DOJ Announced International Effort To Shut Down Online Piracy Group

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced actions against individuals for their involvement in “the Sparks Group,” an international piracy group that reportedly distributes films and television shows illegally before their release dates. There has also been an international operation to help shut down the group.

The Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Audrey Strauss; Special Agent-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Peter C. Fitzhugh; and Inspector-in-Charge of the New York Office of the United States Postal Inspection Service, Philip R. Bartlett; announced on Wednesday that indictment documents that charged Umar Ahmad, known as “Artist,” George Bridi, and Jonatan Correa, known as “Raid,” with copyright infringement and Bridi with wire fraud and conspiracy to transport stolen property interstate were unsealed. 

Bridi, a United Kingdom citizen, was arrested in Cyprus on Sunday on an INTERPOL Red Notice based on U.S. criminal charges. The U.S. is seeking his extradition for a trial. Correa was arrested on Tuesday in Olathe, Kan. and will have to go to federal court. Ahmad, a Norwegian citizen, remains at large.

In an effort with law enforcement authorities in 18 other countries and with the help of Eurojust and Europol, dozens of Sparks Group controlled servers were taken offline worldwide. The Sparks Group used the servers to “illegally store and disseminate copyrighted content to members around the globe.”

HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Fitzhugh said “as alleged, Sparks Group members reproduced and disseminated hundreds of movies and television shows prior to their retail release date, including nearly every movie released by major production studios, causing millions of dollars in losses to the film and television industry. This investigation shows – in high definition – that despite the online platform and international nature of this scheme, we are committed to stop those who use the cyber world for illicit gain.”

As part of the illegal operation, the announcement said Sparks Group “fraudulently obtained copyrighted DVDs and Blu-Ray discs from wholesale distributors” before the retail release date. Once Sparks Group obtained the discs, group members “used computers with specialized software to comprise the copyright protections on the discs, a process referred to as ‘cracking’ or ‘ripping,’ and to reproduce and encode the content in a format the could be easily copied and disseminated over the Internet.” Sparks Group supposedly then uploaded this content onto the servers the group controlled, “where other members further reproduced and disseminated the content on streaming websites, peer-to-peer networks, torrent networks, and other servers accessible to the public.” Sparks Group could identify the work it pirated “by encoding the filenames of reproduced copyrighted content with distinctive tags” and by “upload(ing) photographs of the discs in their original packaging to demonstrate that the reproduced content originated from authentic” discs.

The authorities claimed that Ahmad and Bridi prepared for the discs to be “picked up, mailed, or delivered from distributors” to Sparks Group members, such as Correa before the retail release date. Ahmad, Birdi and Correa then purportedly engaged in efforts to pirate the discs. Officials claimed Sparks Group “caused tens of millions of dollars in losses to film production studios.”

Ladislav Hamran, President of Eurojust, said, “this case is an excellent example of what can be achieved if we work together across borders and continents. Thanks to the long-standing partnership between the U.S. and the European authorities, we managed to deal a significant blow to online piracy. My sincere congratulations go out to all countries involved in yesterday’s joint action day.”

The suit is being prosecuted by the Office’s Violent and Organized Crime Unit, with the aid of the Department of Justice’s Office. In charge of the prosecution are Assistant United States Attorneys Andrew K. Chan, Mollie Bracewell, and Christy Slavik.