- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

A Philadelphia man pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court in Alexandria to what prosecutors said was the largest international online copyright-piracy investigation ever conducted by federal law enforcement officers.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said John Sankus Jr., 28, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to one felony count of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement.
Scheduled for sentencing May 17, Sankus could receive a maximum term of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Mr. McNulty said Sankus was co-leader of an international Internet software piracy group known as DrinkOrDie, which illegally distributed copyrighted software, games and movies over the Internet. He said the group specialized in being the first to release high-end software applications and utilities.
DrinkOrDie, according to prosecutors, is one of many highly structured, security-conscious organizations that illegally reproduce and distribute thousands of copies of copyrighted works around the world worth billions of dollars each year.
Members rarely meet in person and, according to prosecutors, frequently only know each other through their screen nicknames.
"This is a crime against the integrity of our electronic infrastructure," Mr. McNulty said. "It is imperative that we stop these 'techno-gangs' from exploiting new technologies for criminal purposes. This plea is another significant step in our effort to eliminate intellectual property crime on the Internet and to make it safe for individuals and businesses to develop and use new software and technologies."
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors and Sankus agreed that the amount of damage attributable to the defendant's actions exceeded $2.5 million but was less than $5 million.
As co-leader of DrinkOrDie, Sankus was principally responsible for the management and supervision of day-to-day operations of the criminal enterprise. Prosecutors said Sankus supervised about 60 persons who acquired, cracked and distributed the pirated software.
Company insiders, known as suppliers, often provided the group with new software, frequently days or weeks before the software would be released to the public. Prosecutors said group members known as "crackers" would defeat the software's embedded copyright protections, allowing the software to be illegally reproduced and used by anyone obtaining a copy.
The finished product, prosecutors said, was then distributed to sites globally for further distribution to an ever-expanding web of sites. Within hours, they said, a new release could be found on hundreds of illegal sites throughout the world.
Mr. McNulty said DrinkorDie concealed these sites and conducted business in closed invitation-only Internet relay chat channels. He said Sankus and other high-ranking members of DrinkOrDie used encryption to conceal all e-mails discussing the group's illegal activities.
"John Sankus and his group knew what they were doing was illegal and they took every technological step possible to conceal their activity," Mr. McNulty said.
DrinkOrDie was the primary group targeted by "Operation Buccaneer," a 15-month undercover investigation by the U.S. Customs Service, assisted by the Justice Department's computer crime and intellectual-property section. In December, Operation Buccaneer culminated in the simultaneous execution worldwide of more than 70 search warrants.
U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said numerous targets also have been arrested in Britain and that investigations are continuing in several countries.
"Operation Buccaneer brought to light the severity and scope of a multibillion-dollar software swindle perpetrated over the Internet," Mr. Bonner said.
"This investigation is the first of several cases by the U.S. Customs Service to dismantle the top groups engaged in this illegal activity."


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