High-level software piracy suspect pleads guilty

The co-leader of one of the oldest piracy groups on the Internet, arrested last December in a federal software piracy probe, pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiracy charges in federal court.

The suspect, identified as John Sankus Jr., 28, of Philadelphia, faces up to five years in prison and a US$250,000 fine for his part in an international Internet software piracy group known as DrinkOrDie, according to the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

DrinkOrDie has allegedly been involved in the illegal online distribution of pirated copies of copyrighted software, computer games and movies, according to the government.

"This plea is another significant step in our effort to eliminate intellectual property crime on the Internet and to make it safer for individuals and businesses to develop and use new software and technologies," said U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty in a statement.

According to the government, Sankus was responsible for the management and supervision of the activities of DrinkOrDie's members. He allegedly supervised some 60 people who acquired the pirated titles, defeated security features and then distributed the counterfeit titles around the world. He was charged with one felony count of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement.

The DrinkOrDie group was one of several piracy operations targeted as part of several federal investigations into international software piracy during the past two years. More than 100 search warrants were served last December against suspects allegedly involved in piracy syndicates, including Sankus.

The federal probe that implicated Sankus was called Operation Buccaneer. The one-year investigation was conducted by the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Department of Justice's computer crime and intellectual property section and the U.S. attorney's office.

Sankus couldn't be reached for comment.

Bob Kruger, vice president of enforcement for the Washington-based piracy watchdog group Business Software Alliance, said Sankus' plea is likely to be the first of many to come from others nabbed by federal agents.

Two other men pleaded guilty in Los Angeles last month in connection with the investigations, according to a Justice Department statement.

"We're gratified that law enforcement is taking these actions," Kruger said. "We think it's important to send a message that Internet piracy is not a hobby, it's a crime."

DrinkOrDie is one of the "most elite and most notorious pirate groups," and prosecuting its members is an important step in stopping its operations, Kruger said. "This is significant because they got one of their co-leaders."

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