A Ninja in Our Sites

In February 2008, Ninja Video went online and quickly distinguished itself in the unsightly, often malfunctioning world of Internet piracy. The site’s silver, black, and crimson palette spoke to a punk aesthetic, but the content and layout were fastidiously organized. The main page posted a nightly lineup of colorful movie and television banners, rather than the drab link text found on most pirate sites. Popular TV programs like Lost and Fringe would be up five minutes after the latest episode ended. New movies were often on the site before their nationwide premieres. The Ninja staff bundled cinema packages devoted to LGBT issues, classic films, and presidential debates. News services otherwise unavailable in the U.S., like Al Jazeera and the BBC, were streamed live, and Ninja offered one of the largest documentary collections on the Web. Everything was free. All a user had to do was click a logo and press play. PC World named Ninja Video one of the top 100 products of 2009, alongside the App Store, Facebook, and Twitter. Ninja Video’s audience swelled to 250,000 unique visitors a day. The site’s motto slashed across the home page in a script reminiscent of Nintendo: “This shit is Ninja.”

Hana Beshara—screen name: Phara—was the head administrator of Ninja Video. Many of its devoted followers called her “Queen.” A diminutive 29-year-old, with sphinxian eyes and disobedient dark ringlets, she is an unlikely face of digital piracy. She grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, the daughter of strict Egyptian-born parents who discouraged friendships. After school, she and her younger brother were directed to the Ryder Library in Brooklyn; wandering the stacks for hours, Beshara developed a deep love of books and an even deeper attachment to the serenity of an orderly collection. She was valedictorian of her high school and studied political science at New York University, where she was an ambitious undergrad, interning at the Clinton Foundation in Harlem and the East West Institute in Prague. After graduating in 2003, she failed to find a job in international affairs and eventually moved back home. Her mother got her a job through a friend as secretary for a local dentist. Beshara’s LinkedIn page lists just one job since graduation: office manager at Blah, Inc.

At night, Beshara became an uploader, scouring the Web for digital files of popular movies and television shows and sharing her bounty on a popular hosting site that streamed the content. “There was something soothing about it,” Beshara says. “Something about seeing your lists grow and seeing people enjoy what you put up. It’s the love of the collector.”

Her lists of movie and television links became famous in the online community devoted to uploading and piracy. Her hundreds of files were posted online in pristine order—episodes listed in sequence, movies listed by genre. She got to know other uploaders on the chat board, where many of the conversations revolved around the unpredictability and poor quality of so many streaming sites. Matthew David Howard Smith (screen name: Dead1ne), a 21-year-old from North Carolina with prodigious tech skills, told her he could build a better site, but he needed a strong personality like hers to be its head administrator. Beshara then recruited another active uploader on various sites, Justin Dedemko (screen name: Afr1ka), to join the start-up as an administrator. “You don’t need them,” she told Dedemko. “We’ll build a home ourselves.” A week later, Ninja Video went online.

“I don’t think I ever had anything I was so impassioned about,” Beshara says. “It was my life’s work.” Every night on Skype, she set lineups and coordinated assignments for a team of uploaders, located as far away as Scotland and Australia, who hunted the Web for the highest-quality digital files. In just four months, the site was hosting 10,000 links to movies, television shows, classic cartoon series, and scanned comic books. On the chat forum, Beshara deputized moderators to maintain civility and bolster participation. Ninja opened separate discussion sections with broad topics like philosophy, science, politics, current events, and culture. Strict rules were set for debate etiquette. Behavioral infractions ranged from bossiness to belligerence. Penalties, imposed at the discretion of Beshara and her moderators, might entail a friendly reminder or a permanent ban.

***

The forums weren’t the only original content on the site. “Lost Citizen” was Beshara’s curatorial project featuring performances, art exhibitions, and interviews with underground artists and musicians. “We all seek out our lost tribe, those people that are on the same wavelength that we would just love to sit down with,” Beshara says. Her lost tribe had gathered in this new online community: citizens united by Ninja.

