A 40-year-old Illinois man was sentenced Wednesday to 30 months in prison for conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement.

Eli El pleaded guilty ay 4 to one count of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement for his role in distributing about 20,000 copyrighted software programs via the internet’s warez market. In addition to the 30-month prison term, Senior U.S. District Judge Ellen Bree Burns in New Haven, Conn. on Wednesday sentenced El to three years of supervision.

John Wolfe, director of internet enforcement for the Business Software Alliance (BSA), told SCMagazineUS.com today that the jail term should send a serious message to software pirates.

“The U.S. Department of Justice thinks [software piracy] is serious, the rights holders think it’s serious, and they’ll spend the resources to stop piracy,” he said. “Two-and-a-half years in jail is a significant sentence, and it’s a felony conviction that will follow [El] the rest of his life.”

Wolfe added that the BSA, in its latest annual study, found more than $7 billion in software piracy losses in the United States alone.

The warez underground community uses the internet to illegally distribute copyrighted software. The three-tiered warez scene relies on suppliers who acquire copyrighted material – software, video games, DVD movies, and MP3 music files – before they’re commercially available, technicians to “crack” the copyright protections and distributors who place the pirated works on FTP websites.

El uploaded pirated software to numerous warez servers, authorities said. In exchange, he was allowed to download a variety of other pirated software, including music and games that other community members had posted.

In one site, called “The Ether Net,” El and those he worked with used the internet to distribute about 20,000 individual works of copyrighted material, prosecutors contended.

El is the 12th person to be convicted as a result of Operation Safehaven. That operation, a 15-month investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the ICE Cybercrime Center, ended in April 2003 when ICE executed more than 20 search warrants, seizing thousands of pirated CDs and DVDs and dozens of computers and servers.

“Another thing about this defendant [is that] he’s 40, and that’s another example that the people involved in piracy operations are not a bunch of kids in high school – he’s a grown man and causing significant damages,” Wolfe said.

Click here for the latest SC Magazine Podcast: Sept. 4, 2007: How an all-volunteer security organization helps to keep the bad guys in check.