The movie industry announced yesterday it will file its first wave of lawsuits later this month against those it alleges are illegally sharing copyrighted films on the Internet, joining the music industry in its fight against piracy.
The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents major Hollywood studios such as Sony Pictures Entertainment and Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures Corp., plans to file about 200 suits against computer users who put illegally obtained movies on Internet file-sharing services for other users to download and watch for free.
"We haven't suffered the damage that the music industry has, but we needed some form of preemptive activity," the MPAA's new president, Dan Glickman, said in an interview yesterday. "I am reminded of that John Kennedy quote: 'The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.' "
The movie companies plan to file the lawsuits in federal courts around the country beginning Nov. 16. The lawsuits will typically identify culprits as "John Does," since the industry can identify only the Internet accounts of hard drives where it believes pirated movies are and does not know the names of the holders of those accounts. Following a strategy employed by the music industry, subpoenas are then sought to determine the names of the account holders and establish defendants.
Glickman said the suits are one element of the movie industry's three-pronged attack against piracy. The other two are educating consumers about copyright and offering what Glickman calls "hassle-free" low-cost ways to buy and rent movies online.
The industry's attempts at the latter, such as Movielink and CinemaNow, on which users pay to rent movies by downloading them, have met with limited success. Walt Disney Co. is testing its own movie-delivery system, called MovieBeam, which sends movies to a special set-top box via over-the-air television waves.
Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based advocacy group that favors broad access to digital copyrighted material, said that the industry has a right to sue to protect its copyright but that Glickman is right in saying consumers must be given a viable legal alternative, or people will continue stealing movies.
The industry needs "an iPod for movies," said Sohn, referring to Apple Computer Inc.'s popular digital song player. Apple's online music store, which sells songs for the iPod for 99 cents each, has been emulated by other companies. Also, "the movie industry needs to clean up its own house," she said, referring to pre-release copies of first-run films that get smuggled out of studios and wind up on the Internet. Typically, pirated movies found on the Internet are of low quality, having been recorded with hand-held devices in movie theaters.
The suits are the first major act of Glickman's new tenure and mark a fundamental split in philosophy from his predecessor Jack Valenti, who found filing suits against potential customers, as the Recording Industry Association of America has done, distasteful. Some studios shared the sentiment and were worried what the suits would do to their image, studio sources said. In the end, though, all signed on.
"I think it's beyond stealing," said Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. chief executive Alex Yemenidjian, among the strongest studio advocates for the suits. "It's dangerous to teach an entire generation of American kids that stealing physical property is not okay but stealing intellectual property is okay."
Identification of the first defendants began on Valenti's watch, but Glickman said he made the decision to sue.
The four major music labels, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI Group PLC and the newly formed Sony BMG Music Entertainment, have filed nearly 6,000 lawsuits against users, typically settling for less than $5,000 each.
"The actions of our colleagues at the MPAA reinforce the message that stealing is against the law and can have consequences," RIAA chief executive Mitch Bainwol said in a statement yesterday.
In September 2003, when the RIAA launched the suits, Kazaa had 9.5 million unique weekly users, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. The number has dropped steadily since and stood at 2.1 million per week in September of this year.
The movie industry estimates that it loses more than $3 billion a year in revenue because of illegal movie-sharing on the Internet and sales of pirated DVDs and smaller versions of DVDs typically sold in Asia.
The movie industry has launched an anti-piracy campaign modeled after its well-known movie-rating system. A new logo has a capital "I" and reads: "Illegal Downloading: Inappropriate for all ages."
An MPAA poster shows hundreds of e-mail addresses and Internet addresses and reads: "Is This You? If you think you can get away with illegally trafficking in movies, think again."