For several decades, The Scene has been the main source of all pirated content made available on the Internet.
Technically, release groups operate in a closed ecosystem, but the reality is different. The vast majority of the files published on private Scene servers eventually find their way to public pirate sites.
Feds Bust SPARKS Group
The secretive nature of The Scene has been a major challenge for law enforcement but in the summer of 2020, the US Department of Justice made a major breakthrough. Following a thorough investigation, three members of the illustrious SPARKS group were indicted.
One of the defendants, British national George Bridi, was apprehended in Cyprus and eventually extradited to the United States. The Brit pleaded guilty to being part of a criminal copyright conspiracy. Among other things, he obtained pre-release Blu-ray discs from distributors in New York, several weeks before their retail release dates.
While Bridi pleaded guilty, he stressed that there was no financial motive. The real goal of SPARKS was to get the newest releases out first, thus beating other Scene groups. It was all about internal competition and the prestige that came with winning these races.
“It became like a race, we had to win because there were other groups buying from the same distributor,” Bridi said previously, explaining his involvement.
Defense Asks for Reduced Sentence
Later this month Bridi will be sentenced and based on the guidelines that were agreed upon in the plea deal, a 27 to 33 months prison sentence is the starting point. This is substantial but lower than the potential maximum of five years imprisonment.
In a letter to the court, Bridi’s attorney Louis Freeman argues that a lower sentence is warranted. Due to various personal and health issues, as well as the low likelihood that his client will make the same mistake again, a “time served” sentence should be sufficient.
Thus far, 52-year-old Bridi has spent 17 months in prison and prolonging this term is not beneficial, according to his attorney.
“[A time served] sentence provides Mr. Bridi with specific deterrence to not commit any future crimes and also provides the public with a message of general deterrence to not commit crimes of this nature,” Freeman argued in his letter.
U.S. Attorney Weighs In
This week, the U.S. Government shared its thoughts on the matter. In a detailed sentencing letter, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams starts off by stressing that Mr. Bridi was part of a serious and sophisticated criminal conspiracy that actively defrauded movie distributors.
“The defendant had multiple functions in the Sparks Group. He defrauded a disc distributor based in Brooklyn and New Jersey to obtain DVDs and Blu-Ray discs prior to the retail release date. He arranged for the discs to be delivered to other members and associates of the Sparks Group, who then ‘cracked’ the discs using special software that compromised the copyright protections on the discs.
“He then arranged for the copyrighted works to be uploaded to servers controlled by the Sparks Group, where the movies and television shows were disseminated across the Internet. Over the course of the conspiracy, the Sparks Group successfully reproduced and disseminated hundreds of movies and television shows prior to their retail release date,” Williams adds.
The U.S. Attorney notes that the government previously agreed to a reduced sentence for Mr. Correa, another defendant in the SPARKS conspiracy. However, Mr. Bridi’s role was larger and the sentence should reflect that.
Among other things, Mr. Bridi served as a manager and supervisor in the SPARKS Group. He purchased the discs from the distributors, coordinated shipments to lower lever members of the group, and urged at least one other individual to upload discs as soon as possible.
The SPARKS group itself wasn’t a minor player. The group was the driving force behind hundreds of movie and TV show releases, which also came out under related tags such as “DRONES,” “ROVERS,” “GECKOS,” and “SPRINTER.”
‘Significant Prison Sentence is Justified’
Taking the seriousness and economic harm of the defendant’s conduct into consideration, the U.S. Attorney argues that a sentence within the guideline range of 27 to 33 months’ imprisonment is sufficient, but not greater than necessary.
“[T]he Government respectfully submits that a significant sentence here is necessary in the interests of general deterrence. Copyright infringement causes millions of dollars in losses to movie production studios on an annual basis, which ultimately harms the individual employees who depend on this industry for their livelihood.”
A significant sentence will also act as a deterrent to other pirate groups, who often operate from outside of the United States. This includes the third indicted member of the SPARKS group, Norway resident Umar Ahmad, who is still considered a fugitive.
“Indeed, one of the co-defendants in this case remains at-large in Norway. As a result, a significant sentence is needed here to promote respect for the copyright laws and to protect the producers of creative content in the United States,” the U.S. Attorney writes.
Judge Richard Berman of the Southern District of New York will now have to weigh the sentencing arguments from both sides. The Court is expected to announce the final sentence later this month.
A copy of the U.S. Government’s full brief with the sentencing proposal is available here (pdf)