Judge steps down over U.S. ‘enemy’ comment in Megaupload case

Judge in Court

The surreal global saga pitting the entertainment industry and United States law enforcement against a technology cult hero has taken a new twist. The New Zealand judge presiding over the extradition of Kim Dotcom, the founder of file-sharing site Megaupload, has suddenly stepped down over a controversial comment about U.S. copyright law.

The controversy began in January when Dotcom was arrested in a dramatic raid in New Zealand and the U.S. announced it would prosecute Dotcom and Megaupload in Virginia. Since then, however, Dotcom (a German national who legally changed his name to “Kim Dotcom”) appeared to have gained the upper hand after he was released on bail and extradition proceedings slowed to a crawl. A New Zealand court has also ruled the warrants used to conduct the raid were illegal.

On Tuesday, the chief judge of the New Zealand district court that must decide if Dotcom can be extradited announced that Judge David Harvey had surrendered the case and would be replaced. The move comes after reports that Harvey said “We have met the enemy and he is [the] U.S.” at a recent conference in relation to the current state of copyright law.

According to a law professor quoted by the New Zealand Herald, the Dotcom affair was the “case of a lifetime” for Harvey who is one of his country’s leading copyright and internet authorities. Harvey’s sudden recusal is not surprising, however, given that a judge would be hard-pressed to appear neutral after describing one of the parties in a case before him as “the enemy.” His departure means that a new judge will oversee the extradition proceedings, which were slated for next year and may now take even longer if they go forward at all.

Overall, the case is exposing a growing global tension between the U.S. and the rest of the world over the boundaries of copyright law. Even though New Zealand, England and Canada share the same common law legal traditions as the U.S., judges and academics in those countries have grown uncomfortable with America’s increasingly expansive copyright laws and aggressive enforcement tactics. These tactics have included other extradition attempts, including one aimed at a 23-year-old UK student that is extremely unpopular with the British public.

The entertainment industry and U.S. authorities, on the other hand, are exasperated with services like Megaupload that allow users to store and swap copyrighted music and movies. “Its equipment, machinery,  and servers are here … Many of its victims are in the United States… countless American works illegally reproduced and distributed include, for example, works originally available on YouTube.com, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, Dexter, Chuck, Meet Dave, and The Simpsons,” wrote prosecutors in a filing last week to argue that Megaupload can be tried in the US.

The tension has led online activists to embrace the flamboyant Kim Dotcom as a hero while law enforcement has sought to portray him as the lead gangster of a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise. As for Dotcom, he has proved adept at cultivating support, in part through a defiant Twitter feed:

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