Two weeks ago and seemingly out of the blue, popular private music tracker What.cd went offline. French military police targeted some of the site’s infrastructure at hosting provider OVH and the site responded by deleting itself.
The news came as a huge disappointment to the site’s users and the wider torrent community as a whole, but French police weren’t done yet.
In a follow-up action, French Gendarmerie targeted Zone-Telechargement (Download Zone), the country’s largest pirate site and 11th most-visited website in the region overall. That site went down too, closely followed by affiliated DDL site, DL-Protect.
Behind all of these actions is SACEM, the Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music. This industry group has a mandate to collect and distribute royalties while protecting the copyrights of its members. And according to its general secretary, they’re only just getting started.
In an interview with French news site Le Monde, David El Sayegh said that SACEM and the police hadn’t “just woken up” to pirate sites operating in France. The actions against both What.cd and Zone-Telechargement were the result of a “long process and meticulous work.”
The SACEM chief said the investigation into the two million direct download link Zone-Telechargement began two years ago in partnership with another local anti-piracy outfit. It turned up a lot of useful information.
“We filed a complaint in 2014, joined by ALPA (French Association for the Fight against Piracy). This process was to identify accounts, assets, servers and advertising agencies. It’s always quite a complex and sophisticated system, they are large investigations,” he said.
“There were many advertisements on the site, often pornographic. [Zone-Telechargement] generated at least 1.5 million euros in sales per year, with offshore accounts located in Malta, Cyprus and Belize.”
David El Sayegh said that rightsholders were looking at damages of more than
75 million euros but the operators of the site were no longer resident in France. That didn’t stop their arrests, however. Seven people were arrested on Monday in France and Andorra, with police there calling the action ‘Operation Gervais‘.
“The two administrators, arrested by international mandates, had left France to settle in Andorra. Large seizures of assets were carried out: luxury cars, real estate, and savings accounts,” he said.
The Gendarmerie confirmed the seizure of 450,000 euros and two cars and said that the men, both aged 24, were “repeat offenders.” Authorities in Andorra confirmed that 250,000 euros across several accounts had been frozen.
“We are looking at a case of counterfeiting for profit, on a large scale,” El Sayegh continued. “These people do not pay taxes, they do not pay the rightful rightsholders, they do not respect anything. They have developed a very organized and sophisticated mechanism to voluntarily operate outside the law.”
With the site targeted in France and its operators arrested in Andorra, the operation spread further afield. SACEM says that servers were also seized in Germany and as far away as Iceland, a country often associated with high levels of privacy.
Of course, the recent shutdowns were very unpopular with users, but El Sayegh said that the law is on SACEM’s side.
“These are counterfeit business activities, these are people who have grown rich on the backs of creators. They make millions without paying one euro to creators. They are thugs who should not have the compassion of one person, and who will answer for their acts before justice.”
But while harshly criticizing site operators, El Sayegh tone was a little more moderate when speaking of their users. He asked them to consider how creators are to earn a living in the face of piracy but suggested that they’re only chasing the bigger fish.
“The challenge is mainly to stop those who trade works. But the objective above all is to attack the evil at its source, and the administrators of the pirate sites,” he said.
Other unnamed targets are also in SACEM’s sights. However, it seems unlikely that many sites will continue their stay in France following the events of the past couple of weeks.