Homeland security agents from several divisions served search warrants on 10 people around the country suspected of being involved with the Elite Torrents site, and took over the group's main server. The agency said it was the first criminal enforcement action aimed at copyright infringers who use the now-popular BitTorrent file-swapping technology.
Visitors to the Elite Torrents Wednesday found a bright red screen displaying a message that operators were under investigation for criminal copyright infringement.
"Our goal is to shut down as much of this illegal operation as quickly as possible to stem the serious financial damage to the victims of this high-tech piracy--the people who labor to produce these copyrighted products," Acting Assistant Attorney General John Richter said in a statement. "Today's crackdown sends a clear and unmistakable message to anyone involved in the online theft of copyrighted works that they cannot hide behind new technology."
Federal investigators have been increasingly active during recent months in targeting organized groups of copyright infringers online, a process that has dovetailed with civil litigation launched by Hollywood studios and record labels.
Wednesday's action was part of an operation dubbed "D-elite," which targets administrators and people who provided content that was distributed through the EliteTorrents.org site.
According to the investigators, the "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" movie was made available though the site before being shown in theaters, and was downloaded more than 10,000 times. The site had 133,000 members and distributed more than 17,000 individual movie, software and music titles, investigators said.
"Today's actions are bad news for Internet movie thieves and good news for preserving the magic of the movies," said Motion Picture Association of America Chief Executive Officer Dan Glickman in a statement. "Shutting down illegal file swapping networks like Elite Torrents is an essential part of our fight to stop movie thieves from stealing copyrighted materials."
Investigators provided no details on the specific locations of the raids, but said that prosecutions would be coordinated with agencies in Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The BitTorrent peer-to-peer technology allows people to download and upload files from each others' hard drives. But it requires links to be posted on a Web site, and typically utilizes a "tracker" software, located on a central Net-connected hub, that directs traffic between these computers.
It is these central hubs that have been the targets of movie studio lawsuits, as well as of today's federal actions. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security, acted on the search warrants Wednesday.