Beshara was a dominant presence on every section of the site. “It was palpable when Phara wasn’t on the boards,” says Shannon Schwarz (screen name: chronicpeace), a former moderator. “You’d log in and be like, oh, no queen.” But relations with the community of 60,000 registered members were not always harmonious. Beshara admits a tendency to speak her mind, and the punishments she administered were frequently swift and harsh. Her style irked some of the more vociferous users. The Urban Dictionary entry for Phara reads: “The high and mighty Queen of Ninja Video is quite possibly the most arrogant, narcissistic, hateful, immature, petty, repulsive (her personality and physical appearance) twenty-something on the internet.”

Ten hours a night, Beshara was the online piracy queen, commanding a time-sensitive video-streaming service, a six-topic chat forum, and an artists’ showcase operating on a monthly release schedule. Eight hours a day she administered a dentist’s office. “My hair was one big dread,” she says. “I gained like 30 pounds.” Finally Beshara brought in three more site administrators. Josh Evans of Washington state (screen name: wadswerth) supervised the North American uploaders; Zoi Mertzanis of Athens, Greece (screen name: Tik) oversaw European uploaders; and Jeremy Andrew of Oregon (screen name: htrdfrk) headed site security and technical assistance. “It was such a cool community of people,” Evans says. “I was on the site all day anyway. So I said why not?”

As traffic grew, so did Ninja’s monthly server fees. What once cost $200 a month soon ran to $3,000. Beshara solicited minimum $25 donations in exchange for more exclusive access to the private chat boards. “Our biggest donors,” Evans says, “were people living internationally and members of the military who would write letters thanking us for allowing them to keep up with their favorite shows.” In two and a half years, Ninja Video earned about $500,000, with about $60,000 coming from donations and the rest from advertising. Beshara says she split the money “more or less evenly among the other operators.” She earned about $33,000 a year, enough for her to live on.

But as the operation flourished, a cloud hung over the Ninja empire: When would a legal challenge come? Beshara and her team hoped to exploit the “safe harbor” that allows sites like YouTube to operate. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA), copyright owners are responsible for sending takedown notices to sites hosting infringing content. Anyone on YouTube who has ever read the statement “This video has been removed due to terms of use violation” has seen the result of a DMCA notice. “We believed that if we didn’t host the content but linked to it elsewhere on the Web, our only legal consideration was complying with takedown notices,” Beshara says. “And we always complied.”

But it wasn’t so simple. The DMCA takedown process allows intermediaries like YouTube to avoid liability because it’s their users uploading the infringing content. Ninja Video was both the intermediary and the uploader. Independent storehouses called “cyberlockers” hosted the content Ninja Video streamed, but Ninja’s uploaders put it there.

Especially after the media giant Viacom filed a $1 billion copyright suit against YouTube, the Ninja administrators knew they would eventually face a legal challenge. (YouTube won its case, based on the “safe harbor” provision, in June 2010.) “We expected there to be a civil action taken against us,” Beshara says. “We never thought they would come after us like criminals.”

On June 30, 2010, Beshara awoke to knocking. She had blown out her knee dancing a few weeks earlier and was still using a cane. As she hobbled wearily to the door, she saw a figure surface outside the window on her second-floor balcony. The knob rattled. Someone was toying with the lock. When she opened the door, she found a federal agent at her feet about to pop the bolt.

More than a dozen Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided her house. The other five stateside administrators were simultaneously raided as well. Evans, who lives outside Seattle with his father and grandfather, awoke at 6 A.M. to a swarm of assault rifles in his bedroom. The raid at Beshara’s was comparatively subdued. The agents wore flak jackets but kept their pistols holstered. Beshara sat on the couch chain-smoking while they confiscated her tricked-out desktop, three laptops, cell phone, and PlayStation III, along with “everything that had writing on it—my journals, my meeting notes, all of my papers.” She immediately knew “it had all crashed. I had to tell my parents, I have to move back home. It was such a sadness.”

Carting away her possessions, agents volleyed interrogations. “What’s this?” one asked, flashing the stub of a $12,000 check from an advertising service. “Paper,” Beshara replied. “White paper.” Ninja Video was dead. Beshara and four other administrators were arrested on charges of conspiracy and criminal copyright infringement.

