update Hollywood studios are about to take the long-anticipated step of firing a barrage of lawsuits at some of the most prolific Internet pirates, echoing the legal strategy that the recording industry already has used with limited success.
The civil lawsuits, which will be filed against individual movie file-swappers starting Nov. 16, represent a kind of legal escalation for an industry that fears its films eventually may be shared on the Internet as widely as songs are today.
"Illegal movie trafficking represents the greatest threat to the economic basis of moviemaking in its 110-year history," Dan Glickman, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said in a statement released Thursday after a press conference in Los Angeles.
In a follow-up telephone interview, Glickman said he was not prepared to divulge which file-swapping networks would be targeted in the first round of lawsuits. Literature the MPAA distributed lists Kazaa, eDonkey and Gnutella as examples of networks where "illegal digital copies of our member companies' motion pictures" are being traded.
Glickman also would not say whether movie downloaders would be sued, or only those people who make movies available in their shared folders. "We are targeting folks who illegally traffic in these materials," he said. "I'm not going to be more specific."
Until now, the MPAA's member companies were content with a campaign that pressured universities to curb peer-to-peer piracy, sought new laws from Congress, targeted operators of peer-to-peer networks with civil lawsuits, and tried to convince members of the public to visit the RespectCopyrights.org Web site.
But the MPAA's initial legal strategy ran aground in August when a federal appeals court ruled that peer-to-peer network operators such as Grokster and StreamCast Networks--which runs Morpheus--could not be held liable for what individual users do. That landmark decision, coupled with the rapid adoption of broadband connections, appears to have prompted the MPAA to target individual users.
MPAA lawyers will rely on the legal playbook invented by the Recording Industry Association of America in its controversial campaign against music pirates. First, the lawyers will record the Internet Protocol addresses of a handful of the most flagrant copyright infringers inhabiting peer-to-peer networks and file what are known as "John Doe" lawsuits, which list a defendant to be named at a later time. Once the civil suits are filed, the lawyers can ask a federal court to order an Internet service provider to unmask the unfortunate defendant.
Even more than with the recording industry, though, big bucks are at stake in movie piracy. The MPAA estimates that the average cost
of making, marketing and distributing a movie is about $143 million, and the average number of movies swapped on peer-to-peer networks in the United States each day is between 115,000 and 148,000.
Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, applauded the movie studios' litigation strategy. "Over 500,000 people are employed by the entertainment industry in California, and it contributes over $30 billion annually to our economy," he said. "We cannot let illegal movie piracy continue or it will cripple this important industry and seriously hurt California's economy."
But Public Knowledge, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., predicted that litigation would not curb movie piracy: "Simply bringing lawsuits against individual infringers will not solve the problem of infringing activity over P2P networks. First and foremost, it is crucial that the motion picture industry develop new business models that treat the low cost, ubiquity and speed of the Internet as an opportunity, not a threat."
Peer-to-peer network watchers have said that trading movies has risen sharply in recent months, as broadband has become more common and file-swapping technologies designed to handle large files efficiently have spread. While movie files tend to be roughly 1,000 times the size of individual song files in MP3 format, higher-speed connections, fatter hard drives and cheaper DVD burners are making it easier to download films online.
A recent survey from network monitoring firm CacheLogic found that BitTorrent, a file-swapping technology used largely to distribute movies, software and TV shows, accounted for more than half of all peer-to-peer network traffic worldwide. CacheLogic, a British analysis firm, estimated that BitTorrent traffic consumes 35 percent of all Internet traffic.
BayTSP, a company that monitors peer-to-peer networks for movie studios and record labels, said that it sees tens of thousands of separate copies of movies online every month. The most popular movie in October was "The Terminal," with about 40,000 copies spread around file-swapping networks, the company said Thursday.
MPAA's member companies are Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal City Studios and Warner Bros. Entertainment.
CNET News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.