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MegaUpload, U.S. tussle for Kiwi hearts and minds

Web's biggest copyright case will now be about spin. Expect U.S. to paint MegaUpload founder Kim DotCom as Internet Genghis Khan. DotCom will want U.S. to be perceived as evil empire.

MegaUpload founder Kim DotCom says U.S. government is persecuting him for political reasons. 3 News

MegaUpload founder Kim DotCom has six months to try and create the image of himself as a legitimate businessman as well as a victim of U.S. aggression.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which has accused him of criminal copyright violations, wire fraud, and racketeering, will seek to create the perception that DotCom is a digital Genghis Khan, a convicted felon who has dedicated most of his adult life to plunder.

For DotCom, 38, and the DOJ, the public relations war is on.

In January, New Zealand police, at the request of the United States, raided DotCom's home, seized his assets and threw him in jail. He and his associates in the MegaUpload cyberlocker service are accused of enabling massive piracy and U.S. officials want them brought to the United States for trial.

DotCom, born Kim Schmitz, is out on bail and is doing his best to sway public opinion in the hope of avoiding extradition. Just this week, the German national, tried to paint his accusers as hypocrites by claiming members of the U.S. government were among MegaUpload's users. For U.S. officials, if they send DotCom to prison they will also be sending a clear message that helping people commit piracy is no longer just a civil matter but is now a criminal act.

Here's how the two sides will likely use the media to go at each other:

The U.S. will try to play up DotCom's criminal record. The 6-foot 7-inch, 300-pound DotCom is a convicted felon (credit-card fraud and insider trading). Following the raid of his home by New Zealand police in January, he was found in possession of a sawed-off, semiautomatic shotgun. The weapon is illegal in New Zealand.

Copyright owners will use the images of the mansion he lived in and his fleet of exotic cars to show DotCom lived like a pasha. They will try to tie his riches to the $500 million that U.S. officials said was illegally siphoned away from artists. Last week, New Zealand media outlets were reporting that documents show DotCom used his wealth to influence the New Zealand government's decision to allow a convicted felon to reside there.

Megawealth and antisocial behavior doesn't play well in New Zealand, says Rick Shera, an attorney and well-known voice in online copyright issues in that country.

Cary Sherman, RIAA CEO, called DotCom a 'con man' and said if he can 'pull off the PR coup of making himself look like an upstanding businessman...good luck.' Greg Sandoval/CNET

"That fed into Kiwi's traditional dislike of what we call 'tall poppies,' Shera told CNET. Those are "people like Dotcom, whose apparent wealth allows them to lead lifestyles which are not the norm."

But Shera said that the police raid on DotCom's leased mansion was also unsavory to Kiwis. When police arrested DotCom at his home, more than 70 officers showed up and some were wielding automatic weapons. Critics say this was too heavy-handed for someone accused of copyright violations.

"There has clearly been a shift towards a more sympathetic view, particularly in reaction to the unusual raid on the Dotcom mansion and the subsequent refusal of bail for a month," Shera said. He also said that shutting down the MegaUpload service and seizing all of DotCom's assets without a trial doesn't sit well with some in New Zealand either.

Look for DotCom to try and tap into New Zealand's sense of sovereignty and national pride. Nobody wants to think his or her government is being pushed around by a foreign entity. The notion that the United States snatches people from foreign countries in the post-911 world is very controversial across the globe.

For some, it smacks of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and men wearing orange jump suits, bound and blindfolded.

DotCom is sure to tie his company to others that offer similar services but have not been shut down, such as Google and YouTube. In the lone extended television interview DotCom has given, he pointed to the similarities between MegaUpload and YouTube. YouTube was sued by entertainment conglomerate Viacom for copyright violations and prevailed in court.

DotCom, who turned down an interview request from CNET through his attorney, asked why YouTube's offices weren't raided and why co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen weren't thrown in jail.

The U.S. government says it has scores of MegaUpload internal e-mails that show just how unalike the companies are.

"We have a funny business...modern days pirates :)" wrote Bram van der Kolk, one of MegaUpload's managers to fellow company manager Mathias Ortmann. Ortmann responded: "We're not pirates. We're just providing shipping services to pirates :)"

Some of the e-mails also show that when DotCom and his staff were trying to get MegaUpload started, they ripped off all of YouTube's videos. Cary Sherman, CEO and chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America, said nobody should be surprised by DotCom's self-serving behavior.

"What he seems to be doing is right out of playbook 101 for pirates," Sherman told CNET earlier this week. "First, they try to disguise themselves as legitimate businessmen who are being unfairly persecuted by people trying to live by their old business models.

"But here you have the U.S. government," Sherman continued, "after a two-year investigation has shown exactly what his business model really was and how he was implementing it. It doesn't look like a legitimate business model to me...If he can pull off the PR coup of making himself look like an upstanding businessman...good luck."