updated 6/30/2005 3:16:44 PM ET 2005-06-30T19:16:44

The government announced an 11-nation crackdown Thursday on Internet piracy organizations responsible for stealing copies of the latest Star Wars film and other movies, games and software programs worth at least $50 million.

FBI agents and investigators in the other nations conducted 90 searches starting Wednesday, arresting four people, seizing hundreds of computers and shutting down at least eight major online distribution servers for pirated works.

The Justice Department “is striking at the top of the copyright piracy supply chain — a distribution chain that provides the vast majority of illegal digital content now available online,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said.

Called Operation Site Down, the crackdown involved undercover FBI operations run out of Chicago, San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C., and involved help from authorities in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom.

Among those arrested was Chirayu Patel of Fremont, Calif., on charges of violating federal copyright protection laws. Patel is alleged to be a member of a “warez” group, a kind of underground Internet co-op that is set up to trade in copyrighted materials.

Warez (pronounced “wares”) groups are extraordinarily difficult to infiltrate because users talk only in encrypted chat rooms, their computer servers require passwords and many are located overseas, the FBI has said.

The investigations targeted “release groups” that are the original sources of pirated works that can be distributed worldwide in hours. Among the warez groups targeted are RiSCISO, Myth, TDA, LND, Goodfellaz, Hoodlum, Vengeance, Centropy, Wasted Time, Paranoid, Corrupt, Gamerz, AdmitONE, Hellbound, KGS, BBX, KHG, NOX, NFR, CDZ, TUN and BHP.

Those groups are believed responsible for stealing and distributing copyrighted works including films “Star War Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and Autodesk’s Autocad 2006 and Adobe’s Photoshop software.

Warez groups differ from popular file-swapping networks, where millions of files are shared without precautions to limit access.

Last month, authorities shut down a popular Web site that facilitated the downloading of movies and other materials. Investigators said many of the copyright movies were available through the Elite Torrents site even before their commercial release. No arrests were announced at the time.

President Bush signed a new law last month setting tough penalties of up to 10 years in prison for anyone caught distributing a movie or song before its commercial release.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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