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msnbc.com

Keith Tyler signed up for broadband Internet access three weeks ago, and did what many high-speed Net users do — he started swapping music and movies. But within days, the movie industry and his ISP tracked him down and told him to stop offering movies for download, or else. Such threats are now the weapon of choice for the Motion Picture Association of America, which says it’s slinging some 2,000 complaints a week toward alleged movie pirates.

IT’S CALLED A “takedown” notice, and it comes with the eerie feeling of having been caught with your hand in the cookie jar — by a lawyer. The letters are flying fast and furious now, as the movie industry tries to pre-empt a Napster-sized outbreak of free content swapping.

“Dear Customer,” a typical letter from one ISP, Cox Communications, says, “We have received a notification that you are using your Cox High Speed Internet service to post or transmit material that infringes the copyrights of a complainant’s members. ... Cox will suspend your account and disable your connection to the Internet within 24 hours of your receipt of this e-mail if the offending material is not removed.”

The letter then goes on to cite the offending content. In Tyler’s case, it was three or four episodes of “The Simpsons” and part of the new movie “Windtalkers.” A bit shocked by the notice, he quickly removed the content.

“I had high speed Internet access for just three weeks, it had not even been that long,” said the 24-year-old Tyler, an information technology specialist from Phoenix, Ariz. “It was just a couple of movies.” He had made them available for download on the Gnutella network.

Tyler said he replied immediately to Cox saying he had deleted the files. “They wrote back and said that should be good enough.”

Tyler was nabbed by an automated program developed by Ranger Online Inc. The software cruises file-swapping networks like Gnutella to find copyrighted materials, hunts down the IP address of the poster, then discovers which Internet service provider is being used. Soon after, the MPAA sends its form letter to the ISP. Under the Digital Copyright Millennium Act, Internet providers are compelled to stop distribution of copywrite materials when they are notified, so the ISP in turn forwards the note to the user, along with a threat of disconnection. Expect more threats as time goes by — in 2001, 54,000 letters went out. The rate has now doubled, with 50,534 takedown notices sent by June 30 of this year, keeping Internet service providers very busy chasing down copyright complaints.

“We are continuing to fine-tune the system,” said Ken Jacobsen, senior vice president and director of worldwide antipiracy efforts at MPAA. While the firm began sending takedown notices in late 2000, efforts continue to ramp up, to keep pace with increased movie swapping online.

A LIGHTER TOUCH

So far, the MPAA seems to be using a slightly lighter hand than the Recording Industry Association of America. Along with the calamitous battle with Napster, followed by litigation against current file-swapping services KaZaa and Morpheus, the music industry has been behind several high-profile arrests of individuals involved in the online music trade. And just last week, The Wall Street Journal reported the industry is planning to step up such individual prosecutions.

While Jacobsen says such drastic law enforcement measures would be appropriate in “extreme situations,” he says the movie industry is really hoping to have relatively civil exchanges with transgressors like Tyler, and sees takedown notices as an educational effort.

“We are trying to notify people,” he said. “The person may not understand this is inappropriate behavior. Clearly our first approach would be to try to let them know.”

THREATENED WITH DORM EXPULSION

The MPAA’s exchange with Robert Sullivan, one of the first recipients of a takedown notice, was a bit more acrimonious. As a student at the University of Iowa last year, Sullivan said he was sharing files on Internet Relay chat for “10 minutes max.” Two weeks later, his dorm room Ethernet access was shut off, and he was hauled into the residence hall dean’s office for a discussion of “Ethernet abuse.”

“They suspended my network rights for the rest of the year,” Sullivan said. “They said that it could have been worse and I could have been kicked out of the hall.”

Sullivan is hardly alone. About 100 Iowa students received takedown notices last year — one of several college campuses targeted by anti-piracy efforts.

With a combination of tech-savvy youth, plenty of bandwidth, and perhaps plenty of free time, colleges and universities are ripe for movie file swapping, Jacobsen said, so the MPAA has made efforts to focus on schools. In recent months, the MPAA has sent notices to Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin criticizing the schools’ efforts to stop file-swapping.

In the letter to Stanford President John Hennessy, MPAA chairman Jack Valenti criticized Stanford’s “acceptance of theft which collides with moral and civic compact.” Stanford responded by saying it had taken steps to stop piracy by its students.

The movie industry’s letter-writing campaign shows it’s trying to learn from the lesson of the music industry, which failed to address the Internet music piracy issue until it was almost overrun by it. Some estimates say more than a billion songs per day were flying around the Net in Napster’s heyday. Movie swapping is considerably less popular and more clunky, but some 400,000 to 600,000 movies are downloaded every day, according to the MPAA.

And the number is steadily rising thanks to increased availability of broadband Internet access and new compression techniques. Even just two years ago, downloading a movie online was relatively complicated and time consuming, but now, an average movie can be downloaded over a broadband connection in about half its running time, the MPAA says.

FALSE POSITIVES

Needless to say, the letters aren’t popular. Some critics raise the possibility of “false positives,” suggesting Ranger’s software might falsely accuse a file swapper — perhaps someone sharing a home video that happened to be named “Simpsons,” for example. A Hawaii-based Web site named InternetMovies.com says this happened to them last year. It was temporarily knocked offline by its Internet provider after an MPAA takedown notice was received. InternetMovies.com, which claims it wasn’t offering copywrite material, filed suit against the MPAA on April 25 for causing a business disruption.

But Jacbosen says InternetMovies was offering up pirated material, and furthermore, he claims Ranger is almost never wrong.

“Of all the letters we have sent out, we only had 2 other people who corresponded back who said we were mistaken,” Jacobsen said. “And we didn’t think we were.”

But while the cease-and-desist letters will continue, so will the cat-and-mouse game between copyright holders and Web users bent on sharing files. Just this week, a new file-swapping program was announced that promises more anonymity to file swappers —- making them harder for the industry to find and stop. Called “Flyster,” the program will allow downloading in complete anonymity, according to developer Louis-Eric Simard. However, those who host files for download could still be traced, he said. Meanwhile, other developers are working on technologies that would add anonymity to file sharing networks.

Jacobsen acknowledges the MPAA is fighting an uphill battle while trying to shut off access to pirated films. He wouldn’t say if he felt the takedown letter campaign was successful.

“It’s all relative,” he said. “Clearly we have a colossal problem out there ... and it doesn’t appear to be getting smaller.”

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