator has enough money to pay up, it wasn't exactly a deterrent. Prison sentences are a deterrent.
In the US, big piracy prison sentences were being handed out, but the UK felt like a more lenient landscape. You could pontificate then, that the time was right for a scapegoat; a severe case fit for mass scaremongering; a hardline success for the BPI Copyright Protection Unit that could become a piracy horror story for years to come. You can imagine that Kane Robinson, hardly an internet tycoon, with just a legal aid defence, no piracy profits to fund court proceedings, and no cyber crime specialist in sight, looked like quite the sitting duck.
“The weekend before sentencing, I sat down with my barrister, and he read out that they would be accusing me of pirating 46 of the top 50 singles from 2010/11. I gave him my rebuttal to that. But then, on the day of sentencing, this £240million figure suddenly sprung out of the air. And that ended up being what my entire sentence ended up based on. I don’t know if my legal aid team were outgunned, or the prosecution slipped that in at the last minute, but it felt like everyone in that courtroom had agreed that I was to be punished.”
On November 10th 2014, despite having no prior criminal convictions, Kane was sentenced to 32 months in prison. Richard Graham, aka Trix, was given a shorter sentence of 21 months. Kane's face was plastered over the front of local and national newspapers. The picture of him holding the Arctic Monkeys’ Q Award leaked to the press. Ironically, most cropped out the award and no reporters pondered why exactly Kane would be holding it. Any legitimacy was of no interest, he was a cyber crook.
The Daily Mail painted his forum like some sort of grandiose Gatsby mansion of pre-release debauchery, writing on Nov 11th 2014 that Dancing Jesus had "70 million users" (more than Apple Music and Spotify put together, if only it were true) who could "listen to almost any song or album after its release date." The director of BPI's Copyright Protection Unit, David Wood, released a statement: "Today’s sentencing sends a clear message to the operators and users of illegal music sites that online piracy is a criminal activity that will not be tolerated by law enforcement in the UK or overseas." Elsewhere, the sentence was described as “pretty severe” and the kind “you would more commonly find in criminal copyright convictions relating to the manufacture and sale of bootlegged CDs or DVDs.”
The severity of Kane's sentence is a sticking point. One can cast a comparative eye to the case of American citizen Bennie Lydell Glover, a former factory worker at a Universal Music CD pressing plant who pirated and leaked hundreds of the biggest albums in the world over a ten year period, operating as the key supplier to the infamous warez group Rabid Neurosis, selling physical pirate copies to numerous clients in and around the New York area, and described recently by the New York Times as "the man who broke the music industry". In 2010, Glover received three months in prison.
The £240million tag calculated by the BPI was the fatal blow, and it’s a little difficult to figure out where it came from. How did Kane end up costing the music industry a sum so astronomical with a forum of just 12,000 users? When compared with other piracy cases, it appears almost whimsical. It’s £236million more than Pirate Bay co-founder Hans Fredrik Lennart Neij was ordered to pay in damages. Kim Dotcom, the millionaire internet magnate responsible for the infamous MegaUpload.com, is only responsible for damages of £100million more than Kane according to his prosecution. That’s despite MegaUpload.com being responsible for hosting and distributing 12 billions links, compared to the 22,500 links that were only posted by users on Dancing Jesus and not hosted.
“The case for authorising infringement is quite straightforward,” explains music law specialist Chris Cooke of Complete Music Update, “and the fact he didn’t host the content is not relevant. But why the court thought it was a criminal matter for prosecution is another thing. If Kane was making no money, then you have to assume that they have taken issue with the sheer size of his operation.”
The sheer size of the operation was measured in this mythical £240million figure. While Kane was inside, his family and friends set up a crowdfunder to raise money to pay for the legal advice of cyber crime lawyer David Cook, who had successfully defended Oink in the past. Where Kane’s legal aid team had failed, Cook whittled the damages down staggeringly to approximately £500,000. (I contacted the BPI Copyright Protection Unit to request information about how they originally calculated that £240 million total, but they declined to comment, as they did on every question I put to them about this piece. However, it should be noted that this is standard protocol for cases where the defendant pleaded guilty.)
