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UK DrinkorDie members jailed for software piracy

Trio face total of six years' imprisonment

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Three UK software counterfeiters who styled themselves as "latter-day Robin Hoods" received lengthy prison sentences today over their role in infamous software piracy organisation DrinkorDie. Another defendant escaped with a suspended sentence after a hearing at London's Old Bailey.

Former city bank worker Alex Bell, 29, of Chafford Hundred, Essex, was jailed for two and a half years by Judge Paul Focke for conspiracy to defraud. Steven Dowd, 39, of Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment on the same charge. Both were found guilty by a jury in March at the end of a six-month software piracy trial. The Old Bailey heard that the duo were part of DrinkorDie, which brought us Windows 95 days before it was released among other exploits. Dowd and Bell, however, were tried over conspiracy to supply business software packages for functions such as financial planning or Computer Aided Design.

Bell and Dowd were sentenced on Friday, 6 May along with two other men, Andrew Eardley, 35, an IT manager at a Staffordshire school, and London IT worker, Mark Vent, 30, who both pleaded guilty to related software piracy offences last year. Vent was jailed for 18 months over the conspiracy to defraud rap while Eardley escaped with an 18 month sentence, suspended for two years.

Jolly Roger

Earlier Bruce Houlder QC, prosecuting, said that although the defendants did not get involved in the software piracy scene to make money it did not excuse their offence. "They may see themselves as latter-day Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but in reality it is a cover for fraud," he said, adding that the case was Britain's biggest software piracy case to date.

"The activities of all four of you struck at the heart of the software trade," Judge Focke told the defendants. "The loss of software to owners through piracy is staggering. Also, the effect on related businesses and the lives of employees can be rendered catastrophic."

He said the losses caused by the defendants to the software industry were hard to quantify but criticised them for been "indifferent" to the knock-on costs to others that came through their mission to gain technical kudos by making pirated software freely available.

Expensive prosecution overblown, says defence expert

Experts called by the defendants' defence team were critical of the decision to try suspects over conspiracy offences rather than offences which would have resulted in a far less complex and expensive prosecution.

Peter Sommer, the lead defence expert, 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."

"Once a global conspiracy was alleged each defence team was bound to look at all the evidence against all the members which meant examining very large numbers of computers. US DrinkorDie members had done plea bargains, unacceptable in the UK, which said the more help they gave the shorter the sentences. That created the potential for tainted evidence," he added.

Sommer is critical of prosecution claims that the activities of the defendants caused millions of dollars in lost revenue to software suppliers.

"It was accepted at a very early stage that none of the UK defendants were motivated by money and, 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 said.

The suspects were collared by officers from the UK's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, part of the National Crime Squad, in a joint operation with the US Customs Service Cyber Smuggling Team that began four years ago. As a result of the international investigation eight men in the UK - six British nationals and two Ukrainians - were arrested in 2001. ®

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