Crime

Inside a Charlotte man’s world of music piracy

Rocky Ouprasith
Rocky Ouprasith Facebook

If you wanted to download pirated music over the past few years, then Rocky Ouprasith was your man.

In 2013, he ran the nation’s second-biggest illegal music file-sharing site, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Ouprasith illegally distributed recordings “in the millions,” prosecutors said.

The young Texas transplant living in northwest Charlotte operated RockDizMusic.com and the related RockDizFile.com.

The feds finally shut the sites down last fall, ending a nearly 3  1/2-year run. Ouprasith, 23, pleaded guilty in August to one count of criminal copyright infringement.

Ouprasith admitted the pirated material’s market value was between $2.5 million and $7 million. Prosecutors cited “conservative” copyright infringement estimates totaling nearly $6.1 million, but the RIAA believes the actual total is much higher.

On Tuesday, Ouprasith will be sentenced in federal court in Virginia. He faces a maximum of five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 in addition to forfeiting nearly $51,000 in proceeds.

This is serious business. You’re stealing millions of dollars from people.

Brad Buckles, music industry anti-piracy executive

The case offers a glimpse into the shadowy and lucrative world of online music piracy.

It involves Russian and Dutch computer servers, ripping off artists from Kelly Clarkson to Linkin Park and a website started by a teenager that at one point had 7.5 million page views in a month, court records show.

The RIAA came across his site and eventually turned over its findings to federal authorities, said Brad Buckles, the trade group’s anti-piracy executive vice president.

“This is serious business,” he said. “You’re stealing millions of dollars from people. And people go to jail for stealing millions of dollars.”

A new player

Ouprasith’s attorney, Bobby Howlett Jr. of Norfolk, Va., did not return calls for comment. But interviews, a review of social media sites and court documents, including Ouprasith’s plea agreement and statement of facts, provided details of the case.

Growing up, Ouprasith moved from Texas to several places in North Carolina before his family settled in Charlotte. He developed a fondness for video games and computers, and was a semester away from graduating from West Mecklenburg High when the family returned to Texas to open a grocery store.

Ouprasith eventually moved back to Charlotte.

It’s unclear whether this was in North Carolina or Texas, but after a community college wanted to charge him out-of-state rates he couldn’t afford, “Rocky felt like he was stuck at this point, so he began pursuing more work using his computer skills,” his attorney stated in a legal filing. “Ultimately, this is what brings him before the court.”

In May 2011, when he was 19, Ouprasith launched a website where people could find and download songs and albums for free. He called it RockDizMusic.com.

It was fortuitous timing. A little over half a year later, the FBI busted a massive, online piracy ring and seized the website Megaupload.com.

Several people were arrested, including the site’s flamboyant founder Kim Dotcom, who was captured in his New Zealand mansion. Authorities estimated the site cost film and music companies more than $500 million in copyright infringement.

Other sites shut down to avoid Megaupload’s fate, Buckles said, while a number of smaller ones jumped into the vacuum.

“They set up basically similar services that Kim Dotcom had been doing,” he said. “We started watching for new players, and RockDizFile was one of them that came to our attention.”

Promoting piracy

Here’s how Ouprasith pirated music.

He found digital copies of copyrighted songs and albums online, Ouprasith acknowledged in a court filing, and processed the files to his site listing RockDizMusic.com as the publisher.

Ouprasith also obtained content by encouraging users to be “affiliates” and upload music to his website. They were paid based on the number of times people downloaded the songs and albums they uploaded.

RockDizMusic.com offered thousands of singles, music videos, hundreds of albums and mixtapes for download.

To download a file, people only needed to click a few hyperlinks that would lead them to RockDizFile.com or a related site. It was all free. And much of the music was available to download on Ouprasith’s sites before it was released to the public, according to RIAA.

$6.1 million The estimated value prosecutors cited of the pirated material

7.5 million Page views for RockDizMusic.com in January 2014

Ouprasith promoted the websites on social media. For example, on Facebook, he ran a RockDizMusic T-shirt logo design contest, updated people on the latest improvements to the site and provided links for free MP3 downloads like this: “Check out Drakes new track on Rockdizmusic!!!!”

Ouprasith rented computer servers in Chicago, Canada, France and Russia. He also used online data hosting services, known as “cyber lockers,” in France and the Netherlands to store the pirated content that users could download, court records showed.

