Although Hollywood lobbyists have worked closely with their colleagues in the music industry in recent years to stiffen the laws against illegal downloading, the MPAA has been less visible than the Recording Industry Association of America in using lawsuits to crack down on online piracy.
Since September 2003, recording industry lawyers have sued more than 6,100 people suspected of stealing copyrighted music. The film industry held off on suing individual downloaders until last month, when the MPAA announced that the major Hollywood studios would sue about 200 people as the first salvo of a legal blitz modeled on the music industry campaign.
Unlike the music industry, which saw compact disc sales fall around the same time that file-swapping services like the first Napster were gaining in popularity in the late 1990s, movie makers have seen steady growth in both box office and DVD sales. Even with a high-speed Internet connection, it can still take hours to download a feature-length film, while a song can take less than a minute.
But both Glickman and his predecessor, Jack Valenti, have said that studios need to get a handle on the problem before advances in Internet technology make it as easy to download a film as it is now to download a song. As MPAA chairman, Valenti was fond of citing an experiment in which scientists in California transmitted a feature length film over a next-generation network in a few seconds.
Eric Garland, chief executive of BigChampagne LLC, an Atlanta-based firm that monitors peer-to-peer networks, said the lab experiments are a long way from making it into people's homes, and he said BitTorrent is limited by the number of users hosting a given file.
"We are for the foreseeable future living in a world where most of us, most of the time will require hours to download a movie from BitTorrent or eDonkey, or any other sort of file-transfer technology," Garland said. For now downloading movies is mainly the province of college students and other tech-savvy young people who have a lot of time on their hands, Garland said.
In November, BigChampagne reported that file swappers on the major networks traded about 1.4 billion songs compared to roughly 32 million feature films.
But the MPAA's Malcolm said online piracy is a threat to the movie industry in the short term. "This is a problem that is growing. It is a problem where I fear if we don't take action now, we will be where the recording industry is and it won't be far off in the future."
RIAA President Cary Sherman said he is glad filmmakers are wading into the enforcement effort. "If you have 10 stores in the strip mall each with a security guard instead of one, it's going to be a safer strip mall."
Members of the movie and recording industries previously partnered in an ongoing legal action targeting an earlier generation of file-sharing services. The plaintiffs, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Disney and Warner Bros., sued file-sharing companies Grokster and Streamcast, arguing that they allow illegal song- and film-swapping on their networks.
In that case, a federal appeals court ruled earlier this year that the defendants were not responsible if their software was ultimately used to steal copyrighted works. The Supreme Court last week said it would review the case in 2005.