Thursday, November 4, 2004

The major Hollywood studios vowed yesterday to sue people who illegally download movies from the Internet, borrowing a page from the music industry’s script of using lawsuits to fight online piracy.

The civil lawsuits will be filed Nov. 16, officials from the Motion Picture Association of America, the trade group that represents the studios, announced in Los Angeles. The officials declined to say how many suits will be filed, although one source told the Associated Press that hundreds are likely.

Under federal law, the studios could seek as much as $30,000 for each movie downloaded and as much as $150,000 if the infringement is proven willful.

“Illegal movie trafficking represents the greatest threat to the economic basis of moviemaking in its 110-year history,” said Dan Glickman, who succeeded Jack Valenti as the association’s president this past summer.

“People who have been stealing our movies believe they are anonymous on the Internet, and wouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. They are wrong. We know who they are, and we will go after them, as these suits will prove.”

The illegal copying of movies from bootlegged DVDs and videotapes costs the studios about $3.5 billion a year, according to the association. It has no estimates on losses from illegal downloading.

The Nov. 16 lawsuits will be aimed solely at file swappers — people who use online computer networks and software programs such as EDonkey and Kazaa to share music and movies — and will not target bootleggers who sell illegal copies of movies on the street.

The association — which represents Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and five other major studios — has hinted for months that it will use litigation to try to curb illegal downloading. Association officials said the lawsuits should not be seen as a sign that its anti-piracy advertising campaign, introduced last year, has failed.

The ads emphasize how piracy hurts painters, directors, electricians and the movie industry’s other blue-collar workers.

The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major music labels, has sued 5,750 individual file swappers since September 2003 after a federal judge ruled that 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. However, music executives say the suits have succeeded in raising public awareness of their industry’s greatest threat.

“I think it’s been somewhat successful, or they wouldn’t have stayed with it. It isn’t a solution in and of itself, though,” said Evan R. Cox, a San Francisco intellectual-property lawyer.

Unlike the music industry, which has experienced declining sales for years, filmmaking is a thriving business, said Annalee Newitz, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit privacy group and one of the RIAA’s strongest critics.

“The lawsuits seem completely unnecessary. It comes across as more of an attack on file sharers than as a defense of an industry,” she said.

Instead of fighting file swappers, the studios should try to find a way to make the technology work for them, said Dawn Hudson, executive director of the Independent Film Project, a nonprofit group that promotes independent filmmakers.

Some consumers would be willing to pay to download movies, she said. “There are better things than free,” Ms. Hudson said.

A few studios are experimenting with services that deliver movies to computers via the Web, but so far, they haven’t caught on.

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