***

At 9 A.M. in Burbank, California, as ICE agents were finishing their Ninja Video raids, the agency held a press conference on a Walt Disney Studios soundstage. Disney President Alan Bergman introduced John Morton, the agency’s assistant secretary, with glowing praise for having “shown true dedication to meaningful enforcement of the IP [intellectual property] laws that drive creativity and innovation in this country.” Morton, who was appointed ICE’s director the following year, took the lectern and said he had a message for the “criminal cells” stealing the proceeds of American creativity. ICE, he announced, was heading a new program called Operation In Our Sites, aimed at shutting down websites that illegally offer copyrighted media and consumer goods. To correspond with the announcement, he said, ICE had seized nine popular TV and movie sites, including Ninja Video. “Working with industry,” he promised, “we will systematically target websites that offer counterfeit or pirated products. We will seize the websites. We will prosecute the owners.”

Operation In Our Sites was the most aggressive federal enforcement effort ever launched against copyright infringement online. A joint effort between ICE, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Coordination Center, the program would use an unprecedented tactic, site domain seizure, to shut down websites offering copyrighted material. In the case of movie and television sites like Ninja Video, users expecting a media-rich content site would instead find an ICE-owned page displaying the DOJ, ICE, and IPR Center shields—each emblazoned with an eagle—and the message “This site has been seized by ICE.”

It had long been ICE’s job to interdict counterfeit consumer products—an effort that increasingly involved policing websites. But the entertainment industry, convinced that online piracy was stealing billions in revenues, pressured the agency to intervene on behalf of its products as well. “The private sector continued coming in and talking to us, saying we need to do something to stop this,” says ICE Special Agent William Ross, a field-unit chief at the IPR Center. That wasn’t the only source of pressure. From 2004 to 2010, with increasing concerns about sites like Ninja Video, the entertainment industry’s federal lobbying budget rose from $48 million to $111 million. “It doesn’t make sense to say that broadband Internet is going to be a pillar of 21st-century society and continue to say it’s a completely lawless Wild West environment,” says Rick Cotton, NBC Universal general counsel and chair of the anti-piracy arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Entertainment conglomerates supplied the targets for ICE’s initial raids. Almost a year before Operation In Our Sites was announced, ICE agents asked NBC Universal, Time Warner Cable, Viacom, Disney, News Corporation, Sony, and a handful of other companies to submit their lists of the most damaging sites. They came back with about 50. ICE agents spent the next six months watching movies, sitcoms, and professional sports illegally available online. Ninja Video made the cut as agents winnowed the industry’s list of “rogue sites” down to the nine most egregious. “We wanted to take down the worst of the worst,” Ross says. The agents used Alexa ratings, which provide up-to-the-minute popularity rankings of all sites on the Web, to help narrow the list. But site traffic wasn’t the only consideration. “One of the reasons we targeted Ninja Video was because it had such a strong social element,” says Kevin Suh, senior vice president of Internet content protection at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). “We wanted to send waves through this community.”

Before requesting seizure warrants from U.S. attorneys’ offices, ICE checked with the entertainment companies to make sure they considered the nine sites serious infringers. Once federal judges approved the warrants, a domain-hosting service called Carpathia Hosting redirected the nine Web addresses to ICE takedown banners. With one click, the nine domain names that, according to Morton, once led users to “pirated American films and TV shows on a grand scale”—sites that 6.7 million people visited every month—now accessed a static seizure notice.

***

For a decade now, digital piracy has made the media market look increasingly like utopian anarchy, a government-free world where no demand is compromised because the supply is seemingly infinite. From Napster to Kazaa, Limewire to The Pirate Bay, RapidShare to Megaupload, file-sharing sites have established their own stable of name brands. For people using the Internet as a tool to get the media and information they want, the system works well. For the content industries, it’s a terrifying picture.

The movie, music, and television industries have a long history of resisting new methods to copy and distribute content more easily and cheaply. At different stages, their representatives have decried the player piano, the jukebox, the photocopier, the VCR, and DVD-writing software for destroying the will to create and dissolving millions of U.S. jobs. Duke law professor James Boyle, who specializes in online intellectual-property law, calls it “20/20 downside vision,” where “downside dominates the field, and the upside is invisible.” The attitude was embodied by the flamboyant Jack Valenti, longtime MPAA president, who proclaimed to a congressional panel in 1982 that the “VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Mike Masnick, who runs the influential Silicon Valley blog TechDirt, sees an acute irony in comparing the video recorder to a rapist and murderer. “Movie and television studios are now saying the biggest threat that online piracy poses to their business models is lost DVD sales and rentals,” Masnick says. “That market only exists because of the VCR.”

