The Department of Justice's (DoJ) campaign against international online piracy scored its first legal victories Tuesday with three men pleading guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement.

The convictions are the first in an 18-month, multi-national software piracy investigation known as Operation Higher Education.

Seth Kleinberg, Jeffrey Lerman and Albert Bryndzda admitted to having prominent or leadership roles in some of the most notorious online piracy release groups, otherwise known as "warez" groups, in the world, among them Fairlight and Kalisto. The groups specialize in the illegal distribution of computer games, including PC and console games.

Kleinberg, 26, of Pasadena, Calif., faces a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. The 20-year-old Lerman of College Park, Md., and the 32-year-old Bryndzda of Flushing, N.Y., face maximum sentences of five years in prison.

According to DoJ documents, Kleinberg admitted that he was a senior member of Fairlight and Kalisto. The DoJ says Kleinberg provided various services to Fairlight and Kalisto, including supplying the groups with new software titles, assisting in the "cracking" process and serving as a courier to distribute the pirated works to various servers around the world.

Lerman admitted that he was a "ripper" for the Kalisto group. He digitally manipulated the constituent files of pirated copies of computer games so that each game would fit on a single CD-ROM, in order to eliminate or circumvent the games' copy protection controls and to make it easier to illegally distribute the games over the Internet.

For his part, Brynzda admitted to having built and operated two large servers that he, with the assistance of others, connected to the Internet for the use of members of the Fairlight and Kalisto groups to store and distribute thousands of titles of pirated software and other digital media.

"Cybercrime and online piracy respect no boundaries," U.S. Assistant Attorney General Christopher A. Wray said in a statement. "Operation Higher Education, and the broader Operation Fastlink, of which it is a significant part, are just another step in our increasingly global effort to target organized online piracy at all levels and around the world."

Operation Higher Education focused on the highest levels of the warez world. The top release groups are the first-providers, the original source for the illegal trading and online distribution of pirated works.

Once a release group prepares a stolen work for distribution, the material is distributed in minutes to secure, top-level servers and made available to a select clientele. From there, the pirated works are illegally distributed throughout the world, ending up on public channels and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks accessible to anyone with Internet access.

The investigation has so far yielded searches and seizures of more than 70 high-level targets that were conducted in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and the United States, as well as Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As the investigation continues, additional targets will be identified and pursued.