Eric John Thornton wanted people to visit his Web site, nopatience.com, and so he set up quite a lure. He loaded up with fancy graphics programs and other free software, and within weeks thousands of people were clicking their way in.
But Thornton had no legal right to the copyrighted materials, prosecutors said. Yesterday he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Washington to a charge of copyright infringement in the first local prosecution under the 1997 No Electronic Theft Act. In Internet jargon, Thornton got caught by the FBI operating an illegal "warez" site. (Warez is slang for software.)
Thornton, 24, a Navy avionics technician, ran the site from his home in Virginia Beach. He said little in court yesterday, but as part of his plea agreement with prosecutors, visitors to nopatience.com soon will be viewing this message:
"All you WaReZ ToadZ out there need to read this!!!! I am out of the WaRez business. I have been contributing to the WaReZ scene for some time. OK! OK! I knew it was illegal, but everyone was doing it. One day, I was minding my own business at home when I heard a knock on my door. When I opened it, I was staring at gold badges being held by two FBI agents. . . . They had even seized evidence from my ISP [Internet service provider]. I was charged and pleaded guilty. I now have a federal criminal conviction. And, they seized my computer."
The message ends with this warning for other would-be pirates: "I didn't think anyone cared about WaReZ distribution on the Internet. Boy! Was I wrong!"
The Justice Department has launched a nationwide effort to stop computer piracy and counterfeiting to protect intellectual property rights. Besides depriving the industry of billions of dollars, the Business Software Alliance has estimated, software piracy here and abroad costs the United States 109,000 jobs and $991 million in tax revenue last year.
Thornton is the second person to be prosecuted in the United States under the 1997 law. Last month a University of Oregon senior was put on two years' probation after pleading guilty to a felony charge. Jeffrey Gerard Levy, 22, admitted posting computer software programs, musical recordings and digitally recorded movies on his Web site. The judge in Levy's case ordered him off the Internet unless he first gets court approval.
"People think that because they're not charging for this, they can't be held liable," said Peter Beruk, vice president of the Software and Information Industry Association, a trade group based in Washington. "That is not the case."
Beruk said authorities can easily trace the source of illegal software once the activities come to light. He said the industry is most concerned about software pirates who operate on large scales, saying Thornton acted like a "professional."
Authorities said Thornton began drumming up interest on his site in January by posting copies of popular products such as Adobe Premiere 4.0, Adobe Illustrator and other graphics programs.
Visitors could download the programs for their own computers. Eventually Thornton's Internet service provider grew suspicious and ordered him to remove the programs, authorities said. The FBI soon joined the probe.
Thornton pleaded guilty yesterday to a misdemeanor charge in which he admitted that Web site visitors had helped themselves to $9,638 in illegal software. As part of his plea, he agreed to keep his warning message on the site for 18 months. And he agreed to surrender the equipment he had used to authorities, including a mini-tower computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, cables, printer and scanner. The FBI had seized the items.
Thornton could face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $100,000. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola permitted Thornton to remain free pending his sentencing March 3. He declined to comment as he left the courtroom, as did defense lawyer Jerry Kilgore.
U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis said the case showed the resolve of federal officials to prosecute electronic crimes, and she vowed to aggressively pursue more investigations.