When five FBI agents arrested Kevin Cogill at his Culver City apartment, it marked the newest weapon in the entertainment industry’s war on piracy: felony charges against small-time bootleggers.
Cogill posted nine leaked songs from an unreleased Guns N’ Roses album, which has been in the works for more than a decade, on his music blog in June. The site crashed under the traffic, and he removed the songs after a few hours when the Los Angeles-based rock band’s lawyers complained.
Now he faces up to three years in prison and $250,000 in fines. On Wednesday he became the first Californian charged under a 3-year-old federal anti-piracy law that makes it a felony to distribute a copyrighted work on computer networks before its release.
“In the past, these may have been viewed as victimless crimes,” said Craig Missakian, an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who built the case with the FBI and recording-industry investigators. “But in reality, there’s significant damage. This law allows us to prosecute these cases.”
Cogill, 27, was arrested Wednesday and released on $10,000 bond. He was not required to enter a plea. His public defender, Anthony Eaglin, declined to comment.
“I hope he rots in jail,” said Slash, the former Guns N’ Roses lead guitarist. “It’s going to affect the sales of the record, and it’s not fair. The Internet is what it is, and you have to deal with it accordingly, but I think if someone goes and steals something, it’s theft.”
The entertainment industry has long fought to protect official release dates. It contends that sales are lost when a movie or song is available free on the Internet before it hits stores. Leaked songs are often unfinished and of poor sound quality.
Pre-release piracy “pops the balloon,” said Eric German, a partner with Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp who has represented the recording industry in piracy cases. “It rips up the lottery ticket. It takes the wind out of everything.”
The Recording Industry Assn. of America has long relied on civil lawsuits to combat piracy. But the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005 gave it a new hammer -- felony charges with stiff penalties for posting even one song before its release.
The law has been used only a few times, mostly to tackle big commercial piracy rings. But in 2006, two people were charged with distributing a version of a Ryan Adams & the Cardinals album, “Jacksonville City Nights,” on the Internet before it hit stores. They were sentenced to two months of house arrest and two years’ probation.
Fans of Guns N’ Roses have experienced a long drought of new recorded material. Led by lead singer Axl Rose, the rockers have been working on their album, “Chinese Democracy,” on and off since the 1990s.
Cogill used to work for Universal Music and now works at entertainment site Crave Online. Writing under the name “Skwerl,” he uses his blog, Antiquiet, to talk about American politics and the music industry.
In early June, he expressed his appreciation for Guns N’ Roses, noting that he had waited half his life for a new album.
“The more you [mess] around with the details, the more likely the album is to leak on the Internet, spoiling whatever big plans you’re cooking up anyway,” he wrote, addressing Geffen Records, the band’s label and a unit of Universal.
On June 18, he said he had received nine “Chinese Democracy” tracks from an unnamed source and made them available for streaming, but not download, on Antiquiet. He contended that if the album was good -- and he thought it was -- it would do well financially, in spite of any leaks.
After he removed the tracks, the FBI interviewed Cogill at his office and home, seeking the source of the leaked songs.
“I’ve been asked if my legal troubles are over,” he wrote after the FBI’s visit. “The answer is that they haven’t begun.”
No one came to the door at Cogill’s home Thursday. A man who answered his phone declined to identify himself but said Cogill wasn’t granting interviews.
In an e-mail, fellow Antiquiet blogger Britney Bernstein said Cogill’s case was building buzz for “Chinese Democracy.” “Any publicity this album gets is good publicity,” she said.
The band released a statement: “Presently, though we don’t support this guy’s actions at that level, our interest is in the original source. We can’t comment publicly at this time as the investigation is ongoing.”
Missakian, the assistant U.S. attorney, said his office would bring more cases like this in the future.
“Prosecution like this makes others think twice,” he said.
John Malcolm, executive vice president and director of worldwide anti-piracy operations for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, applauded the arrest, saying he expected the movie industry too would pursue criminal charges to stop leaked movies.
“Getting the federal authorities involved in the Guns N’ Roses leak was absolutely appropriate,” he said.
Ronald Rosen, an entertainment industry lawyer, said record labels lost the public relations battle when they sued people who distributed music over file-sharing networks, with stories emerging of single mothers defending cases over songs they could have bought for 99 cents.
“But the public is going to have much less sympathy with pirates” who trade in pre-released material, he said.
But Corynne McSherry, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the arrest of Cogill was troubling for many reasons. It raises the prospect of eager fans going to jail for posting a handful of songs.
“Bringing that hammer down on an individual music fan strikes me as entirely inappropriate,” she said. “Taxpayers should be concerned that they are picking up Hollywood and the music industry’s legal costs, particularly when you are going after an individual like this.”
Times staff writer Charlie Amter contributed to this report.