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07 March 2005

Man Pleads Guilty in "Operation Fastlink" Online Piracy Case

Texan is third U.S. conviction in international enforcement effort

Washington -- The U.S. Justice Department has announced a third U.S. conviction resulting from Operation Fastlink, an April 2004 international enforcement action against organizations involved in illegal intellectual property piracy over the Internet.

A man from San Antonio, Texas, has pleaded guilty to charges related to his role in an underground network that distributed pirated software, games, movies and music over the Internet, the Justice Department said February 28.

Joshua Abell, 24, who pleaded guilty to copyright infringement and conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.  He is due to be sentenced on May 26.  Under Operation Fastlink, a man in Iowa and another in Florida have also pleaded guilty to charges related to online software piracy.

Operation Fastlink, the single largest international enforcement effort ever undertaken against online piracy, involved the simultaneous execution of search warrants by U.S. and foreign law enforcement agencies in the United States and 10 other countries.  On April 22, 2004, the Justice Department announced that in the previous 24 hours, over 120 searches had been simultaneously executed in 27 U.S. states as well as in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden and the United Kingdom. A few days later Spanish authorities moved successfully against targets in Spain.

Nearly 100 individuals worldwide were identified by the investigation as leaders or high-level members of various international piracy organizations involved in the illegal trade of more than $50 million worth of software, games, movies and music recordings, the Justice Department said. More than 200 computers were seized, including over 30 computer servers that functioned as storage and distribution hubs for many of the online piracy groups.  One of the storage and distribution servers seized in the United States reportedly contained 65,000 separate pirated titles.

Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said the action was executed through an "unprecedented" level of international coordination and cooperation.

U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton of the Western District of Texas, who announced the conviction of Joshua Abell, said February 28 that the guilty plea “sends a clear message that you cannot get away with theft and piracy through anonymity on the Internet."

The Justice Department press release said Abell admitted to participating in a criminal conspiracy dedicated to the illegal reproduction and distribution of copyright protected software, including movies, games, music and business utility programs. According to documents filed in federal court, Abell was a member of the "warez scene" -- an underground online community that consists of individuals and organized groups who use the Internet to engage in large-scale, illegal distribution of copyrighted works.

Warez groups often obtain copyrighted products before they are available to the general public, said the press release.  The groups use sophisticated technical skills to circumvent or "crack" the digital copyright protections embedded in the copyrighted works, and then distribute the pirated software to various file servers on the Internet for others to access, reproduce and further distribute worldwide. Within hours of the newly pirated product being distributed to the warez scene, it is often widely available to the public for free download on peer-to-peer and public Internet relay chat (IRC)networks around the world.

In March 2004, Ashcroft announced the creation of an Intellectual Property Task Force to explore ways the Justice Department can strength its protection of the nation’s intellectual resources; the task force issued a report and recommendations in October that year. (It can be found at http://www.eff.org/IP/20041013_DOJ_IPTaskForceReport.pdf )

Operation Fastlink is being conducted under the direction of the FBI and the Department of Justice's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. The investigation is continuing, according to the department.