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pleaded not guilty to charges in New York that he posed as literary editors and agents to steal hundreds of authors’ unpublished work.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 is charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Legal documents allege he registered more than 160 fake online domains.
Judge Robert Lehrburger rejected a request for him to be detained, setting bail at $300,000 (£221,000).
Mr Bernardini will surrender his passport and submit to electronic monitoring.
Simon & Schuster has not been accused of wrongdoing and is not named in the legal papers. There is no suggestion the publishing house is at fault.
Mr Bernardini was called an “overwhelming” flight risk by assistant US attorney Daniel Nessim, who said 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?”
But his lawyer, Hannah McCrea, said he could stay with a friend in Manhattan’s West Village.
She added: “This is a very humbling experience for the defendant, he intends to take it seriously.”
Prosecutors claimed Mr Bernardini, whose LinkedIn entry calls him a rights co-ordinator for Simon & Schuster, would try to gain manuscripts by replacing a lower case “m” with an “rn” so that, for example, “simonandschuster” might appear as “sirnonandschuster.”
Mr Bernardini’s arrest could explain a mystery that has baffled the literary world for years. Agents, editors and Booker Prize judges have fallen victim to phishing scams from slightly altered official-looking email addresses, requesting manuscripts of works by authors, including 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
The FBI claims Mr Bernardini “impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals” to obtain unpublished and draft works.
But it is not yet clear why he may have done it, and manuscripts were not found to have been leaked on the internet, and nor were any ransom demands made, the New York Times noted.
Simon & Schuster told the BBC on Thursday it had suspended Mr Bernardini pending further information and was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations.
“The safekeeping of our authors’ intellectual property is of primary importance to Simon & Schuster, and for all in the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the FBI for investigating these incidents and bringing charges against the alleged perpetrator,” a spokeswoman added.