The music market was hit hard by piracy. In the decade after Napster launched in 1999, sales dropped 30 percent. Music companies equate lost sales to theft, but recent analysis suggests changing consumer demands might be another cause. Digital music players, most notably the iPod, replaced the market for CDs—and consumers increasingly wanted to buy singles. “Between ’99 and ’03, there weren’t great digital ways to buy à la carte music,” says Joel Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Minnesota. Perceiving the demand, Apple opened the iTunes store in 2003 and sold one million tracks the first week. Today, digital files are a $6.3 billion-a-year business. New music services like Spotify and Rdio that allow users to “rent” access to a near-unlimited library have offered new models to monetize music. Music sales have recovered but haven’t returned to their 1999 levels.

When television shows and movies began turning up online, networks and studios feared they would meet the same fate. NBC representatives say the company first realized it might have a piracy problem when a Saturday Night Live short, “Lazy Sunday,” went viral on YouTube in 2005. That same year, the Motion Picture Association of America estimated $6.1 billion in losses due to online piracy.

“You can’t compete with free,” has become an unofficial industry motto. Movie and television studios have recruited some of their biggest stars to support the anti-piracy effort. In one public-service announcement, Jack Black says, “Don’t be a douche. Stop piracy.” Leveraging the livelihoods of their estimated 2.2 million employees, networks and studios have formed an unlikely alliance with labor unions as well. At a recent press event held by the MPAA, an International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees representative named Scott Harbinson said, “I usually wouldn’t sit at the same table with network and studio heads, let alone the president of the Chamber of Commerce.” But Harbinson agreed with the MPAA’s senior executive vice president, Michael O’Leary, about the threat of piracy. “This is about protecting American jobs and the work of America’s creators,” O’Leary said.

The day of reckoning has yet to arrive, though. Movie and television revenues are up $14 billion combined since 2005. The ten most-pirated movies in history averaged 17 million illegal downloads—and $780 billion in revenues. Avatar holds the double distinction of being the highest-grossing and most-downloaded film of all time, with nearly $2.8 billion earned and an estimated 21 million illegal user downloads. In June, the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated new technologies and delivery formats could boost film industry revenues nearly 30 percent by 2015.

High media prices, low incomes, and changing consumer patterns drive demand for pirated products. Only innovative business practices that make content affordable and accessible for an otherwise lost audience—like Hulu, which streams many recently aired TV shows for free, and Netflix, which makes TV series and movies available for a modest fee—can address the new demands. Networks, waking up to the new market, are increasingly streaming their own shows online.

But while their distribution methods are catching up to a revolution in consumer demand and delivery, the content industries, and the government, are not taking any chances.

***

Operation In Our Sites has seized well over a hundred domain names thus far and made seven arrests. One week before last year’s Super Bowl, ICE agents shut down ten websites that offered live streams of sporting events. Brian McCarthy, a 33-year-old who lives with his father in a Houston exurb, ran a sports-streaming site called channelsurfing.net. His father, David, describes him as a quiet guy who keeps to himself. “He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong,” David McCarthy says. Brian McCarthy allegedly earned $90,000 in advertisements while operating the site for five years. A month after the Super Bowl, the McCarthys’ modest Texas home erupted in the middle of the night as ICE agents raided the house with guns drawn. The younger McCarthy was cuffed in his bed and then held by U.S. marshals in downtown Houston.

In November, McCarthy pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and copyright-infringement charges. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison. Another administrator whose sports site was taken down prior to the Super Bowl, a teenager from Queens named Mohamed Ali, was arrested in his family’s home in August but has yet to be indicted.

Corynne McSherry, the intellectual-property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, finds the enforcement methods disturbing. “I think people should be asking themselves, Is this really how we want to deal with alleged online infringement?” McSherry says. “Arresting people and putting them in jail for having some links online doesn’t really strike me as a good way for us to invest our time and energy.”

ICE agents disagree. “I am a law-enforcement officer,” says Special Agent Ross. “I want to put people in jail.”

