FBI hunts down '24' pirate

Follows trail of accused uploader

A television show that dramatizes federal investigations is now finding itself at the center of a real-life FBI probe into copyright infringement.

The FBI filed a criminal complaint Friday against a Chicago man for allegedly uploading four episodes of the hit series "24" to LiveDigital.com, a video hosting site, before their primetime broadcast. If convicted on a felony count, Jorge Romero, 24, could face up to three years in prison.

The action represents a renewed aggressiveness to crack down on Internet bootleggers, particularly in the television industry, which has not been as vocal about anti-piracy activities as the music and movie businesses.

Romero is not suspected of stealing the "24" episodes from Fox; that individual is still at large, and neither Fox nor federal investigators has given up on trying to find the culprit.

20th Century Fox, which produces "24," issued a statement supporting the FBI investigation.

"We are grateful to the FBI and U.S. Attorney's offices in Los Angeles for aggressively pursuing this matter, and we hope it will serve as a powerful warning that uploading copyrighted TV shows and movies to the Internet can be a crime with significant penalties and will be prosecuted as such."

"The FBI makes this a different ball game," said Jay Cooper, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig who specializes in intellectual property issues. "The public doesn't seem to get that it's wrong, and maybe a message like this has to get out there so people realize there are criminal penalties."

The episodes in question were the first four episodes of the sixth season of "24," which aired over two consecutive days on Fox beginning Jan. 14. To give the season an additional marketing push, Fox also made the four episodes available via early DVD release on Jan. 16.

Sources indicate Fox execs were hoping that by finding the offender they could ultimately determine the source of the leak, which they suspected occurred somewhere along the distribution chain for the DVD release. Though the discs went to market only after the episodes aired in primetime, they had been shipped to retailers weeks before that airdate, which made them susceptible to bootleggers.

While the Internet is awash in pirated video content, it is rare for programs to find their way online before airdate. But eight days before the "24" TV premiere, Romero found the original file on a file-sharing service through Mininova.org, a bit torrent tracking site, according to the FBI affidavit.

Romero allegedly downloaded them from an illegal file-sharing service and subsequently uploaded them to LiveDigital, and also posted Web links to the pirated episodes on Digg.com.

Shortly after the episodes appeared on LiveDigital, Fox execs noticed the leak and moved to trace its origin. Both LiveDigital and YouTube were served subpoenas under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act demanding they disclose the identities of the users who uploaded the episodes, as well as past episodes of another Fox property, "The Simpsons." Both LiveDigital and YouTube complied with the subpoenas (HR, 1/25).

But as Fox pursued a civil action, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles reached out to the studio in March and asked for its cooperation in building a criminal case.

In April, FBI agents obtained a search warrant and arrived at Romero's home, where they seized his computer. During an interview conducted on the premises, Romero admitted to agents that he had uploaded the episodes to LiveDigital.

In addition to information from LiveDigital and YouTube, the FBI was able to track down Romero with cooperation from Digg.com, where Romero posted links to the offending material, as well as Comcast Corp. and AT&T, the Internet service providers Romero used to access the Internet.

A second search is still under way to find a second offender who uploaded the same episodes to YouTube, said sources, and who is identified in the affidavit by the name "ecototal." Though parent company Google complied with a subpoena to disclose the identity of that user, it has not led to an arrest.

Had the FBI not intervened, sources said Fox likely would have brought a civil action against Romero, and still has legal grounds to do so. Piracy has always been an utmost cause of concern to parent company News Corp. In 2004, Fox broke up a movie piracy ring that emanated from its own studio.

Romero is expected to surrender at the U.S. District Courthouse in Chicago on Tuesday, when arrangements will be made for his travel to Los Angeles, according to Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the Department of Justice.