Clink for DrinkorDie software counterfeiters

Three men have been sentenced to jail for their part in a software counterfeiting ring, but questions are now being asked about whether they were charged with the right offence

Three British men were given prison sentences totalling six years on Friday for their part in a software counterfeiting ring.

Alex Bell, 29, of Essex was sentenced at the Old Bailey to two-and-a-half years for conspiracy to defraud. Steven Dowd, 39, of Merseyside, was sentenced to two years for conspiracy to defraud, and Mark Vent, 30, of Essex pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud last summer and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Andrew Eardley, 35, of Staffordshire, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud in May last year and was sentenced today to 18 months, suspended for two years.

Eight men (six Britons and two Ukrainians) from the piracy ring, dubbed DrinkorDie, were initially arrested — some of whom worked in the IT industry, police said.

The National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU), which uncovered the organisation, said the men were responsible for the illegal distribution and copying of millions of pounds worth of copyrighted software, games, music and digital videos.

"Internet piracy is a growing problem, with organised crime now moving into this space and defrauding the individual, business and governments of millions of pounds," said Detective Superintendent Mick Deats, deputy-head of the NHTCU. "We are sending out a clear message to people who may wish to commit these types of crime that policing is matching them every step of the way."

The NHTCU said that DrinkorDie members broke copyright protection on software and distributed it over the Internet. The cracked software released by pirates was found on pay-for-access Web sites in the US and China.

But Peter Sommer, a security expert who had earlier been called as an expert witness for the defence, attacked the courts for prosecuting the men with conspiracy charges. He hinted they should have been charged under copyright or trademark laws.

In an email to ZDNet UK, Sommer said: "Serious questions now need to be asked about the very costly decision to charge the UK DrinkorDie defendants with conspiracy as opposed to individual substantive charges under copyright or trademark law. Instead of single trials each lasting a couple of days, an Old Bailey Court has sat for six months."

Sommer said that none of the UK defendents were motivated by money. "As with all similar cases, prosecution estimates are fanciful as no one knows how many copies of pirated software were made by others, or how many of those represented actual lost sales at full retail price."

He added that the cost of the prosecution far outweighed the legal costs involved with the case. "It will be interesting to obtain a global figure for the costs of this prosecution — police time, lawyers, court time. Given the lack of resources in the general criminal justice system and for cybercrime in particular, we now need to ask whether the CPS [Crown Prosection Service], its appointed counsel and NHTCU are making the proper value-for-money prosecution decisions."

But the CPS hit back at Sommer's comments, saying that the charges set against the men were fair.

"As with all cases, we considered the charges carefully according to the Code for Crown Prosecutors," a CPS spokesman said. "In this case we determined charges that reflected the criminality of these acts and gave adequate sentencing powers. These defendants caused a significant financial loss."

"Where there was no evidence of participation in the conspiracy we did not charge it. This case ran its full course and was put before a jury who returned their verdict. There was no application to dismiss the charges. We do not determine cases on the basis of how much they will cost to prosecute."