NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The Motion Picture Association of America announced a new campaign aimed at slowing the illegal downloading of movies off the Internet.
The MPAA, the main lobbying group for Hollywood's major studios, held a news conference Tuesday afternoon to trumpet the latest crackdown, which representatives said included both civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions around the world.
"We have taken action against over 100 servers in many countries on four continents," said John Malcolm, the director of worldwide anti-piracy at the MPAA. He said steps were taken this week in the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Finland and the Netherlands.
The announcement comes one month after the MPAA filed its first batch of lawsuits against more than 200 individuals it accused of stealing movies off the Web.
The measures taken this week, however, were not directed at individuals who download movies. Instead, the targets were people who act as conduits between downloaders and three specific "peer-to-peer" file-sharing technologies: BitTorrent, eDonkey, and DirectConnect.
These intermediaries provide users with lists of movies, songs and television shows that can be swapped with other users.
"This is another category of pirate," said Macolm. "These people are parasites leeching off the creativity of others."
Malcolm also said that legal notices have been sent to Internet service providers ordering them to intervene and shut down these middlemen, also known as "trackers," "servers" and "hubs."
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BitTorrent, the fastest-growing peer-to-peer service on the Internet, and eDonkey together make up the bulk of all peer-to-peer traffic, according to CacheLogic, a Cambridge, England-based market research firm that tracks Web traffic.
BitTorrent is especially frightening to Hollywood because it can download movies in just a few hours. And the software is designed so that downloading a film gets easier as more people try to access it.
The actions were not directed against the creators of BitTorrent, eDonkey or DirectConnect.
Details of the initiative were scant. The MPAA did not dislcose the number of lawsuits filed, whether arrests were made, or the identities of the Internet service providers who received "cease-and-desist" letters.
But the announcement follows a decision last week by the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in a seminal case that pits the movie and music industries against two other peer-to-peer services, Grokster and Morpheus operator StreamCast Networks.
While Malcolm said there was "no connection whatsoever" between the high court's Dec. 10 move and this week's enforcement efforts, the flurry of activity has renewed a debate over whether movie piracy is a problem and, if so, whether anything can be done to stop it.
Analysts say that Hollywood does not face the severe crisis that the record industry confronted when the Napster file-sharing appeared a few years ago and music downloads turned into a mass free-for-all.
There are several reasons for this, including the enormous amount of time it still takes to download movies and a lack of consumer interest in watching movies on computer screens.
For now, reliable data on the prevalence of illegal movie downloads and the cost to Hollywood do not exist. The MPAA itself, which claims its on track to lose $3.5 billion this year to the black market in physical DVDs, does not yet know how much money the industry loses on the Web.
The MPAA's Malcolm said Tuesday that the problem of Internet piracy is on par with widespread copying of physical DVDs. In three years, he estimates industry losses from online theft will be "staggeringly high."
That is why Hollywood is moving now on two fronts: to use the courts to rein in piracy and to develop technology that, if not impenetrable, at least makes stealing difficult.
The industry faces challenges on both fronts.
Andrew Parker, chief technology officer of CacheLogic, the peer-to-peer tracking firm, was skeptical that law enforcement tactics can work.
He noted that peer-to-peer traffic dropped after the music industry first launched a series of lawsuits against individuals accused of illegal downloading, but that overall downloading has since rebounded.
What's more, he said, users have become adept at shifting from one technology to another, which is what he says happened when record companies starting suing users of Kazaa, previously the No. 1 peer-to-peer site.
"We saw a sudden shift in usage patterns to BitTorrent and away from Kazaa," said Parker. "A similar thing will probably happen here."
But Charles Sims, a New York lawyer who has represented entertainment companies in court cases against peer-to-peer networks, said Hollywood recognizes that litigation is not the panacea.
"The (lawsuit) route is not perfect, in the same way that the war against drugs isn't perfect either," said Sims, a partner in Proskauer Rose. "But there's probably less heroine and cocaine out there now than if we weren't doing anything."