Selling fake software on Amazon.com can get you five years in prison

[Thanks to Tech Law Advisor for alerting me to this case.]

Defendant Banks devised a scheme where he would make copies of various Microsoft products and sell them through Amazon.com to buyers who purchased them cash-on-delivery. After getting orders for at least $300,000 worth of software in this way, the plan began to collapse. Dissatisfied customers turned Banks into the FBI, and a federal grand jury indicted him on several counts, including mail fraud, possessing false securities, and criminal copyright infringement. A jury convicted him, and he got five years in prison.

Banks appealed his conviction and sentence, but the Third Circuit affirmed. On the criminal copyright infringement claim, Banks argued that the government had not introduced sufficient evidence to show that the Microsoft software was protected by copyright.

The criminal provisions of the Copyright Act, at 17 U.S.C. §506 state that

Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished as provided under [18 U.S.C. §2319], if the infringement was committed– (A) for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain; (B) by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $1,000…. (Emphasis added.)

The court held that evidence introduced at trial through an “antipiracy specialist associated with the Microsoft company” was sufficient to show Microsoft’s ownership of the copyrights in the works. In the specialist’s unrebutted testimony, she stated her “belief” that Microsoft copyrights covered the works at issue. Further, the specialist had testified that Microsoft sent Banks the same type of cease and desist letter as it did to others who were suspected of violating Microsoft’s copyrights.

One is left to wonder why the government did not introduce any of Microsoft’s copyright registration certificates in the course of proving the element of copyright ownership. One would think that that would be the best practice for making such proof. In any event, the question before the court was whether the jury correctly concluded that Microsoft owned the copyrights in the works. The antipiracy specialist’s testimony — even if a bit weak on this point — apparently was enough.

United States v. Vampire Nation, (Slip Op.) — F.3d —, 2006 WL 1679385 (3d Cir., June 20, 2006).