Having pleaded guilty to conspiracy and criminal copyright infringement in September, Hana Amal Beshara has been sentenced to 22 months in prison as a founder of NinjaVideo.net, which allowed millions of visitors to illegally download high-quality copies of copyright-protected movies and TV shows in its two years of operation from 2008 to 2010. Beshara, an NYU graduate, was indicted last year along with four other top administrators of the site. Four others have also pleaded guilty, while Greece national Zoi Mertzanis remains at large.
A 30-year-old NYU graduate, Beshara was ordered by U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga to serve two years of supervised release, complete 500 hours of community service and hand over various financial accounts and computer equipment involved in the conspiracy. In addition, she will be required to repay the nearly $210,000 that she personally made from her involvement with the site. Until it was shut down by federal authorities, NinjaVideo.net was known as a well-organized trove of copyrighted video which could be downloaded for free, often while the movies were still in theaters or in some cases hadn’t yet been released.
Beshara oversaw an army of uploaders around the world, who would scour the cybersphere in search of high-quality digital copies of the latest movies and shows. The site also boasted a prominent social aspect, with discussion forums on topics as far-reaching as philosophy, science and politics. The forums were meticulously maintained by Beshara and her deputies, who monitored discussions for behavior infractions, such as being bossy or rude. According to American Prospect, which did a lengthy piece on Beshara in December, it was the social aspect of the site that prompted the Motion Picture Association of America to target this one over other pirate sites.
“One of the reasons we targeted Ninja Video was because it had such a strong social element,” said Kevin Suh, senior vice president of Internet content protection at the MPAA. “We wanted to send waves through this community.”
The investigation was headed up by the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR), with the case being brought by the IP Task Force set up by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. According to the Department of Justice, the force’s main objective is to “combat the growing number of domestic and international intellectual property crimes, protect the health and safety of American consumers, and safeguard the nation’s economic security against those who seek to profit illegally from American creativity, innovation and hard work.”
Though the site was ‘free’, it had grossed some $500,000 in contributions and ad sales by the time it was shut down. Beshara has said she and her partners knew they would come up against copyright claims, but were hoping to shield the site with the ‘safe harbor’ protection under which sites like YouTube operate. The difference is that while in the case of YouTube, users are the only ones posting the videos, and the site adheres to take-down notices submitted by copyright holders under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998; while NinjaVideo.com’s administrators were posting the works themselves, and did not always comply with take-down notices.
“We expected there to be a civil action taken against us,” Beshara says. “We never thought they would come after us like criminals.”
In June 2010, Beshara’s and her co-conspirators homes were raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, with computers and hard drives being confiscated as evidence. Eight other targeted sites were taken down at the same time under Operation: In Our Sites, a coordinated sting conducted by the ICE, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the IPR. The task force seized not only physical materials, but the actual Internet domains of the offending sites.
“Working with industry,” said ICE director (then assistant secretary) John Morton, “we will systematically target websites that offer counterfeit or pirated products. We will seize the websites. We will prosecute the owners.”