- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

A Philadelphia man was sentenced yesterday in federal court in Virginia to 46 months in prison for conspiring to violate the criminal copyright laws as the leader of one of the oldest and largest international software piracy rings on the Internet.

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkman sentenced John Sankus Jr., 46, to what authorities said was the longest term ever imposed for Internet software piracy. A co-conspirator, Barry Erickson, 35, of Eugene, Ore., was sentenced earlier this month to 33 months.

U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said Sankus, known by his screen nickname "rifle," headed an online software piracy ring known as DrinkOrDie a highly organized, security-conscious group that specialized in acquiring new software and releasing it on the Internet.

Mr. McNulty said Sankus supervised and managed the daily operations of 65 group members from more than a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

DrinkOrDie, according to prosecutors, concealed its illegal activities using an array of technology and security measures. They said members sent e-mail via the group's private mailserver using encoded encryption; members identified themselves only by screen nickname; and communications about group business only took place in closed, invitation-only channels.

Prosecutors said the group's Internet file-transfer and storage sites, which contained tens of thousands of copies of pirated software, game, movie and music titles, were password protected.

"John Sankus and his techno-gang operated in the faceless world of the Internet and thought they would never be caught. They were wrong. These sentences, and those to follow, should send a message to others entertaining similar beliefs of invincibility," Mr. McNulty said.

According to prosecutors, DrinkOrDie's organizational structure classified group members in four categories in order of importance and responsibility: leader or co-leader, council, staff and members.

They said members designated as "suppliers" provided new software to the group often days or weeks before it was commercially available. This included software manufactured not only by larger companies such as Microsoft, Adobe, Autodesk, Symantec and Novell, but also by smaller companies, whose livelihood depended on revenue generated by one or two products a year.

Prosecutors said that once the software was supplied, highly skilled "crackers" would permanently defeat its copyright protections, allowing it to be illegally reproduced, distributed and used by anyone obtaining a copy. The "cracked" version would then be tested, packed and distributed over the Internet to illegal Internet sites worldwide.

They said "cracked" software released by DrinkOrDie has been found on pay-for-access Web sites in the United States and abroad, including China.

"Criminal operations such as DrinkOrDie and other organized piracy groups represent an unprecedented threat to intellectual property rights holders worldwide," said Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff, who heads the Justice Department's criminal division. "The Department of Justice is committed to the continued prosecution of those most responsible for online piracy."

Sankus was among more than 40 persons worldwide targeted in "Operation Buccaneer," a 14-month undercover investigation by the U.S. Customs Service. Nine defendants have pleaded guilty in the probe and two have been sentenced. Five more will enter guilty pleas in the coming weeks.


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