Cracks down on pre-release piracy groups.

The first federal criminal convictions of members from pre-release music piracy groups were announced today (Feb. 28) by the Department of Justice. The four individuals had been arrested as a result of Operation FastLink, part of a federal crackdown against organized piracy groups responsible for most of the initial illegal distribution of copyrighted music, movies, software and games over the Internet.

Derek A. Borchardt, 21, of Charlotte, N.C.; Matthew B. Howard, 24, of Longmont, Colo.; and Aaron O. Jones, 31, of Hillsboro, Ore., each pled guilty today (Feb. 28) in Virginia to one count of conspiracy to commit copyright infringement for their involvement in the pre-release music group called “Apocalypse Crew” or “APC.” George S. Hayes, 31, of Danville, Va., previously pled guilty on Feb. 13 to one count of criminal copyright infringement related to his involvement in another pre-release music group called “Chromance” or “CHR.”

According to the Justice Department, the four defendants were leading members of the pre-release music groups. They sought to acquire digital copies of songs and albums before their commercial release in the United States. The supply of pre-release music was often provided by music industry insiders, such as radio DJs, employees of music magazine publishers or workers at CD manufacturing plants and retailers. 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 around the world.

Initiated in April 2004, Operation FastLink is the culmination of multiple FBI undercover investigations, including an investigation into pre-release music groups, led by FBI agents from the Washington, D.C., Field Office (WFO). The RIAA and several member companies provided substantial assistance to the FBI in its investigation of the pre-release music scene. These are the first convictions to arise from the FBI-WFO investigation.

"The illegal pre-release distribution of albums or individual tracks takes an especially heavy toll on the music community,” said Brad Buckles, RIAA executive VP anti-piracy. “These groups engage in wide-ranging conspiracies to obtain early copies of albums and carry out a destructive game of trying to be the first to illegally post them. We appreciate and applaud the work of the U.S. Department of Justice for targeting and prosecuting these sophisticated piracy operations fueling the supply of unauthorized music and other content to millions of Internet users around the world.”

Sentencing for the four individuals is scheduled for May 19 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Each defendant faces up to five years of imprisonment, a fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised release.

To date, Operation FastLink has resulted in more than 120 search warrants executed in 12 countries, the confiscation of hundreds of computers and illegal online distribution hubs, and the removal of more than $50 million worth of illegally-copied copyrighted software, games, movies, and music from illicit distribution channels. It has also resulted in felony convictions for 27 individuals.

Jay Prabhu, trial attorney for the U.S. Justice Department’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section and currently a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, prosecuted the case for the government.