IMAGiNE Member Pleads Guilty to Criminal Copyright Infringement

Last month the feds arrested four alleged members of the prominent BitTorrent release group IMAGiNE . One of them has struck a deal with the US Government and pleads guilty to one of the charges. The remaining three plead not guilty. Recent documents filed at court further reveal that the MPAA was the tipster that initiated the investigation.

Last September, IMAGiNE, one of the Internet’s leading BitTorrent release groups, stopped distributing new films. This immediately sparked speculation that the authorities were onto them, and last month the confirmation came that this was indeed the case.

Three weeks ago four members of the group were arrested and charged with several counts of criminal copyright infringement. Aside from reproducing and releasing copyrighted films on their private tracker UnleashTheNet, they also “capped” films at local movie theaters.

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One of the accused members, 27-year old Sean Lovelady from California, admitted several of these acts and pleads guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement. Lovelady also waived his rights to appeal and in exchange the authorities have promised not to prosecute him for the other charges listed in the indictment.

With his guilty plea Lovelady faces a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, plus damages that might be claimed by copyright holders.

In the plea agreement Lovelady further agrees to “cooperate fully and truthfully with the United States, and provide all information known to the defendant regarding any criminal activity as requested by the government.” This might affect the cases against the other IMAGiNE members who have not pleaded guilty according to the arraignment sheets.

In addition to the guilty plea, an overview of “facts” which Lovelady signed as true and accurate gives an overview of some of the copyright infringements that took place, that UnleashTheNet was operated by IMAGiNE, and that the group also sold releases.

In furtherance of the conspiracy and to provide a platform for IMAGiNE Group members to share and to ready copies of motion pictures and other copyrighted works for dissemination over the Internet, in July and August 2010 a conspirator in the Eastern District of Virginia took a series of steps to facilitate the use of a new website for the IMAGiNE Group, titled “unleashthe.net.” In the Eastern District of Virginia and elsewhere, this conspirator: (a) rented computer servers in France and elsewhere for use by the IMAGiNE Group and to host its website; (b) registered domain names for use b the IMAGiNE Group; and (c) opened email and PayPal accounts to receive donations and payments from persons downloading or buying IMAGiNE Group releases of infringing or “pirated” copies of motion pictures and other copyrighted works and to fund payments for computer servers.

The same document also reveals that the MPAA was the main motivator behind the investigation.

“Following contact from a representative of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in March 2010, investigators with the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement(Homeland Security Investigations or HSI Norfolk) began investigating an Internet release group, identified as the IMAGiNE Group,” the document reads.

This is identical to the case against Megaupload, where the MPAA was also the driving force. And there are more similarities. Both cases are being handled by US Attorney Neil MacBride, who was also on the NinjaVideo case. Considering MacBride’s past work as Vice President of Anti-Piracy for the lobby group BSA, he is probably well-connected with the MPAA.

Thus far MacBride and his team have booked some successes in the NinjaVideo case. Five people connected to the site were arrested last year and four received jail sentences.

Lovelady and the others have been released from custody and await their sentencing, which is scheduled for this fall.

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