Police smash £39m Italian piracy ring

A group in Italy built up a £39m business selling counterfeit software and other goods through three Web sites, say Italian police

The Italian Guardia di Finanza (finance police) have closed down three Web sites that were used in an alleged counterfeiting operation that had built up a turnover of more than £38m.

Joint investigations with the Business Software Alliance lasting several months led to synchronised raids across nine Italian provinces this week, resulting in one person being formally charged and 10 further suspects being identified.

Goods seized included 100,000 software products prepared for duplication onto CD and DVD, computer hardware, plus thousands of other illegally produced media including the latest film releases and video games, said the BSA. Four thousand images of an explicitly paedophiliac and pornographic nature were discovered along with information to enable the duplication of satellite TV smart cards. The investigation and compilation of evidence is ongoing.

The network sold counterfeit software over the Internet using the three illegal Web sites selling downloadable programs and compilation discs containing dozens of different popular software applications, games, films and music on a single CD for a fraction of their retail value. It marketed itself via anonymous emails that sometimes used encrypted messages with passwords to reach customers.

"BSA's Internet enforcement programme works alongside law enforcement agencies, such as Guardia di Finanza, providing Internet investigatory expertise and technology to help locate offenders," BSA European vice president Beth Scott said in a statement.

Scott said the BSA's Internet investigators use new digital tools to proactively search for "Internet pirates" in Europe. "Criminals are using increasingly sophisticated methods to distribute illegal software on the Internet, ranging from individuals to organised crime rings such as in this case," he said. "We use intricate investigative techniques to track these criminal operations both inside and outside the EU. We not only target the supplier but the entire distribution network including manufacturing plants."

The Italian Internet piracy ring is known to have further links to organised networks in other countries within the EU. In particular, the BSA is currently working with police in the UK, Netherlands, Germany and Spain on similar large-scale Internet piracy operations.

The BSA is also applying its influence in regulatory circles. In May, the organisation was one of several industry groups to deliver to the European Union a five-point plan aimed at making it easier to track down the sources of counterfeit discs made in the EU. In the proposal, the groups asked for clauses to be added to the European (copyright) Enforcement Directive that would mean every disc had to contain a unique code, called a Source Identification Code (SID). The groups also asked for powers that would enable them to demand information that would help them identify the original manufacturer or distributor of the infringing goods.

Other measures included in the proposals include, "genuinely deterrent penalties", a reasonable presumption of copyright ownership to avoid delays in court proceedings that in some cases allow pirates to escape justice, and more powers by copyright holders to seize and preserve evidence of piracy.

To back up their demands, the media groups claim that counterfeiting and piracy of copyrighted works "feeds a growing black economy in which criminal networks use piracy to fund other activities such as drug dealing, arms trading, money laundering and terrorism."

Dara MacGreevy, vice president of the Motion Picture Association, which was involved in drafting the proposals, said the measures are necessary to tackle a convergence of Internet piracy and physical piracy fuelled by the falling cost of disc duplication technology.

Lisa Peets, of law firm Covington and Burling, which acts as outside counsel for the BSA, was keen to dispel suggestions that SIDs could be a threat to civil liberties. "This would not allow us to track users," she said at the time, "just the business where the disk was replicated."

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