Hollywood's top studios tried to knock the wind out of the sails of Internet movie pirates yesterday, filing the first wave of lawsuits against people they say are illegally sharing online copies of films.
The Motion Picture Association of America, the trade group that represents the movie industry's seven major studios, declined to identify where the civil suits were filed or the number of defendants.
At least two suits were filed in New York, Bloomberg reported.
The suits seeks injunctions against the defendants. Under federal copyright law, the association can seek penalties of as much as $30,000 for each movie traded over the Internet, and as much as $150,000 if the infringement is proved to be willful.
"The motion picture industry must pursue legal proceedings against people who are stealing our movies on the Internet. The future of our industry, and of the hundreds of thousands of jobs it supports, must be protected from this kind of outright theft using all available means," said Dan Glickman, who succeeded Jack Valenti as the association's president and chief executive on Sept. 1.
The association, like the recording industry, is using lawsuits to combat online piracy. But unlike the music labels, the Hollywood studios are striking before movie piracy becomes a serious threat to their industry, analysts said.
"The MPAA has had the great advantage of taking a backseat and watching what's happened to the recording industry," said Megan E. Gray, an intellectual property lawyer in the District.
About 20 million people in the United States use online computer networks and software programs such as EDonkey and Kazaa to share music and movies each month, according to BigChampagne LLC, a Los Angeles firm that tracks Internet file swapping.
There are 1.3 billion audio files in circulation on the Internet, but fewer than 50 million movie files, the firm estimates. The chief reason for the disparity, it says , is that it is more cumbersome to download a two-hour movie than a three-minute song.
A few studios are experimenting with services that deliver movies to computers via the Web, but so far, they haven't caught on.
"If you are downloading a movie off the Internet right now, it's almost to prove a point. It takes a long time to do it, even under the best circumstances," said Eric Garland, BigChampagne's chief executive officer.
The association, which represents studios such as Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures, has no estimates on losses from illegal downloading. It said the illegal copying of movies from bootlegged DVDs and videotapes costs the studios about $3.5 billion per year.
In addition to announcing the lawsuits, the association said yesterday it would introduce a computer program that sniffs out movie and music files on a user's computer, as well as any installed file-sharing programs.
The group said the information detected by the free program would not be shared with anyone else, but could be used to remove any "infringing movies or music files" and remove file-sharing programs.
The program would be available for the Windows operating systemon a Web site established to educate consumers about copyrights, the group said. It did not provide more details yesterday.
"Many parents are concerned about what their children have downloaded and where they've downloaded it from," Mr. Glickman said.
The group also said it would join forces with the Video Software Dealers Association to place educational materials in more than 10,000 video stores nationwide. The materials will include anti-piracy ads that are also playing in theaters.
The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major labels, has sued 5,750 file swappers since September 2003, after a federal judge ruled the networks weren't liable for their users' behavior.
Many of the people the RIAA has sued have settled out of court, usually paying between $3,000 and $5,000 each.
The RIAA lawsuits have generated a barrage of bad publicity, and it isn't clear whether they have curbed online piracy. Music executives, however, say their suits have succeeded in raising awareness of their industry's greatest threat.