An employee of publishers Simon & Schuster has pleaded not guilty to charges in New York that he posed as literary editors and agents to steal hundreds of authors’ unpublished work.
Filippo Bernardini, 29, was arrested at JFK airport and faces wire fraud and aggravated identity theft charges.
According to court documents, he registered more than 160 bogus online domains.
Judge Robert Lehrburger denied his detention request and set bail at $300,000 (£221,000).
Mr Bernardini will hand over his passport and agree to electronic monitoring.
Simon & Schuster has not been charged with any wrongdoing and is not named in the legal documents. There is no indication that the publishing house is to blame.
Assistant US Attorney Daniel Nessim described Mr Bernardini as a “overwhelming” flight risk, saying the defendant told law enforcement when he was arrested by the FBI, “I’m not a US citizen, how could I be charged in the US?”
Hannah McCrea, his lawyer, said he could stay with a friend in Manhattan’s West Village.
“This is a very humbling experience for the defendant,” she added, “and he intends to take it seriously.”
Prosecutors claimed Mr Bernardini, who lists himself as a rights co-ordinator for Simon & Schuster on LinkedIn, would try to obtain manuscripts by replacing a lower case “m” with a “rn,” so that “simonandschuster” would appear as “sirnonandschuster.”
Mr Bernardini’s arrest could shed light on a literary mystery that has perplexed the literary world for years. Agents, editors, and Booker Prize judges have all fallen victim to phishing scams originating from slightly altered official-looking email addresses and requesting manuscripts of works by authors such as prize-winner Margaret Atwood.
In an interview with The Bookseller in 2019, Atwood confirmed there had been “concerted efforts to steal the manuscript” of her book The Testaments, before it was released.
“There were lots of phoney emails from people trying to winkle even just three pages, even just anything,” she noted.
US lawyer Damian Williams said Mr Bernardini “allegedly impersonated publishing industry individuals in order to have authors, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, send him prepublication manuscripts for his own benefit”.
He added: “This real-life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale, with the plot twist of Bernardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds.”
Suspended by publishers
According to the FBI, Mr. Bernardini “impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud hundreds of individuals” in order to obtain unpublished and draught works.
However, it is unclear why he did it, and no manuscripts were found to have been leaked on the internet, nor were any ransom demands made, according to the New York Times.
Simon & Schuster told the BBC on Thursday that it had suspended Mr Bernardini pending further investigation and was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations.
“The protection of our authors’ intellectual property is critical to Simon & Schuster and everyone in the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the FBI for investigating these incidents and charging the alleged perpetrator,” a spokeswoman added.