updated 12/14/2004 5:49:23 PM ET 2004-12-14T22:49:23

Hollywood movie studios on Tuesday sued scores of operators of U.S.- and European-based computer servers that help relay digitized movie files across online file-sharing networks.

The copyright infringement suits expand on a new U.S. film industry initiative whose initial targets were individual file-swappers.

The defendants this time run servers that use BitTorrent, which has become the program of choice for online sharers of large files because of its immunity to industry attempts to confound file-swappers with bogus decoy files.

“Today’s actions are aimed at individuals who deliberately set up and operate computer servers and Web sites that, by design, allow people to infringe copyrighted motion pictures,” said John Malcolm, head of the Motion Picture Association of America’s antipiracy unit.

Malcolm, speaking at Washington news conference, declined to name defendants. He said the suits, filed in the United States and Britain, targeted more than 100 server operators.

“These actors are neither innovative nor innocent,” Malcolm added. “These people are parasites, leeching off the creativity of others. Their illegal conduct is brazen and blatant.”

The initial wave of lawsuits targets computer servers that index movies for BitTorrent users, but Malcolm said the trade group is eyeing similar action against servers that direct data for the DirectConnect and eDonkey file-swapping services.

Malcolm noted that neither the creator nor distributors of BitTorrent, whose architecture enables speedy downloads because users share received bits of a file as it is downloaded, were targeted in the suits.

“The target of our actions is not technology,” Malcolm said. “There are many legal Torrent sites ... that are dedicated to the distribution of public domain work and we are taking no action against them whatsoever.”

The three file-sharing aides work differently but enable computer users to share music, film, software and other files.

EDonkey and BitTorrent steadily gained in popularity after the recording industry began cracking down last year on users of Kazaa, Morpheus, Grokster and other established file-sharing software.

The MPAA is focusing its litigation on servers that link individuals who seek movie files to those who make them available.

The lawsuits follow the same logic employed when the recording industry successfully sued the original Napster file-sharing network. The creators of that software used a central computer server to keep and update an index of what music files were being made available by computer users on the network.

“By bringing these suits, the MPAA runs the risk of pushing the tens of millions of file sharers to more decentralized technologies that will be harder to police,” said Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Mike Godwin, legal director for Washington-based Public Knowledge, a group that tracks copyright and technology policy, said the same legal arguments against Napster may not stick in this case.

“There may be a legal problem in that some torrent sites don’t really police what people use them for,” Godwin said. “In those cases, I think it’s hard to create traditional copyright infringement liability.”

Another potential wrinkle is that many of the computer servers are offshore, outside the scope of U.S. copyright law.

“It adds a level of complexity that makes it more difficult for someone from the United States to go after a tracker site,” Godwin said. “Tracker sites are often run by hobbyists. They go up, they go down. It’s a moving target and not a particularly large one.”

Hollywood movie studios contend that the unauthorized trading of films online has the potential to threaten their industry, particularly as increasing bandwidth makes the large movie files easier to download.

By comparison, music files are far smaller and swapped at greater volume.

Last month, the studios began suing computer users for swapping digitized films online for copyright infringement. The industry has also been a party to lawsuits against Kazaa, Morpheus and Grokster.

The industry has failed to persuade U.S. federal courts to shut down the services, and is awaiting a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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