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Five members of a UK underground piracy group that wanted to be the first to release the latest blockbusters on the web have been jailed for more than 17 years.
The case, which marks the first time that ‘release groups’ have been prosecuted, follows an investigation led by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) – the UK’s leading trade organisation established to protect and represent the interests of the film and broadcasting industry against copyright and trademark infringements.
The five men, who went under several online aliases including ‘memory100’, ‘Cheese’, ‘Reidy’, ‘Cooperman’ and ‘Kareemzos’, formed integral parts of online communities of Internet users who, amongst other things, seek recognition for being the first to illegally source and release the latest films or for producing the ‘best’ illegal quality copies. The men were each involved in several release groups including; ‘26K, ‘DTRG’ ‘DEYA’ ‘REMIXHD’ and ‘RESISTANCE’.
Over a number of years, the groups illegally released online more than 2,500 films including Argo, The Avengers and Skyfall.
The outreach of their criminality was vast. On just one website where the group shared their films there had been millions of downloads.
The majority of the leaked films were of reasonably high quality and were either currently showing at cinemas or awaiting release on video. The group often paid for illegal recording of films in cinemas, known as ‘cams’, and improved the quality through editing and encoding before releasing online.
Their criminal actions are estimated to have cost the industry many millions of pounds. During the sentencing hearing all five men accepted that they had caused total losses in excess of £5 million, each accepting a loss of more than £1 million.
Sahil Rafiq, Reece Baker, Graeme Reid, Ben Cooper and Scott Hemming, all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud on January 28th 2015 and were sentenced to imprisonment at Wolverhampton Crown Court on December 17th by HHJ Nicolas Webb. The sentences were:
The five men were arrested at their homes on 1st February 2013 following an investigation by FACT with support from the police from West Midlands, Derbyshire, Hertfordshire and West Mercia, and the West Midlands Government Agency Intelligence Network (GAIN). Computer equipment and mobile phones as well as recording devices and recordable DVDs were all seized from the five properties.
When officers raided Baker’s home he was in the process of encoding the film Gangster Squad which had only been released in cinemas three weeks before.
The men were released on bail whilst investigations continued.
During the bail period, FACT investigators discovered that Baker was still offending and continuing to leak films online which were currently only available in cinemas, including Fast and Furious 6, Man of Steel and Monster University. As a result, when Baker answered his bail, he was re-arrested and further questioned by police.
Kieron Sharp, Director General of the Federation Against Copyright Theft, said the sentencing was “a great success” for FACT as it marked the first time a release group had been criminally prosecuted. “Rafiq, Baker, Reid, Cooper and Hemming were all aware that they were engaging in criminal activity. Their actions have now cost them their liberty. The result of this case sends out a serious message to anyone engaging in online piracy to think twice or face getting caught, prosecuted and sent to prison.”
“I would like to thank the police, the members of the West Midlands GAIN and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) for their assistance in investigating a crime which they no doubt viewed as unusual when we first presented the case to them.”
Baroness Neville-Rolfe, Minister for Intellectual Property said: “The illegal copying and distribution of films has real consequences for the film industry and consumers. Today’s sentencing shows how seriously the courts take this crime and the power of collaboration between industry, government and enforcement agencies.”
The case was prosecuted on behalf of FACT by David Groome and Ari Alibhai of QEB Hollis Whiteman Chambers instructed by Abi Wills of Edison Law.