Opponents of the crackdown see a vital constitutional question at stake: Is site removal a form of lawful siezure or prior restraint of free speech? According to Andy Sellars, a legal fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, “The difference between pure speech and infringing speech is blurry.” For one thing, most of the seized sites contain non-infringing content—like Ninja Video’s chat rooms and “Lost Citizen” section. “They haven’t really thought about this as being a speech issue. But in fact, it is,” McSherry says. “They are using tools to take down speech, and they have to deal with the implications of that.”

Artists increasingly use “rogue sites” to promote their work—another fact that ICE’s enforcement efforts haven’t taken into account. In November 2010, two well-known hip-hop blogs were seized as part of an 82-site “Cyber Monday Crack Down.” One of the blogs, OnSmash.com, had posted leaked tracks off hip-hop artist Kanye West’s CD My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. West, far from peeved, retweeted a link to the popular blog. The CD topped the charts, selling almost 500,000 copies in its first week before going platinum with well over a million copies sold its first year. “Leak is now a marketing verb,” On-Smash.com’s operator Kevin Hofman told The New York Times.

There is also a pragmatic problem: Operation In Our Sites can target just a fraction of infringing sites. ICE agents only have jurisdiction to seize domain names hosted in the United States, but the most prolific sites have traditionally been based overseas, largely in Europe and China. This problem was highlighted when a popular sports-streaming site called Rojadirecta was seized. Based in Spain, the website operates under a number of domain names tied to the country where the name is hosted. Rojadirecta.es is hosted by a server in Spain. Rojadirecta.com was hosted in the U.S. until ICE seized the address during the pre–Super Bowl sweep. The site is challenging its dot-com seizure on the grounds that it only linked to other sites streaming intercepted live broadcasts. The case is currently moving through the appeals system and looks to be the first major challenge for the First Amendment right to share links to copyright-infringing material. No matter the outcome, anyone in the U.S. can still access Spanish-hosted Rojadirecta-.es, which offers content identical to that of its now-seized counterpart. Not surprisingly, the Spanish-based Rojadirecta enjoyed a sizable bump in traffic immediately following the seizure of its U.S.–based site.

***

The limited jurisdiction would change if Congress passes either the Protect-IP bill, introduced by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in 2010, or its much more expansive counterpart, the Stop Online Piracy Act, introduced by Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, in October. Both bills would broaden federal law enforcement’s ability to block U.S. Web browsers from accessing foreign-based sites “dedicated to infringing activities.” Law enforcement would be able to require both Internet service providers and domain-name servers based in the U.S. to remove foreign sites suspected of piracy from their networks. Search engines and other “information--location tools” would be forbidden to display hyperlinks connecting to such sites, and advertisers and payment processors like PayPal would have to cease offering them services as well.

The bills have open-Internet advocates stewing. In July, more than a hundred law professors specializing in First Amendment rights and IP law sent a letter to Congress recommending it reject Protect-IP. The authors said the bill would “compromise our ability to defend the principle of the single global Internet—the Internet that looks the same to, and allows free and unfettered communication between, users located in Boston and Bucharest, free of locally-imposed censorship regimes.”

Protect-IP proposes full-scale site removal of “sites dedicated to infringing content.” That vague terminology puts more sites within its reach. “An information location tool can be a browser, it can be a hyperlink, it can be anything that’s giving you somewhere else on the Internet. So it’s basically Web 2.0,” says Markham Erickson, executive director at the NetCoalition, an organization that represents the policy interests of Google, Amazon, and PayPal, among others. If a critical mass of people on Facebook or Twitter used those platforms to illegally share digital files, federal agents would have the power to request a warrant to remove the sites from the Internet in the U.S. While those sites’ economic stature makes such a scenario unlikely, many opponents worry that either bill could stunt future online innovation. “If this bill passed ten years ago,” says Julie Samuels, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “we would not have YouTube today.”

James Boyle, the Duke law professor, also sees a contradiction here. “Hillary Clinton’s office, and the State Department, gave ‘Remarks on Internet Freedom’ at the same time that they are launching this proposal,” he says. “There’s no apparent understanding that these things are completely at odds with one another. I totally agree that what is being done in China and Russia suppressing speech is infinitely worse than what we’re doing here, but do we really want to paint ourselves in the same set of colors?”

