87 Months in Prison for Copyright Infringement: Fair Sentence or Utter Madness?

Opinion

A man from Baltimore in the United States has just been sentenced to 87 months in prison for infringing copyrights on more than 1,000 software programs including Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Mac OSX and Windows XP. The man, a 32-year-old, could potentially lose his freedom until close to his 40th birthday. Is that fair for willful large scale pirating or have the authorities lost touch with how infringement compares to 'real' crimes?

copyright-brandedFollowing an investigation carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) assisted by Microsoft and the BSA, a man from Baltimore is just beginning a very long stretch behind bars.

Between February 2003 and June 2008, Naveed Sheikh was a serial pirate, copying more than 1,000 software packages and distributing them via the Internet. Authorities claim that through a network of websites and co-conspirators, Sheikh caused damages to rightsholders totaling $4 million.

Slightly to Sheikh’s credit, the software – including Microsoft Office, Microsoft Money, Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Photoshop, Apple Mac OS X Panther and Microsoft Windows XP Professional – wasn’t passed off as the real deal to full-price-paying customers. Sheikh’s contacts knew they were buying illegal “cracked” copies and presumably saved a considerable amount of money over equivalent licensed alternatives.

However, Sheikh wasn’t exactly cooperative with HSI investigators and he also failed to pay tax on his ill-gotten gains which probably aggravated the case against him. Nevertheless, the sentence he’s just been given is a tough one to say the least. Despite a guilty plea, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett handed Sheikh an 87 month prison sentence and ordered him to pay back $4 million.

For those breaking out the calculators, 87 months converts to more than 7 years locked away for what are essentially non-violent, white-collar crimes. Is that a reasonable response to copying data onto discs and cashing in on the profits or should sentences like these be reserved for the really nasty elements of our society?

For comparison, we looked at a few recent cases in which defendants picked up identical 87 month sentences.

The first involved Harold F. Babb, the former director of contracts at Eyak Technology LLC. In October 2012, Babb was sentenced for stealing more than $9 million from the United States by submitting invoices to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for services that were not provided. Sentence: 87 months.

Next we had a look at the sentencing of Guillermo Briseno, a former leader of the Imperial Gangsters, a gang which according to U.S. District Judge Philip Simon was “terrorizing the city of East Chicago.” Briseno admitted leading the gang’s drug dealing and shootings. Sentence: 87 months.

In late 2012, Jonathan Torres was found guilty of distributing heroin following an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The 22-year-old pleaded guilty to using children to distribute the drugs. Sentence: 87 months.

Following an investigation by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), earlier this year Dennis Wayne Baldwin of Vermont was sentenced for receiving, possessing, and distributing child pornography and illegally possessing seven firearms and ammunition. The convicted felon was sentenced to 87 months in prison.

During the course of our searches we found dozens of individuals being sentenced to 87 months in jail for what are undoubtedly serious crimes. The distribution of drugs appeared a lot, as did firearm offenses and those involving sex and violence. In most cases it was difficult to disagree with the length of the sentences.

The question today is this: Does copyright infringement – even on a large scale as demonstrated in the case above – warrant a similar sentence to those handed to individuals selling drugs, running gangs, possessing illegal firearms or stealing from the military?

Is it about time that copyright infringement is recognized as being “theft” and punished on equal terms, or is an 87 month jail sentence for copying and selling data an outrage? You decide.

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