Federal authorities in Washington, D.C., have secured the first guilty pleas for copyright infringement in four cases where the perpetrators made music available on the Internet before it was released

Federal authorities in Washington, D.C., have secured the first guilty pleas for copyright infringement in four cases where the perpetrators made music available on the Internet before it was released to the general public.

The busts are the result of Operation Fastlink, an ongoing anti-piracy investigation intended to crack down on organized piracy operations responsible for most of the initial illegal distribution of copyrighted movies, software, games and music online.

"By stealing the creative product of talented people, this form of piracy deprives artists of the rewards they deserve," said Paul McNulty of the Eastern District of Virginia. "If left unchecked, such crime would drain the incentive to create that enriches our lives."

As detailed in the statements of facts filed with the four plea agreements, the convicted defendants were leading members of prerelease groups; that is, groups that acted as "first providers" of copyrighted works to the Internet -- the so-called "release" groups that are the original sources for a majority of the pirated works distributed and downloaded over the Internet.

Derek Borchardt, of Charlotte, N.C., Matthew Howard, of Longmont, Colo., and Aaron Jones, of Hillsboro, Ore., each pled guilty yesterday (Feb. 28) to one count of conspiracy to commit copyright infringement for their involvement in the prerelease music group "Apocalypse Crew" or "APC." George Hayes, of Danville, Va., pled guilty Feb. 13 to one count of criminal copyright infringement related to his involvement in another prerelease music group called "Chromance" or "CHR."

Each of the four defendants face up to five years of imprisonment, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.

As leading members of the prerelease music groups, the defendants sought to acquire digital copies of songs and albums before their commercial release in the U.S. The supply of prerelease music often was provided by music industry insiders -- such as radio DJs, employees of music magazine publishers, workers at CD-manufacturing plants and retailers who frequently receive advance copies of music.

Once a group prepared a stolen work for distribution, the material was distributed in minutes to secure computer servers throughout the world. From there, within a matter of hours, the pirated works are distributed globally, filtering down to peer-to-peer and other public file-sharing networks accessible to anyone with Internet access and potentially appearing for sale throughout the world.

"The illegal prerelease distribution of albums or individual tracks takes an especially heavy toll on the music community," RIAA executive vp anti-piracy Brad Buckles said. "After months or even years working on an album, prerelease theft undercuts the ability of artists to sell their music before it even hits the market."

Operation FastLink has resulted in more than 120 search warrants executed in 12 countries, which have yielded felony convictions for 27 individuals.