If this were a Hollywood movie, the federal lawman would be played by an A-list actor. But in the real world, the marshal displays only the familiar, everyman face of U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, while the film might be a bootleg copy swapped illegally online.
The Justice Department is targeting operations that illegally trade music, movies and other copyrighted material over peer-to-peer networks, joining Hollywood and congressional lawmakers in the battle against digital piracy. The probe comes at the same time that the recording industry is ramping up its fight to stem the tide of illegal song-swapping, slapping 744 people with lawsuits for alleged copyright infringement. (Meanwhile, Ashcroft is expected to provide more details today about efforts by state and federal law enforcement officials to crack down on spammers and online scam artists.)
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More Past Issues
Yesterday, Ashcroft unveiled "what he called the first federal law-enforcement action targeting distribution of copyrighted materials over so-called peer-to-peer networks. Mr. Ashcroft said five homes and one Internet-services provider, or ISP, were raided in a probe of networks organized to distribute massive quantities of copyrighted movies, music, software, games and other materials over the Internet," the Wall Street Journal noted in its coverage. In his statement, Ashcroft said the action sends a "clear message to online thieves who steal the hard work and innovation of others. ... You can pay the fair value for music, movies, software and games like every other consumer, or you can pay an even higher price when you are caught committing online theft."
The Washington Post said the federal raids "for the first time throw the weight of the Justice Department behind what has been an intense campaign by the music, movie and software industries to curb online file-sharing that millions of computer users around the world use every day." The paper also explained that with the raids, "the prospect of criminal prosecution looms for those who steal copyrighted works valued at more than $2,500, which qualifies as a felony" and said the action against P2P networks "is sure to stoke an already heated debate over file-sharing services, many of which have become household names, such as Kazaa, Grokster and Morpheus."
CNET's News.com said while "no charges have yet been filed, the action is a milestone in federal law enforcement's treatment of peer-to-peer technology. It could portend deeper scrutiny of casual online copyright infringement, expanding beyond the tightly organized groups typically targeted by investigators in the past." And the Los Angeles Times wrote: "The actions by the Justice Department and the [Recording Industry Association of America] directly affect a tiny fraction of the millions of file sharers who copy songs, movies and other works from one another's computers. But the two developments signal that the legal risks of unauthorized file-sharing are intensifying and spreading to more segments of the Internet."
The Wall Street Journal: Ashcroft Targets Illicit Distribution of Movies, Music (Subscription required)
The Washington Post: Suspected File-Sharing Hubs Raided (Registration required)
CNETís News.com: Justice Dept. Probes for Pirates
The Los Angeles Times: FBI Seizes File-Sharing Devices in Piracy Raid (Registration required)
The Journal has more details on the P2P crackdown: "No charges have been filed, and Mr. Ashcroft wouldn't reveal the name of the ISP while the investigation continues. He said the five networks had made 45 terabytes of materials available for distribution, or material the equivalent of more than four times the size of the print collection of the Library of Congress. The networks consisted of individuals who, as a condition of participation, were required to make available for download as much as 100 gigabytes of material," the article said.
The Post said that in the sting, "FBI agents raided residences in Texas, Wisconsin and New York where people were suspected of operating 'hubs' of file-sharers that were part of a system called the Underground Network. About 7,000 users connected to the network via file-sharing software known as Direct Connect, according to law enforcement officials. Among the copyrighted works that were downloaded for free by an undercover agent who signed up for the service was a studio-screening copy of the movie 'Cold Mountain,' before it had been released in theaters or on DVD. Altogether, the agent downloaded about 84 movies, 40 software programs, 13 games and 178 sound recordings from five hub sites, according to court documents," the paper said.
The New York Times wrote that Justice "has stepped up enforcement of copyright law this year, but until now it has focused on organizations known as warez groups, which steal copies of movies and other materials to make them available to downloaders." The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit technology advocacy group, told the Times that the feds seem not to be going after individuals in their new hunt. "By pursuing the leaders of a private peer-to-peer group, the Justice Department appears to be broadening its enforcement of copyright law online but is steering clear of prosecuting individual users who download songs or other material, said Fred von Lohmann," an EFF senior staff attorney. "They are trying to show they are being responsive to the concerns of Hollywood," he told the paper. "But they are wise not to take on the 20 million Americans who are downloading music today."
The New York Times: U.S. Searches Computers, Trying to Disrupt Piracy (Registration required)
The Underground Network leaders could face an uncertain legal road ahead. "Attorney Robert Andris said ... hub operators, if ultimately charged with criminal copyright infringement, would face legal tests similar to those seen in the civil cases of Napster and Grokster. However, criminal cases do have a higher standard of proof, he said," News.com reported. "'A court would be looking at essentially the same conduct [as in the civil cases],' said Andris, a partner with Ropers Majeski Kohn and Bentley in Redwood City, Calif. 'What it comes down to is the ability to control [swapping activity], and knowledge that it's going on.'"
Justice's probe might reach beyond the network targeted yesterday. "John Malcolm, who left the Justice Department this year to lead the Motion Picture Association of America's anti-piracy efforts, said Wednesday's announcement ... sent an important message that even private file-sharing groups, such as the one targeted Wednesday, weren't anonymous," the Los Angeles Times reported. "I would not assume that this is a surgical strike, if you will, and the investigation won't head off into other peer-to-peer systems," he told the paper.