The purported leader of a cadre of Internet music bootleggers pleaded guilty Thursday to violating copyright laws, marking the first federal criminal prosecution of someone who specialized in online music piracy.
Mark Shumaker, 21, of Orlando, Fla., faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for distributing copyrighted music and software. He is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 7 in the Eastern District of Virginia.
"This plea shows that those who steal copyrighted music from artists and believe they are doing so anonymously on the Internet are sadly mistaken," Paul M. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement. "We can find you, we will find you, and we will prosecute you."
The plea was welcomed by Recording Industry Assn. of America President Cary Sherman.
"Those who egregiously distribute music on the Internet should take note: Federal prosecution and jail time are real possibilities," Sherman said.
Shumaker couldn't be reached for comment.
The RIAA and its allies in Congress have implored the Justice Department to crack down on music pirates, particularly those fueling the free file-sharing networks on which billions of songs are copied every year.
So far, however, the department's efforts against online piracy have focused on "warez" groups that circulate pirated software primarily through chat rooms and other online channels.
Prosecutors described Shumaker as the former leader of one such group, the Apocalypse Crew. Also known as the Apocalypse Production Crew, it allegedly collected pre-release CDs from reviewers and radio disc jockeys, converted them into MP3 files and distributed them online.
Such groups are troublesome to the music industry because the MP3 files eventually filter out of private chat groups and Web sites to public news groups and, ultimately, the file-sharing networks used by tens of millions of music fans.
Randy Saaf, chief executive of MediaDefender Inc., a Los Angeles anti-piracy company, said warez groups also may be selling pre-release music to global syndicates of CD bootleggers. The earlier they obtain the songs, Saaf said, the higher the sales price.
But John G. Malcolm, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's criminal division, said money wasn't motivating the groups as much as the thrill of the chase.
Malcolm added that cases like Shumaker's would send a message to people who think piracy is risk-free fun: "You are going to end up with serious jail time."
Recording industry executives are apt to blame online file sharing more than groups such as Apocalypse Crew for the prolonged slump in CD sales. Record companies are pressing the Justice Department to prosecute people sharing huge numbers of songs, and the RIAA is preparing to bring civil suits against hundreds of file sharers.
Malcolm said the thresholds for bringing criminal charges against a file sharer "are sometimes difficult to meet." Nevertheless, he said, the department wouldn't hesitate to prosecute people if it gathered the right evidence.