Ouprasith gave the product away but still cashed in.

On a Skype chat that authorities recovered from one of Ouprasith’s laptops, he boasted of making $75,000 to $80,000 in 2013 and spending up to $66,000 on his business. It’s unclear exactly how much money Ouprasith made off of the sites in all.

Ouprasith sold premium subscriptions for up to $90 a year that offered faster download speeds and other features.

Then there were the ads. He had deals with at least nine online ad firms to advertise on his site for unnamed “major retailers and service providers.” At one point, he averaged $3,000 to $4,000 a month from ad revenue alone.

Ad money, Buckles said, is the most common revenue source for pirate sites. “They are basically giving away stolen property to get eyeballs onto their site, and that translates into money.”

Name-brand companies are far removed from dealing with the websites, Buckles said. Rather, there are layers of subcontractors and resellers involved in getting an ad on sites delivering certain demographics.

709,410 Number of times users downloaded music fron RockDizFile.com in a six-month period

In October 2013, Ouprasith went corporate. He started running the operation through RPO Productions LLC, which he incorporated in North Carolina based out of his home address.

A couple weeks later, he posted on Facebook, “Ppl always asked why am I always working on my sites and what more I can I possibly do that would take up so much of my time.”

He said he finally figured out the answer: “I realized that the most successful ppl in life are sustainable, always changing and adapting to new environments. Whether you’re a teacher, a web developer or some successful business owner you gotta stay up to date and be on top of things.”

‘We were being gamed’

Last January, according to Ouprasith’s stats, RockDizMusic.com had more than 7.5 million page views, 1.6 million site visits and 937,116 unique visitors.

But music fans weren’t the only ones checking out his work.

All that activity attracted the attention of copyright holders, law enforcement, RIAA and another trade group, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

They were acutely aware of the cost of piracy. The U.S. music industry’s revenues have fallen by more than $7.6 billion since 1999, RIAA said, with piracy as the main reason.

But RIAA no longer estimates pirating totals; it’s too difficult given the range of available music platforms. In a recent one-year span, for instance, RIAA found and removed 20 million links to illegal music files.

In 2013 and 2014, Ouprasith received hundreds of emails from trade groups and copyright holders demanding he immediately remove the illegal files. But he either ignored the requests, claimed he removed them or temporarily removed them before posting different links to the same files.

“It looked like we were being gamed on our take-down notices,” Buckles said. That’s when RIAA contacted the U.S. Department of Justice.

In October 2013, a federal agent in Virginia went on RockDizMusic.com and was redirected to RockDizFile.com, where he downloaded Clarkson’s “Wrapped in Red” album, Linkin Park’s album “Recharged” and The Wanted’s songs “Glow in the Dark” and “Summer Alive” from a computer server in The Netherlands. All the downloads infringed on copyrighted works.

Between October 2013 and April 2014, investigators found, Ouprasith uploaded about 810 copies of copyrighted songs to his sites, and RockDizFile.com users downloaded those files about 709,410 times.

Finally, on Oct. 15, 2014, federal authorities executed search warrants on Ouprasith’s Charlotte home and a Chicago computer server, while authorities in France and the Netherlands raided other servers he used. Ouprasith waived his rights and admitted the scheme.

The case was investigated by the Homeland Security Investigations, with the help of other U.S. federal officials as well as Dutch, French and Canadian authorities.

Jurisdiction is in Virginia because that was where the investigating agent first downloaded the music, said Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia. He declined further comment.

In its last 12 months of operation, RockDizFile averaged 4.45 million site visits a month, according to the RIAA. The only music piracy site that had more traffic was Sharebeast.com, which the FBI shut down in September. RIAA said it had sent that site more than 100,000 copyright infringement notices.

Consequences

In recent court documents seeking a more lenient sentence, Ouprasith’s attorney said his client’s life changed forever on the day he was arrested.

“He has lost what he has put all his hard work, dedication and time into within a few short hours due to the raid at his home and these resulting charges.”

People clicking on Ouprasith’s websites now see a notice that the sites have been seized by the federal government.

To Buckles, the case shows how easy it is to set up a scheme for giving away someone else’s property and making money off of it. “At the end of the day,” he said, “people have to recognize there are consequences.”

On Tuesday, inside a federal courtroom in Virginia, Rocky Ouprasith will learn just what those consequences are.

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Adam Bell: 704-358-5696, @abell

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