Accused piracy leader pleads guilty

The head of an Internet piracy group known as DrinkOrDie says he caused between $2.5 million and $5 million in damages; he could face up to five years in prison.

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The accused leader of an Internet piracy group known as DrinkOrDie could face up to five years in prison after pleading guilty Wednesday to conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement.

John Sankus, Jr., 28, who entered his plea in a Virginia federal court, will be sentenced May 17, federal prosecutors said. As part of the plea, Sankus agreed that he caused between $2.5 million and $5 million in damages by allowing the distribution of illegal software, games and movies over the Internet, the prosecutors said. In addition to possible prison time, he faces fines of up to $250,000.

Prosecutors said Sankus ran the daily operations of DrinkOrDie and was in contact with 60 people who cracked and distributed pirated software and movies via secret Web sites and invite-only IRC (Internet relay chat) channels. Such software is known as "warez"--a name for digital content whose copy protection has been cracked by skilled programmers.

"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," U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said in a statement announcing the plea. "John Sankus and his group knew what they were doing was illegal, and they took every technological step possible to conceal their identity."

Prosecutors said Sankus has agreed to cooperate with investigators as part of the plea. Sankus and his attorneys were not immediately available for comment.

Sankus' plea comes two months after law-enforcement agencies--including the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Customs Service, the FBI and international cops--began seizing computers and searching the possessions of alleged DrinkOrDie members. The sting followed a 15-month investigation of the group. The FBI went as far as setting up a fake warez site to gather evidence against suspects.

This is the first plea in the international effort, according to prosecutors. The U.S. Attorney's Office said it expects additional prosecutions in the case.

Entertainment industry executives praised Sankus' plea as a major victory for anti-piracy efforts, which increasingly involve law-enforcement crackdowns of alleged copyright violations on the Web. Creators of songs, movies and software fear the Internet will make it so easy to replicate and distribute pirated software that many people will no longer be willing to buy it.

In a statement, Motion Picture Association of America CEO Jack Valenti said the MPAA has seen a 45 percent decrease in the number of sites offering pirated movies since law enforcement began a crackdown on DrinkOrDie last December.

"The U.S. government has demonstrated its resolve to treat online copyright infringement as a serious offense, and our industry fully supports this stance," Valenti said.