A number of open-Internet advocates see a more elegant solution to stopping commercial piracy: targeting ad services and payment processors like Paypal for working with piracy sites, rather than seizing the sites and arresting the owners. “We think that’s a proven way of attacking illegal sites in a way that doesn’t create all the collateral damage that some of the technological proposals do,” says Erickson of the NetCoalition.

Senator Leahy says the concerns of open-Internet advocates are overwrought. In a written statement, he said the issue was simple: “Digital copyright infringement and the sale of counterfeit goods on the Internet are reported to cost American businesses billions of dollars, and result in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs.”

But Protect-IP and its stronger counterpart bill would not stop piracy. Sites can easily crop up under new domain names, and online innovators have developed popular plug-ins to bypass ICE’s interception. Federal officials say that’s no reason to stop trying. “These are criminal enterprises,” says Victoria Espinel, the intellectual-property enforcement coordinator in the White House. “They will constantly be looking for ways to evade law enforcement. That is true of any kind of crime that we try to tackle.”

***

Unlike other seized sites, Ninja Video never tried to go back online. “We were one of the few that actually stayed down,” Evans says. “It’s shocking getting raided at 6:30 in the morning with shotguns and assault rifles.”

The day after its seizure, Ninja Video posted a “manifesto” on YouTube. The screen displays just a drawing of a young female wearing a balaclava and over-ear headphones, but the voice is distinctly Hana Beshara’s. Her slight accent and cool intonation bear the marks of a well-educated Brooklyn-raised child of immigrants. Her sharpest comments were reserved, as usual, for the entertainment industries. “You and only you opened the door for Ninja Video,” Beshara says. “Sites like mine are a direct manifestation of your apathy. You can’t hold entertainment hostage anymore.” She asks the media industries to see in sites like Ninja Video a more receptive business model that gives users affordable access to the content they want, when they want, anywhere in the world. “Use us,” Beshara said. “Don’t shut us down.”

Facing charges that could land her in prison for up to five years, Beshara burned through six prepaid cellular phones searching for a criminal-defense attorney with experience in Internet intellectual-property law. “There is literally no one in the country that could help me,” she says. More than once after explaining her case, she says there would be a pause on the line, and the attorney would ask, “So what is a streaming site?”

A mixture of desperation, naïveté, and impulsiveness led Beshara to make two legal decisions she would later regret. The first came, she says, when a law-firm owner in Las Vegas, Jasen Watkins, sent her a Facebook message saying that while his wife was hospitalized the previous year, Ninja Video’s links to movies and television shows had eased the grueling bedside hours. He now felt moved to offer his firm’s services. “This was the first person who offered to help,” Beshara says. “It sounded like the best thing on the table for us.”

Beshara had started a legal fund on the Ninja Video forum. She says she agreed to transfer the total sum, nearly $10,000, to Watkins’s firm. Beshara moved to Vegas but soon began to feel the firm was not earning its fee—her parents told her that the U.S. attorney’s office in Virginia, where she was being prosecuted, had sent repeated notices that her paperwork was incomplete. (Watkins did not respond to several requests to comment on the case.)

Meanwhile, Beshara read a story on the front page of the Las Vegas Sun that, she says, resonated like “the universe talking.” The article featured another Vegas-based firm, Cristalli and Saggese, which had inspired the CBS sitcom The Defenders starring James Belushi. Hiring the firm seemed like the perfect publicity stunt, which appealed to Beshara’s promotional instincts: Pirate television site hires famous television firm.

Cristalli declined interview requests for this story. Beshara says the deal was that he would represent her in the “pre--indictment” phase of her case, negotiating with federal prosecutors about the terms of her indictment. She says that Watkins agreed to transfer the remainder of the Ninja legal fund, about $7,500, to Cristalli and Saggese, and her parents chipped in another $2,500 to pay the firm’s fee. But she began to sense trouble, she says, when she drafted a Web post to tell the world about her newly appointed star counsel. When she showed it to Cristalli, she says he refused to let her mention the firm, citing liability issues. So much for the public-relations coup she’d hoped for. She found a job telemarketing at an online talent agency and for the next eight months, awaited news of her case.

