The US Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against the people allegedly behind two popular Android piracy websites, Snappzmarket and Appbucket. Both sites offered large catalogs of free app downloads, giving pirates a way to avoid paying for premium apps on Google Play. The two sites were seized by the government in 2012, and four men have now been charged with conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

It's the first time that the Justice Department has moved to prosecute individuals for illegally distributing mobile apps. FBI special agent Ricky Maxwell, who was involved in the investigation into the two sites, said in a statement that "The federal charges presented in this case illustrates the problems facing technology based companies in particular." He added that the case "highlights the FBI and US government response to those engaged in such wholesale criminal activity involving the piracy of copyrighted products."

Defendants face a maximum prison sentence of five years

Kody Peterson, a 22-year-old from Clermont, Florida was allegedly behind Snappzmarket, according to court documents. The Justice Department says that he and other conspirators cracked Android apps to remove their anti-piracy protections and obtained other pre-cracked apps that were all added to the website's catalog for free download. Between May 2011 and August 2012 the site is said to have facilitated 1 million illegal downloads worth a total of $1.7 million. According to the documents, investigators have access to chat logs between Peterson and his conspirators, and in at least one conversation they allegedly agree to plans to ignore copyright takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Piracy has plagued mobile app markets for years, and Android has had particularly high rates of illegal app downloads. For some apps, estimates put the piracy rate as high as 60 percent.