This isn't much of a surprise, given our earlier stories. As we noted when the Justice Department indicted five people for their roles in the Ninjavideo community, they appeared to have a pretty strong case against them. So it really wasn't a surprise that one of the defendants, Matthew Smith, agreed to a plea bargain, which we noted almost certainly involved him agreeing to testify against the rest. For the Justice Department, that's pure gold. They can then use that to pressure everyone else into plea bargains as well (and each one down gets worse terms). So, it looks like Hana Beshara -- who was "the face" of NinjaVideo -- was the second to fall, taking a plea bargain deal in which she also pleads guilty. Those two were the big fish. I'd be surprised if the other three don't fold quickly as well at this point. Of course, as with the Smith plea, you should take what they admitted to with a pretty big grain of salt. If you want an obvious sign of how the agreement and reality may differ, just look at the details of the Beshara plea, in which she claims that she personally got $200,000 out of the alleged $500,000 the site made. We're skeptical that the site ever made anywhere close to $500,000 or that Beshara made $200,000. So notice that the $200k number is mentioned in how much she made, but no amount is stated in how much the government took from her:
Beshara admitted that she and her co-conspirators collected more than $500,000 in overall proceeds during the website’s two-and-a-half years of operation, with Beshara personally receiving more than $200,000. As part of her plea agreement, Beshara agreed to forfeit assets seized by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in June 2010, including cash, an investment brokerage account, two bank accounts, a Paypal account and one Internet advertising account.
If ICE got anywhere near $200,000 out of those accounts, they would have said so. They didn't, probably because that money never existed.
As lots of people have been submitting, the Justice Department, in coordination with Homeland Security's ICE group, have indicted five people associated with the site NinjaVideo.net, claiming that together they represented a "conspiracy" to commit criminal copyright infringement. I will say this: compared to the laughable Rojadirecta case, in which the government fails to even show any actual criminal copyright infringement, the indictment here seems a lot stronger -- and unless they got something in the indictment totally wrong, I would predict that these five people are going to lose and lose badly in court.
Unlike the Rojadirecta case, the indictment suggests that NinjaVideo hosted content itself. It also suggests that these admins were very much directly involved in seeking out and distributing infringing content, and profiting from it. The fact that the feds are charging admins and uploaders together as "a conspiracy," is an interesting move, and one that is probably intended to get around the huge problem in the Rojadirecta case: which is that they show users sharing content, but not making money from it, and they show the site admins making money, but not uploading content. You have to show both by a single party for criminal copyright infringement to have happened. So, in this case, they're trying to link the five people together as a conspiracy. From the indictment, which is obviously one-sided, they make it appear that the two major uploaders were closely aligned with the admins. Whether or not that's actually true may be a big part of determining whether or not this case works. Also, it's not clear from the indictment how the hosting setup worked, and if NinjaVideo itself really hosted the material, but that also will be a key point in the case. Assuming that what's in the indictment is accurate, and not taken out of context, however, I just don't see NinjaVideo standing much of a chance in court.
One really interesting factoid in the indictment for all the Google-haters, who insist that Google is the major supporter of these kinds of sites: Google pretty quickly killed the AdSense account that the NinjaVideo folks had opened, telling them that it was because the site appeared to be distributing infringing works. Google-haters keep insisting that Google never shuts down such accounts, but this appears to be a case where they spotted the site pretty quickly and shut down the account.
TorrentFreak also points to a video made by Hana Amal Beshara, an admin for NinjaVideo who went by the name Phara. The video suggests that she and the others had some serious problems communicating with their lawyers, but that's really not going to matter much.
She also notes that they wanted to go public with what was happening ever since ICE seized their website in the very first round of Operation In Our Sites, but that all the lawyers kept saying to stay quiet. She says she now regrets that -- especially since she was indicted anyway -- and doesn't plan to stay quiet any more. While I understand the sentiment, the video itself isn't going to do much to help her case, in that she expresses "no regrets" for her involvement in NinjaVideo. The video makes it clear that she means this because the community "saved her life," but you can bet that the Justice Department will use that against her in court -- claiming she has no remorse.
I still think it's a bit silly for the Justice Department and Homeland Security to be doing this -- as it really should be a civil issue. It seems like Neil MacBride -- the former "anti-piracy" VP for the BSA, and now a US Attorney who was heavily involved in the indictment -- is paying back some favors to the copyright industry he came from. But, this way Hollywood gets taxpayers to pay for these kinds of lawsuits, instead of having to cut back on their own excesses. I also still question the legality of the original seizure of the domain name prior to any adversarial hearing. But, on the whole, these actual charges appear to have a lot more meat to them than what we've seen before in some of the other cases. It won't stop people from infringing, of course. And it won't stop similar communities -- though they'll probably drive those groups a bit further underground, making it more difficult for MacBride and his friends to track them down. But I guess as long as they feel they're "making a difference...."