In September 2011, Beshara was indicted and the federal court in Virginia assigned her a public defender. Over the following two months, Beshara, Smith, Dedemko, Evans, and Andrew pleaded guilty on all charges. Dedemko escaped the conspiracy indictment because he agreed to testify before the grand jury. Beshara, on the other hand, had a clause included in her plea agreement stipulating her refusal to cooperate with the investigation. “It was probably the only thing in this whole situation that I had any control over,” Beshara says. “I might have to pay for that lack of cooperation upon sentencing, and that would be a bit saddening, but I will never speak a single word about Ninja Video to investigators, ever.”

Her sentencing was set for January 6, 2012. Federal guidelines suggested a four- to five-year prison sentence, but her lawyer was hopeful she would get closer to three years and with good behavior, would only serve two and a half.

In the months leading up to her sentencing, Beshara developed an expanded version of “Lost Citizen,” her artists’ forum, called “Evolution.” It’s sort of an online talent agency that allows visitors to bid on the efforts of her underground-artist clients. “I’m hoping ‘Evolution’ becomes something viable, and I can advocate a certain model by doing it,” Beshara says. She will charge a gratuity on whatever artists earn through the site. “I would allow the artists to be comfortable,” she says. “We won’t take more than we deserve.”

Beshara deflects questions about the politics of copyright infringement. “I was not trying to be Queen of Piracy,” she says. But she is proud of Ninja Video, and her government’s refusal to regard it as anything more than a criminal enterprise is, she says, what hurts the most. “I just think that things that reach a certain level of uniqueness should be studied,” she says, “not smashed.” ª

Comments

Ms. Beshara gained allot more than 33k per year. She gained over 200,000 USD in profit for herself.

An amazing piece! So much great information. Our IP laws have been out of date for decades. This article only highlights the need for up to date laws so that creative people are not treated like criminals. I think the founder of YouTube might have some good insight here! Great article!

Refreshing read! Finally, someone included the point of view of the Other in this, normally somewhat unbalanced, discussion about piracy, copyright and intellectual property.

And referring to the comment above. Good and evil are very interesting terms, similar to legal and illegal. Normally, some would probably disagree with the comparison I am making here but let me explain. The latter pair is just pointing to something we tend to forget about the former pair, namely it's nature - conventional, cultural, temporary. Both pairs fall far from what we like to ascribe to them, i.e. the oh-so-praised objectivity.

Good, evil, legal, illegal are defined by someone who holds the keys to the dictionaries at a particular time. Today, these are less and less defined by us, and more and more by businesses and their politicians that have only one thing in "mind" - money. (And just to state the obvious, businesses have no minds, they have numbers, they can tell you much about good and evil. And politicians lose their minds pretty quickly these days replacing them with wider pockets.)

I wouldn't like my dictionaries to come from those corrupted sources - politicians and businesses. And most of all, I will never let them change my definition of Ninjavideo - an amazing and unique community!

Very nice discussion - not only of Ninja Video, but this whole question of "video piracy" - one of the best I've seen.

It alarms me when I see our Federal law enforcement agencies taking direction from corporations against the ordinary citizen, and it disgusts me to see how our public "servants" use language that distorts and demonizes the so-called "pirates". They use words like "criminal cells", "criminals", "theft", "illegal", and of course the "P" word, and tactics like pre-dawn raids with assault weapons and full tactical gear to create an atmosphere of criminality where it could be argued none really exists.

The fact of the matter is, these people just want to watch a film or a little TV, and they're happy to help others do the same. For this, they are stigmatized, traumatized, and thrown into prison. Though the legal system seems to disagree, these people are not criminals.

It is unfortunate that so many people, especially our "leaders" are taken in by the lies of the media conglomerates and simply accept the current state of our laws in this area. In fact, it seems that US law is the arbiter of their morality on this issue, instead of the other way round, as it should be. I much prefer the largely European stance (especially Switzerland) that downloading for personal use IS fair use, and that making criminals of their people to serve the interests of the wealthy is wrong. I think that makes sense.

I also think that people in America have become too used, after decades of locking people up in hells of our own design for the sake of the war on drugs, to making criminals of one another, and too callous to feel what that really means. God, but we really do need a humanity-check here in the States...

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