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Torrentspy names alleged MPAA hacker

Documents further detail alleged relationship between MPAA and a man claiming to have swiped data.

A month after accusing the Motion Picture Association of America of conspiring to commit data theft, the operators of a file search engine presented more details regarding the alleged relationship between the MPAA and a man who admits hacking the small company's network.

Valence Media, the parent company of Torrentspy.com, charges that the MPAA paid the Canadian resident $15,000 for information on Torrentspy and its executives, according to documents filed Thursday with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles.

"I contacted (the MPAA) and offered to provide it information regarding (Torrentspy.com founder) Justin Bunnell and Torrentspy," according to a signed statement by Robert Anderson, the man identified elsewhere in the filing as a "hacker."

Among the claims by Valence Media is that as part of its attempt to gather information on Torrentspy, the MPAA hired private investigators to comb the trash cans of Torrentspy executives. Valence Media obtained this information from Anderson, who for undisclosed reasons has agreed to help the company against the Hollywood industry group, according to copy of the suit obtained by CNET News.com. Valence Media has asked a judge to order the MPAA to turn over the information taken by Anderson and to identify anyone that the association may have shared it with.

This is the latest volley in a legal battle that began in February, when the MPAA sued Torrentspy and other directories that it accuses of contributing to the theft of copyright movies. Some file sharers use search engines, such as Torrentspy, to locate downloadable movies. The movie industry group has aggressively pursued those accused of distributing copyright material, as well as directories that the MPAA says are abetting piracy.

An MPAA spokeswoman did not immediately return phone calls, but the association issued a broad denial to Torrentspy's initial charges.

Valence Media charged in its suit that on June 10, 2005, MPAA executives met with Anderson, a resident of Vancouver, Canada. Dean Garfield, the MPAA's director of legal affairs, was among the association's representatives who agreed to pay Anderson $15,000 to obtain private e-mails, financial and technology information, according to the court documents. Garfield could not be immediately reached for comment.

An MPAA executive told Anderson: "We don't care how you get it," Valence Media alleges in the court documents.

Anderson, who could not be immediately reached for comment, was successful at breaching Torrentspy's computer system, Valence Media alleges. By rigging Torrentspy's e-mail system, Anderson received copies of company e-mail as soon as they were sent or received, as well as important login information, according to the suit. This allowed him broad access to company data, Valence Media claims.

The company's suit said Anderson managed to pilfer a spreadsheet of company earnings and expenses, indexes of file architecture, screen shots of proprietary search functions and even a utility bill belonging to one Torrentspy executive.

In July 2005, the MPAA reviewed Anderson's work and wired $15,000 to a Toronto-based bank account, according to the court documents.

Sometime after, Anderson had a change of heart, according to a signed statement by Anderson that was included in the court filing. In fact, Anderson was actually acquainted with Bunnell. He had done some marketing work for another company associated with Bunnell, Anderson said in his statement, but his relationship with the Torrentspy founder apparently ended acrimoniously in April 2005.

"After our business relationship ended, I was upset with Justin Bunnell," Anderson said in the statement. He then contacted the MPAA and offered to retrieve information on Torrentspy executives including Bunnell, as well as other Torrent file search engines.

Anderson has provided a written agreement signed by an MPAA executive and other documentation related to Anderson being hired to gather information on Torrentspy and its executives, said Ira Rothken, Valence Media's attorney.

Also included in the filing is a copy of the alleged contract that was signed by Anderson and MPAA executives. Some of the information filed with the court was obscured, including names. Rothken said the names of Anderson and MPAA executives can be found on the original contract.

The purported contract includes a paragraph calling for the gathering of information on other peer-to-peer companies and torrent directories at odds with the MPAA, including The Pirate Bay, eXeem and Mininova.

Importantly, the contract specifies that the MPAA expected information to be obtained through legal means.

Such statements won't save the MPAA from liability in this case, argued Rothken. "There's an irony that they could put a clause into a contact and that would allow them to turn a blind eye to hiring a hacker," Rothken said. "There's no magical term that lets them off the hook."

Valence Media's latest filing, which asks for unspecified damages, comes after the company and the MPAA met over a 10-day period to discuss turning over whatever Anderson had provided the trade association, according to the lawsuit. The talks were unsuccessful, Rothken said.

It's unclear what prompted Anderson to cooperate with Torrentspy and risk possible criminal prosecution. "The only person that would know the precise answer to that is him," Rothken said. "We believe that he broke the law in a serious manner...we're encouraged that after making a big mistake he's now mitigating his wrongdoing by providing information about things he did so we can take remedial action against the MPAA."