Michael Jackson Fans Accused of Hacking Sony’s File Sharing Server Receive Suspended Sentences

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Two Michael Jackson fans accused of serious hacking and conspiracy crimes were handed suspended sentences yesterday after all charges were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea to a lesser ‘unauthorised access to computing material’ charge.

On January 12, 2013, Leicester Crown Court heard that a security flaw in the eCard file-sharing system used by Sony Music – known as the Sony server – allowed two British men, James Marks, 27, and Jamie McCormick, 26, to thousands of copyrighted files.

According to some of those who’ve had access over the years, Sony’s file-sharing server has never been secure, and blackmarket music traders and remixers have exploited this for quite some time.

Yet of all those who’ve had access – many of whom Sony are well aware of – only Marks and McCormick were arrested and charged.

The investigation of Marks and McCormick was initiated by Sony Music when a producer alerted the record company that unreleased material he claims to have co-written with Jackson had been obtained by the two alleged hackers.

When it was discovered that Marks and McCormick were in the UK, Sony engaged the services of the Serious Organised Crime Agency – or SOCA – to investigate further and build a case against them.

SOCA – unofficially referred to as the British FBI – was established in 2006 as a public body of the UK Government to participate in the investigation and prosecution of cyber terrorists, drug traffickers and other offenders involved in serious organised crime.

Marks and McCormick, however, merely downloaded some songs.

Nevertheless, SOCA conducted raids on the homes of both men in mid-2011, during which they were handcuffed, arrested and later charged.

As part of the raids, SOCA seized computers, USBs, hard drives, CDs and DVDs. Agents also raided their workplaces and the home of McCormick’s partner.

Head of Cyber Investigations at SOCA, Mick Jamieson, claimed that Marks and McCormick not only knew what they were doing when accessing Sony’s server, but also knew the consequences if they were caught.

“The internet’s a fantastic tool for everyone to use, but sadly there are one or two individuals who choose to misuse it,” Jamieson said.

“The authorities are now able to to identify what you’re doing, find out who you are, and come and arrest you.”

The case of Marks and McCormick centres around their joint quest to find evidence that Sony and the Estate of Michael Jackson defrauded millions of Jackson’s fans when they released the Michael album in December 2010.

The album, which sold more than two million copies around the world, includes three songs believed by many – including the Jackson family – to be fraudulent.

Those three songs – “Breaking News,” “Monster” and “Keep Your Head Up” – along with nine others that remain unreleased, were sold to Jackson’s Estate by Eddie Cascio and James Porte in mid-2010 and released by Sony later that year.

The songs are now infamously known as the Cascio tracks.

In the case of Marks McCormick, it was alleged by SOCA and Crown prosecutors that the men accessed Sony’s server with the intention of stealing thousands of files, including Michael Jackson’s entire catalog.

But Marks says those allegations are patently untrue:

“Please don’t believe the press or SOCA.”

Both Marks and McCormick are huge Michael Jackson fans, and have legally purchased copies of all of Jackson’s commercially available material – purchases which have financially benefitted Sony.

The men also reject SOCA’s assertion that they downloaded files from Sony’s server with the intention of defrauding the record company to the tune of millions of dollars.

Marks says he and McCormick only had one goal when searching the servers for material:

“The reason we were on those servers was to find the Cascio tracks.”

Marks, McCormick and countless Jackson fans insist that the vocals on the Cascio tracks were performed by Jason Cupeta – a deputy sheriff in the American state of Maryland who goes by the pseudonym Jason Malachi.

Despite the fact that Jason Malachi is not a Sony artist, SOCA listed a number of Malachi’s songs among the almost 8,000 files allegedly stolen from Sony’s server by Marks and McCormick.

“According to the prosecution, I downloaded Jason Malachi files from the Sony server too,” says Marks, explaining that SOCA seemed to have confused the contents of a generic Firefox downloads folder on his computer with what had been obtained from Sony’s server.

The original charges levelled at Marks and McCormick were far more serious than the ‘unauthorised access’ charges they ultimately pled guilty to, and carried much heavier legal penalties should they have gone to trial and been found guilty.

One of the original charges was ‘conspiracy to defraud’.

In a sworn affidavit from Jackson’s estate, a rep declared the Estate’s ‘full support’ of the prosecution of Marks and McCormick.

If Marks and McCormick had been convicted of the charge, the men could have faced serious jail time – for merely downloading songs.

The conspiracy to defraud charge was based on private chat logs discovered by SOCA during a sweep of their computer hard drives.

SOCA alleged that Marks and McCormick had conversations in which they masterminded a plan to financially exploit some of the files they had obtained from Sony’s server.

However, Marks and McCormick insist that the conversation in question took place in March 2011 – one month before a fellow Jackson fan told them of the server’s existence.

“Those conversations were regarding privately obtained material, before any server access took place,” says Marks.

In the end, the authorities agreed, and the conspiracy to defraud charges were dropped.

So what were Marks and McCormick discussing selling in the aforementioned chat logs uncovered by SOCA?

According to Marks and McCormick, prior to learning about the Sony server the pair had acquired a handful of unreleased Michael Jackson demos in a private transaction with another fan.

Marks and McCormick paid 80 pounds for the files.

Once they’d obtained the files, Marks and McCormick discussed the idea of selling them to other Jackson fans – the same way they’d been sold to them.

“We discussed the possibility of selling them to other fans,” admits Marks.

“But we decided against it, and that was that. No sale was made and we never shared the material. We didn’t want to risk being responsible for the songs leaking to the public.”

The underground trade of rare recordings is widespread, and is by no means exclusive to the Michael Jackson fan community.

In fact, the circulation unreleased material is common in the online fan communities of most major artists. Sale of unreleased material even happens in plain sight, on websites such as eBay.

So if these activities are common practice, then why were Marks and McCormick singled out by Sony and aggressively pursued by SOCA?

According to Marks and McCormick, it was to quash their efforts to investigate and expose the Cascio tracks as forgeries.

In the end, the pair were and were handed six month prison sentences, suspended for a year.

Speaking outside Leicester Crown Court yesterday, Marks apologised for downloading files from the Sony server, but maintained that he was determined to prove that Jackson didn’t sing on the Cascio tracks.

Later on, via Twitter, Marks added:

“I’m grateful to the Judge for being lenient. I fully accept that I accessed the server and apologise to Sony… I wish to move on and rebuild my life.”

Marks and McCormick will each complete 100 hours community service as part of their plea deal.

Damien Shields is the author of the book Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault examining the King of Pop’s creative process, and the producer of the podcast The Genesis of Thriller which takes you inside the recording studio as Jackson and his team create the biggest selling album in music history.

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