P-to-P operators plead guilty to copyright violations

Operators of two peer-to-peer (P-to-P) services have pleaded guilty to felony criminal copyright infringement charges in the first U.S. federal convictions for copyright violations using P-to-P networks, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Tuesday.

William R. Trowbridge of Johnson City, New York, and Michael Chicoine of San Antonio, Texas, each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit felony criminal copyright infringement. The pleas were entered Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Trowbridge operated at P-to-P hub named Movie Room between August 2002 and August 2004, and Chicoine operated a P-to-P hub named Achenon's Alley TM, according to the DOJ. The two sites offered a wide variety of computer software, computer games and music and movies in digital format, including some software titles that legitimately sell for thousands of dollars, the DOJ said.

During an investigation, government agents downloaded 35 copyright works worth US$4,820.66 from Chicoine's site and more than 70 copyright works worth $20,648.63 from Trowbridge's site, the DOJ said. Both men pleaded guilty to acting for commercial advantage or private financial gain -- the DOJ accused the two of operating their sites with the intent of obtaining copyrighted works from others.

"Those who steal copyrighted material will be caught, even when they use the tools of technology to commit their crimes," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a statement. "The theft of intellectual property victimizes not only its owners and their employees, but also the American people, who shoulder the burden of increased costs for goods and services."

The convictions came after a joint investigation dubbed Operation Digital Gridlock, conducted by the DOJ's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia. The operation, announced in August 2004, targeted file-sharing of copyright materials over five P-to-P networks that belonged to an online group of hubs known as The Underground Network.

Member sites required their users to share large quantities of computer files with other users, according to the DOJ.

An e-mail to The Underground Network wasn't immediately returned Wednesday, but the group has posted comments about the U.S. government's P-to-P efforts on its Web site. "Peer-to-peer (P2P) technology is engaged in a constant battle with those who fear change and innovation," The Underground Network says on its site. "The United States Government has recently joined the wrong side of this fight. (The large corporations, who fear losing control, have lined the pockets of the lawmakers.) The civil liberties of every person are at stake when organizations such as the (music and movie industries) rage battles against the very customers that support them."

The maximum penalties for a first-time offender convicted of conspiracy to commit felony criminal copyright infringement are five years in prison, a fine of $250,000, restitution to the victims and the forfeiture and destruction of infringing copies and all equipment used to manufacture infringing copies. The defendants are scheduled to be sentenced on April 29.

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