A trade group representing seven major movie studios filed a first wave of lawsuits against individuals they say are offering pirated copies of films using Internet-based peer-to-peer file-sharing programs.
As part of a larger effort to combat piracy, The Motion Picture Association of America also said it would soon make available a computer program that sniffs out movie and music files on a user's computer as well as any installed file-sharing programs.
The MPAA announced the federal court suits Tuesday, but did not say how many defendants were sued or where the lawsuits were filed. The group also did not immediately make available a copy of the complaint.
Three lawsuits were filed in federal courts in St. Louis and Denver. Two suits filed in Denver name a total of 22 defendants while the one in St. Louis targets 18 individuals.
Other lawsuits are believed to have been filed in New York, Philadelphia and other areas with large concentrations of high-speed Internet customers. Such connections are required to download the massive movie files.
The St. Louis lawsuit is brought against "John Doe" defendants, including four people who are allegedly in possession of one pirated film each. Some of the Internet addresses for the defendants can be traced to high-speed Internet connections made available by Charter Communications, a cable television company based in St. Louis.
Like similar lawsuits filed by the record industry against downloaders of music files, the studios say they will be able to identify the individual defendants at a later date.
Some of the pirated copies of films allegedly offered over Internet peer-to-peer networks include "Troy," from Warner Bros., "Spider-Man 2," from Columbia Pictures and "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," from The Walt Disney Co.
Unlike the recording industry, the Hollywood studios did not offer an amnesty program for people to admit they have illegal downloaded files.
The lawsuits seek injunctions against the defendants. The copyright law also provides for penalties of up to $30,000 for each motion picture traded over the Internet, and up to $150,000 if such infringement is shown to be willful.
An MPAA executive defended the decision not to say how many suits were filed or where.
"It's not important," said John Malcolm, senior vice president and director of worldwide anti-piracy operations for the MPAA.
"It doesn't matter if it's 10 lawsuits or 500 lawsuits. The idea here is that there is no safe harbor."
Malcolm said more lawsuits would be filed in additional cities if the current legal action does not stem illegal downloading.
The MPAA said the information detected by the free file-detection program would not be shared with it or any other body, but could be used to remove any "infringing movies or music files" and remove file- sharing programs.
The trade group said the program would be available for the Windows computer operating system on a special Web site established to educate consumers about copyrights. The name or exact nature of the program was not described Tuesday.
"Many parents are concerned about what their children have downloaded and where they've downloaded it from," MPAA president and chief executive Dan Glickman said in a statement.
The trade group said it would also join 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 trade group said that the lawsuits, together with software and educational programs, are necessary tools to fight the small but growing number of films that are available on the Internet, often before a movie has even opened in theaters.
The move is a reversal of the studios' earlier reluctance to follow the aggressive legal path taken by the music industry.
Internet piracy of movies is not nearly as rampant as in the music industry, in large part because movie files are huge and can take hours to download, in contrast to less than a minute in most cases for songs.
But Glickman said the lawsuits were necessary now, before high-speed Internet access makes downloading pirated copies of movies easier.
"This was not an easy decision, but it must be done now before illegal online file sharing of movies spins out of control," Glickman said.
The MPAA claims the U.S. movie industry loses more than $3 billion annually in potential global revenue because of physical piracy, or bogus copies of videos and DVDs of its films.