Over the years there have been many schemes to obtain movies and TV shows before their commercial release. A notable example includes members of the MiLLENiUM Release Group who were sentenced in 2019.
But while pirates who obtain video content in advance of its official release tend to grab the most headlines, a case developing in the United States reveals that valuable literary content such as pre-release novels can be targeted too.
FBI Arrests Italian Man at JFK Airport
Late Wednesday the Department of Justice revealed that the FBI had arrested Italian citizen Filippo Bernardini at John F. Kennedy International Airport for wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. He was detained in connection with a years-long scheme to obtain novels and other literary works in electronic form before their commercial release.
“Filippo Bernardini allegedly impersonated publishing industry individuals in order to have authors, including a Pulitzer prize winner, send him prepublication manuscripts for his own benefit. This real-life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale, with the plot twist of Barnardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams.
According to US authorities, the scheme to obtain the pre-release content had been running for at least five years.
The indictment, unsealed Wednesday in Manhattan federal court, alleges that beginning in August 2016, Bernardini – who was based in London and worked in publishing for Simon & Schuster – began impersonating agents, editors and other individuals in the industry to obtain pre-release literary manuscripts from his targets.
This type of content is considered extremely valuable within the industry. As the indictment explains, should an unfinished work leak out to the public, any piracy can dramatically undermine the economics of publishing, undermine an author’s reputation, and interfere with secondary markets such as film adaptations.
According to court records, Bernardini obtained hundreds of such works from hundreds of individuals.
Sophisticated Phishing Operation
It’s alleged that in order to carry out the scheme, Bernardini registered more than 160 domains that impersonated real entities and individuals involved in publishing, such as talent agencies, publishing houses, and literary scouts. The domain names were designed to be confusingly similar to real entities by including subtle typographical errors (such as replacing ‘m’ with the letters ‘rn’) that were difficult to spot.
In tandem with these domains, Bernardini allegedly created email addresses in the names of actual people who worked at the corresponding entities and used them to contact authors, managers, agents, publishers, and editors to solicit unpublished books, novels and other content. One of his targets was an unnamed Pulitzer Prize-winning author who handed over the requested manuscript.
Email records held by the defendant show that he impersonated hundreds of people and engaged in hundreds of attempts to obtain electronic copies of unreleased content. In addition, Bernardini also lured unsuspecting targets to at least two fake websites where they were prompted to enter their usernames and passwords. These credentials were later used to gain unlawful access to a database maintained by a New York-based scouting company.
According to the indictment the scheme ran from August 2016 to around July 2021 and was designed to obtain money and property under false and fraudulent pretenses, causing valuable and unpublished literary manuscripts to be sent and received by means of wire, contrary to the law. The Grand Jury charges also contain allegations of aggravated identity theft.
For the wire fraud charge, Bernardini, 29, of London, United Kingdom, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. For the aggravated identity theft charge he faces a possible mandatory consecutive sentence of 2 years in prison.
Simon & Schuster, which is not accused of wrongdoing, said it was “shocked and horrified” to learn of the allegations against Bernardini.
“The safekeeping of our authors’ intellectual property is of primary importance to Simon & Schuster, and for all in the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the FBI for investigating these incidents and bringing charges against the alleged perpetrator,” the company said.
The indictment can be found here