The U.S. Department of Justice has seized seven domain names associated with Kickass Torrents — purportedly the most-visited piracy site in the world — and charged the man they allege is its owner and operator with criminal copyright infringement and and money laundering.
Federal authorities said Artem Vaulin, 30, of Kharkiv, Ukraine, was arrested Wednesday in Poland and that the U.S. will seek to extradite him to the States. Vaulin allegedly owns and operates Kickass Torrents, which since launching in 2008 has provided a directory that lets users illegally download movies, TV shows, video games, music and other media collectively worth an estimated $1 billion.
Kickass Torrents has consistently listed movies still in theaters, according to the charges, which can be downloaded using file-sharing apps that use the BitTorrent-developed protocol. Recent titles include “Captain America: Civil War,” “Now You See Me 2,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” and “Finding Dory,” officials said.
“Copyright infringement exacts a large toll, a very human one, on the artists and businesses whose livelihood hinges on their creative inventions,” Zachary T. Fardon, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, said in a statement. “Vaulin allegedly used the Internet to cause enormous harm to those artists.”
Law-enforcement officials across the globe have battled pirate sites for years, but the task of shutting down such illegal operations remains challenging as pirates routinely switch up domain names and use anonymizing services that mask their identities and locations. In one of the most notorious cases, the FBI in 2012 shut down Megaupload.com, which allegedly caused more than $500 million in damages to copyright holders — while legally embattled founder Kim Dotcom has claimed he’s going to relaunch the site next January. Meanwhile, the Pirate Bay, despite several raids and arrests of its organizers over the years, remains up and running today.
Kickass Torrents had been attracting more than 50 million unique monthly visitors, according to officials. The U.S. government’s complaint charges Vaulin with one count of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement, one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and two counts of criminal copyright infringement. The copyright-infringement charges carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and the money-laundering charge is punishable by up to 20 years.
“This criminal case is a major step to reduce illegal theft of creative content by large-scale piracy sites,” MPAA chairman and CEO Chris Dodd said in a statement. “Actions like these help protect the livelihoods of the 1.9 million hard-working Americans whose jobs are supported by the motion picture and television industry – and a legal market that generates $16.3 billion in exports for the U.S. economy.”
In addition to the charges, a federal court in Chicago ordered the seizure of seven domain names associated with Kickass Torrents, which operates servers around the world including in Chicago: kickasstorrents.com, kat.ph, kickass.to, kastatic.com, kickass.so, thekat.tv and kat.cr.
According the DOJ complaint, Kickass Torrents’ net worth is estimated at more than $54 million, with estimated annual advertising revenue of between $12.5 million and $22.3 million. Kickass Torrents, also known as KAT, has moved its domain several times due to prior seizures and copyright lawsuits, and it has been ordered blocked by courts in the U.K., Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Belgium and Malaysia.
Federal agents busted Vaulin after posing as a prospective advertiser on Kickass Torrents. They linked Vaulin to the piracy site after identifying that the IP addresses he allegedly used to make Apple iTunes purchases on two different occasions in 2015 were the same ones used to log in to the KAT Facebook page around the same dates.
The KAT investigation was conducted by the DOJ in partnership with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division and the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation division. Officials said they also received substantial assistance in the matter from the International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center, the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, the DOJ Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs, and the Polish Border Guard and National Public Prosecutor’s Office.