When five people were sentenced to an unprecedented 30+ years in prison last May, that was the most powerful anti-piracy message ever sent in the UK, via a private prosecution billed to the taxpayer.
Premier League 6, Rest of the UK 0 (latest score)
Following last year’s convictions, there were a few loose ends still to be tied up in matters connected to the Flawless case. A defendant who failed to appear for sentencing was reportedly recaptured in Thailand last August, but six months later his fate still isn’t clear.
While Flawless sold subscriptions direct to the public for roughly £10 per month, those prepared to sell to their own customers could buy them for roughly £6 and then sell on for £10, or indeed whatever they liked. A person previously described as one of the leading resellers of Flawless TV subscriptions was previously mentioned using the mysterious pseudonym ‘Mr X’.
At his sentencing last week, a less sinister picture emerged.
Dedicated Headteacher, Father of One, Maverick
At Birmingham Crown Court last Friday, 42-year-old Paul Merrell was handed a 12-month prison sentence for reselling IPTV subscriptions to an estimated 2,000 customers.
Between 2017 and 2021, Merrell received a total of £450,000 in customer payments, an amount from which the cost of buying the subscriptions (around £200,000) would have to be deducted before counting up any profits.
The revelation that Merrell built most of this business while working as a deputy headteacher at a school in Coventry, came as a surprise. That the business continued after being appointed headteacher of a school in Stourbridge, was more surprising still. A headteacher, addressed ‘Sir’ during the day, was known as ‘Media Maverick’ online.
According to people who spoke favorably of him in court, Merrell’s positive contribution to society included taking a £13,000 reduction in salary when he became headteacher, because he felt he could turn a failing school around. To cover two decades of six-figure annual losses, Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School sold off its land, but after Merrell’s arrival, things began to improve.
Merrell’s Actions “Require Deterrence”
In a letter to the court requesting leniency, the chair of Merrell’s school council spoke of its plight implying that, should he be spared prison, Merrell might even keep his job. Concerns for his wife, son, and the family home, were also heard, and there’s no doubt the court considered the UK’s prison capacity crisis.
Yet, according to the judge, this was a case where deterrence was required and with that, he sent the headteacher to prison and issued a confiscation order for £91,250.
The situation at the school is unclear but according to Merrell’s barrister, the family will likely lose their home. Upon his release, returning to work as a teacher could prove almost impossible.
So overall then; a sentence that may deter IPTV resellers but will benefit almost no one else, while the taxpayer picks up the bill once again?
A Little Nuance Rarely Hurts
When an otherwise decent person gets deprived of their freedom, while career criminals who contribute nothing receive yet another chance to turn things around, that can undermine public confidence in the justice system. In this case, however, things aren’t as straightforward as they may first appear, particularly when it comes to deterrence.
Mark Gould, the main player at Flawless, was raided at his home in Greenwich on May 22, 2018. News of that magnitude travels very quickly in IPTV communities. Two additional arrests on June 19, followed by two more in July and August, meant that anyone with even a basic interest in IPTV should’ve had at least some idea things were going wrong, Merrell included.
An alternative narrative, where Merrell wasn’t told anything was amiss and had no means of finding out, may suggest he was simply in the wrong line of business. Certainly, the ease with which his online persona could be matched to IPTV sales, his real name, and his home address, may even back that up.
Regardless, between January 2017 and up to a week after Gould’s arrest, Merrell paid Flawless just over £100,100 for reseller credits he later sold on. However, despite Gould’s arrest and the likelihood things would get worse, payments to Flawless continued, albeit to PayPal accounts not operated by Gould.
The people behind those accounts have not been named in public, at least to our knowledge, but they were part of a new plan to keep Flawless going despite Gould’s arrest. The identities of these people are well known to the Premier League’s investigators, but their legal position is unknown to us.
Roughly a year later, around July 2019, a FACT investigation was uncovering the transactions detailed above, plus others related to the same operation. That seemed to show that Gould’s arrest and the need to migrate the service into a new form to avoid law enforcement, had no effect on Merrell’s reselling business.
Late January 2021, two-and-a-half years after Gould’s arrest, Birmingham Trading Standards raided Merrell’s home in Sutton Coldfield, triggering a series of events that led to his sentencing last week.
How different things would’ve been if Media Maverick had stopped doing business in May 2018 is unknown. In money terms, given the amounts cited at trial, the overall value could’ve been 50% lower, the period of offending, significantly lower than that.
If nothing else, the judge would’ve had fewer reasons to impose a deterrent custodial sentence, and as a result, the consequences would’ve been much less severe.
From: TF, for the latest news on copyright battles, piracy and more.