“These cyber laws are just a huge grey area,” explains Kane. “That’s how people like David Cook are experts at getting people off. Because we’re at a time where these lawyers know more about the digital laws than the courts do. If you can get the right representation and afford it, then you can get fairer trials for these digital crimes. But if you find yourself with legal aid, going against an entire music industry and a judge that’s new to these types of crimes, then, well, you’re fucked.”
Kane’s case came at a point when the bullish determination of the BPI to prosecute music piracy cases with prison was high, but the knowledge and experience of courts, judges, juries and especially legal aid teams to understand the genuine complexities of it was still nascent. He became the low hanging fruit of a crime industry that, in reality, operates on a far grander scale way, way above his head. This is a problem, and one that is only amplifying.
In the US, a 23 year old has just been sentenced to 3 years in federal prison for a music piracy case estimating $7million in value, and in the UK, in July this year, the Conservative government launched an official consultation on plans to increase the maximum prison sentence for British online music pirates five fold, from two years to a brutal ten years. They counter that this would only be for criminals guilty of “commercial-scale online copyright infringement.” The idea is that this level of punishment brings online music piracy sentencing up to the level at which offline piracy offenders, like CD bootleggers, are punished.
However, there are huge chasms between the criminality of a CD bootlegging enterprise and a kid running a forum online. Starting a CD bootlegging enterprise is not easy, whereas starting a website is. In CD bootleg cases, it’s often quite easy to see how much the perpetrator made and how much they cost the music industry, because physical sales result in costs and profits that are traceable through bank accounts. But in online music piracy cases, these figures put next to offenders names are usually exaggerated estimations, based on how many people probably downloaded something and how many purchases they probably didn’t make as a result, and what this therefore probably cost the industry. That’s how you get huge estimations like £240million, plucked from the air. It’s very murky ground to equate offline and online music piracy crimes for prison sentence lengths.
The case of Kane Robinson exemplified how racking up “commercial scale” figures next to bedroom dwelling music fans with no prior convictions, is an easy and unchallenged task for BPI prosecutors operating in a UK courts system that is clearly still learning the nuances and intricacies of this cyber crime world. Sentences like Kane’s are threatening to become not only more common, but even more lifechanging. As digital copyright infringement becomes one of the 21st century’s most era-defining crimes, it’s increasingly dangerous that most people still don’t understand how the hell it works. But instead of devising a way to educate people from a young age about the dangers, ethics and consequences of music piracy, both for themselves and the artists (a problem independent anti-piracy company Muso are trying to tackle), the British government and the BPI are fixated on channeling all their efforts towards increasingly brutal sentences.
In jail, the confusion amongst the authorities on quite how to handle Kane continued. He spent six days in a local remand jail in Durham, before being transferred to Northumberland for six months. “I was recategorised for good behaviour and granted to go to an open jail in Kirklevington, which was a lot more relaxed. But when I got there, it transpired I apparently could have been there to start with.” He recalls fellow inmates almost laughing at his crime: “How the fuck are you in here for downloading music?” Where most prisoners are given a sentence plan relating to their crime - to reduce the risk of reoffending and support resettlement - Kane was ignored: “For example, if you’re in for something violent, you get a thinking skills course program or something. But I never once met with my sentence manager to discuss any of that. They just didn’t have a clue what to do with me.”
He’s angered by the injustices of his story, but he also manages to be good-humoured about much of it. "You meet some of the worst people in the world in prison," he says, "but you also meet some of the best. I learned more there than at three years of uni." And though he’s deeply annoyed at the way the press covered his story, he can still snigger at how a picture he took as a joke of him posing as David Brent on a sofa, ended up on so many front pages, in such grossly pixelated form.
Now back home in North Shields, he's found some little bits of work designing websites for friends of friends. But mostly, he’s just re-adjusting to being free again. Prison was a “weird dream”, and he wants to focus on getting his life back on track. For the first time in four years he can think about something other than his prosecution, starting with how he’s going to keep himself occupied for the next eight months of this 7pm to 7am curfew. At least Call of Duty has finally finished downloading.
You can follow Joe Zadeh on Twitter.