Four American men involved in websites offering music files of songs before they were commercially released pleaded guilty to copyright infringement charges, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said on Tuesday.

Derek A Borchardt, 21, of Charlotte, North Carolina; Matthew B Howard, 24, of Longmont, Colorado; and Aaron O Jones, 31, of Hillsboro, Oregon, each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit copyright infringement for their involvement in the prerelease music group Apocalypse Crew or APC. George S. Hayes, 31, of Danville, Virginia, previously pled guilty to one count of criminal copyright infringement related to his involvement in prerelease music group Chromance or CHR.

Operation FastLink

The guilty pleas represent the first involving members of prerelease music piracy groups from Operation FastLink, a DOJ initiative against online piracy worldwide, the agency said. Each of the four defendants face up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

As leading members of the two prerelease groups, the four defendants distributed digital copies of songs and albums before their commercial release in the US, the DOJ said. The supply of prerelease music was often provided by music industry insiders, such as radio disc jockeys, employees of music magazine publishers or workers at compact disc manufacturing plants.

After a group prepared a stolen work for distribution, the material was distributed in minutes to secure computer servers throughout the world. From there, within a matter of hours, the pirated works were distributed globally, filtering down to peer-to-peer and other public file-sharing networks accessible to anyone with internet access and potentially appearing for sale around the world.

120 warrants served, hundreds of computers seized, just 27 convictions?

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) applauded the DOJ's actions: "The illegal prerelease distribution of albums or individual tracks takes an especially heavy toll on the music community,” Brad Buckles, RIAA's executive vice president for antipiracy, said in a statement.

Operation FastLink has resulted in more than 120 search warrants executed in 12 countries, and the confiscation of hundreds of computers and illegal online distribution hubs, DOJ said.

The operation has also caused the removal of more than $50 million worth of illegally copied copyright software, games, movies and music from illegal distribution channels, DOJ said. Operation FastLink has yielded felony convictions for 27 people, including those involved in activities other than prerelease operations, DOJ said.