Music File-Sharing Site OiNK Shut Down Following Criminal Investigation

Officers arrest 24-year-old man on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud, copyright infringement.

A special message greeted some of the estimated 180,000 paid members of music file-sharing Web site when they tried to access it on Tuesday: "This site has been closed as a result of a criminal investigation by IFPI [International Federation of the Phonographic Industry], BPI [British Phonographic Industry], Cleveland [U.K.] police and the Fiscal Investigation Unit of the Dutch police, into suspected illegal music distribution. A criminal investigation continues into the identities and activities of the site's users."

The site — described by the IFPI as the world's biggest source of pirated pre-release albums — had been the subject of a two-year investigation overseen by Interpol and known as "Operation Ark Royal" (perhaps a reference to the fleet flagship of Britain's Royal Navy; the ship's motto is "Zeal does not rest"), according to a joint press release. Tuesday's raid resulted in the arrest of one man — an unidentified 24-year-old from the Northeast English city of Middlesbrough — on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and infringement of copyright law.

Officers raided the man's home as well as the offices of his employer and his father's abode. The site's servers, which were based in Amsterdam, were seized in a series of raids last week.

"While some might view this type of act as a victimless crime, there's no such thing," said Chief Superintendent Mark Braithwaite of the Cleveland police in a press release. "The cost of an enterprise such as this will be added to the cost of any legitimate purchases further down the line."

According to police, OiNK was an "extremely lucrative" site that provided illegal downloads of pre-release music and media to its members, who'd joined the site on an invite-only basis; users were given the option of contributing donations to the site, via debit or credit card. That money, which police believe to be in the region of hundreds of thousands of pounds, is being tracked down by the IFPI and the BPI.

The U.K.-run site has leaked 60 major pre-release albums this year alone, the IFPI said. A spokesman for the agency said that "once an album had been posted on the OiNK Web site, the users that download that music then passed the content to other Web sites, forums and blogs, where multiple copies were made." The IFPI further claims that "hundreds of copies can be found further down the illegal online supply chain" within hours of a popular track being posted on OiNK.

"OiNK was central to the illegal distribution of pre-release music online," explained Jeremy Banks, head of the IFPI, which represents the recording industry worldwide with some 1,400 members in 75 countries. "This was not a case of friends sharing music for pleasure. This was a worldwide network that got hold of music they did not own the rights to and posted it online."

OiNK, which utilized peer-to-peer technology called BitTorrent to distribute music, had become one of the more popular file-sharing sites on the Web. In recent years, international law enforcement agencies have beefed up efforts to curb illegal downloading, believed to be one of the most damaging forms of piracy for an industry already struggling to keep its collective head above water. Recorded music sales have fallen by more than a third in the last six years, according to industry estimates.

"The government is now well aware of the scale of damage this theft causes to music — copyright theft starves the creative industries of income, which both threatens future investment in artists and vandalizes our culture," said BPI's chief executive, Geoff Taylor. "That this individual now faces criminal charges will deter some, but no doubt others will be looking [to] move into this territory, and the authorities must keep up the pressure to deter the digital freeloaders."

For complete digital music coverage, check out the Digital Music Reports.