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MPAA targets core BitTorrent, eDonkey users

Civil, criminal suits are filed against key file-swappers in the United States and Europe.

update The Motion Picture Association of America launched a new legal campaign Tuesday targeting the BitTorrent and eDonkey file-swapping networks, two technologies widely used to trade movies online.

Ratcheting up its previous online antipiracy efforts, the Hollywood group is working with law enforcement agencies in the United States and Europe to target and arrest individuals who play a critical role in the functioning of each type of network.

Criminal actions have already been filed in Europe, including the seizure of seven Net-connected servers, with their operator still wanted by French police, a representative of the French government said.


What's new:
The MPAA is working with law enforcement agencies in the United States and Europe to target and arrest individuals who play a critical role in the functioning of BitTorrent and eDonkey.

Bottom line:
The legal actions mark a strong new attack on peer-to-peer networks, which have continued to thrive over the past several years despite lawsuits against software developers and individuals.

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"These people are parasites, leeching off the creative activity of others," said John Malcolm, the MPAA's director of worldwide antipiracy operations. They "serve as traffic cops connecting those who want to steal movies with those who have a copy and want to provide it."

The cross-border legal actions mark a strong new attack on peer-to-peer networks, which have continued to thrive over the past several years despite lawsuits against software developers and nearly 7,000 individuals accused of trading copyrighted music online.

BitTorrent and eDonkey each have grown rapidly over the past two years, threatening to become to the movie industry what Napster initially was to the record labels. Each technology is designed specifically to speed downloads of very large files, and has been used widely to distribute full-length movies, computer games and software.

BitTorrent in particular has become a recent concern for Hollywood companies desperate to stop video piracy before it cuts into their soaring DVD sales revenues. The threat of potential criminal penalties substantially raises the stakes for those helping to distribute a film using the technology, in what the studios hope will be a more effective deterrence than previous actions.

According to Net monitoring firm BayTSP, eDonkey recently passed up Kazaa as the most popular file-swapping network in the world, measured by number of users. Other network monitors have said that BitTorrent has long been the most popular measured by the amount of data transferred between users.

Who's being sued?
Understanding exactly who has been targeted in the latest peer-to-peer dragnet requires a little understanding of how each network works, however.

In the early days of Napster, a central server operated by that company kept a huge index of all content available on the network and where it was located, matching downloaders with people who had a particular piece of content. The recording industry was able to successfully sue Napster after judges said that a centrally operated index made the company legally responsible for piracy on the network.

Record labels and movie studios then sued a second generation of file-swapping companies, which offered decentralized services in which the traffic-directing role was played by individual users' computers, rather than a central server. Judges said those companies are not legally responsible for their users' actions, and the entertainment companies have appealed that decision all the way to the Supreme Court.

eDonkey has been a hybrid of those two types of systems. In its early days, individual users maintained Napster-like central servers that managed traffic on the network. Many people still use that older version of the technology; it is the operators of those servers that the MPAA is now targeting.

However, the creators of the eDonkey software said most searches are now done using the newer, wholly decentralized software.

"eDonkey doesn't rely on central servers anymore, so taking them offline won't effect the network adversely," said eDonkey creator Jed McCaleb. "The servers are only used to connect with old and third-party clients.

The BitTorrent difference
BitTorrent works completely differently. In that system, individuals who want to share a file prep it for distribution, creating a "torrent" file that uniquely identifies the content and tells computers how to get it. That resulting how-to file can be spread around the Net, posted on Web sites, or spread through chat networks like the Internet Relay Chat.

Included in this torrent file is information about how to get to a "tracker" server, which actually facilitates all the uploads and downloads associated with a single particular piece of content. That server is sometimes run by the original distributor of the content, and sometimes by an unrelated third party. If the tracker server linked to a particular piece of content goes offline, existing downloads of the file can continue, but no new people can begin downloading that file.

The MPAA actions are directed at the people who operate these tracker servers, rather than people who might casually find a link to BitTorrent content and begin downloading the content themselves.

The Hollywood group said it is also targeting the operators of Direct Connect servers, a technology that works much like the old Napster. The FBI and the Recording Industry Association of America have previously launched criminal and civil actions against Direct Connect operators.

The MPAA said its actions targeted more than 100 server operators around the world. The U.S.-based actions are all civil lawsuits for now, while European actions include the threat of criminal penalties. The group did not provide information on specific legal actions.

The group was joined at a press conference in Washington, D.C., by Travis Kalanick, the former Scour file-swapping service creator who now operates a legal peer-to-peer service called Red Swoosh, to talk about the authorized alternatives to unrestricted file-trading.