WASHINGTON – The government announced Thursday an 11-nation crackdown on Internet piracy (search) organizations responsible for stealing copies of the latest "Star Wars" film and other movies, games and software programs worth at least $50 million.
FBI agents and investigators in the other nations conducted 90 searches, starting Wednesday, arresting four people, seizing hundreds of computers and shutting down at least eight major online distribution servers for pirated works.
The Justice Department "is striking at the top of the copyright piracy supply chain — a distribution chain that provides the vast majority of illegal digital content now available online," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search) said.
Called Operation Site Down (search), the crackdown involved undercover FBI operations run out of Chicago, San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C., and included help from authorities in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom.
Those arrested were Chirayu Patel, 23, of Fremont, Calif.; David Fish, 24, of Watertown, Conn.; Nate Lovell, 22, of Boulder, Colo.; and William Veyna, 34, of Chatworth, Calif. The four were charged with violating federal copyright protection laws. All are alleged to be members of "warez" groups, a kind of underground Internet co-op that is set up to trade in copyrighted materials.
Warez (pronounced "wares") groups are extraordinarily difficult to infiltrate because users talk only in encrypted chat rooms, their computer servers require passwords and many are located overseas.
The FBI set up its own servers and lured warez members to store pirated material on them, according to the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco.
The investigations targeted "release groups," the original sources of pirated works that can be distributed worldwide in hours. Among the warez groups targeted are RiSCISO, Myth, TDA, LND, Goodfellaz, Hoodlum, Vengeance, Centropy, Wasted Time, Paranoid, Corrupt, Gamerz, AdmitONE, Hellbound, KGS, BBX, KHG, NOX, NFR, CDZ, TUN and BHP.
Those groups are believed responsible for stealing and distributing copyrighted works, including "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," Autodesk's Autocad 2006 and Adobe's Photoshop software.
The bootlegged software often is made available to popular file-sharing networks, where it can be easily downloaded for free, said Michael DuBose, a Justice lawyer who prosecutes cyber crimes. But mass producers of pirated materials in Asia and elsewhere also use warez groups as suppliers, DuBose said.
Studies of Internet piracy have estimated losses to the movie industry alone at $3.5 billion to $5.4 billion annually.
President Bush signed a new law last month setting tough penalties of up to 10 years in prison for anyone caught distributing a movie or song before its commercial release.