LOS ANGELES — The movie industry is hunting down people who swap digital films online and demanding that their Internet service be cut off — all part of an effort to stamp out piracy and avoid the online trading frenzy that has plagued the music business.
The Motion Picture Association of America uses a special search engine to scour the Web for copyright movies, which circulate on the same peer-to-peer software networks as MP3 music files.
Since 2001, more than 100,000 customers have been ordered to stop their activities through cease-and-desist letters sent from their Internet service providers, the MPAA said.
In a newer initiative, AOL Time Warner’s broadband division has begun trying to identify and stop customers who upload huge amounts of data — which in almost all cases means people trading bulky video or music files.
“We are not blocking the use of any applications or access to any Web sites,” said Mark Harrad, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. “But we are doing various things to manage bandwidth better and to interfere with people who are in violation of (their) service agreements.”
Harrad declined to elaborate on interference techniques. But he denied the effort was specifically targeted at people swapping music and movie files, saying the issue is bandwidth hogs, not piracy.
AOL Time Warner owns one of the seven major studios, Warner Brothers, a member of the MPAA. It also owns Warner Music Group, one of the five major record companies.
Meanwhile, Rep. Howard Berman, D.-Calif., is preparing legislation that would allow entertainment companies to obstruct the peer-to-peer networks with a variety of invasive electronic techniques, including software that blocks file transfers, redirects users to other sites or confuses users with fake files.
Privately, music industry officials already admit to frustrating file traders by putting up bogus files. Individuals trying to download unauthorized tracks from Eminem’s latest CD last month, for example, occasionally got files containing only a single verse repeated continuously, rather than a complete song.
Such acts by companies could, however, be illegal today under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Current rules allow people to duplicate copyright material for their own use. But the distribution power of the Internet, which allows someone to share a personal copy with millions, has left the concept of “fair use” unclear.
Movie files are harder to share over peer-to-peer networks because they are significantly larger than music files. At more than 600 megabytes, a full length movie can easily take six hours to download over broadband. By contrast, an average music file of six megabytes takes a few minutes.
But Hollywood studios worry that the rising number of broadband connections and improved video compression techniques will open the door to runaway piracy.
Between 400,000 and 600,000 copies of movies are downloaded illegally each day, according to the consulting firm Viant. Though far fewer than the 3 billion daily music downloads off the now-defunct music swapping site Napster at its peak, it’s enough to spook the movie industry.
“Our industry could be damaged as much as the music industry,” said Ken Jacobsen, senior vice president of worldwide antipiracy at the MPAA.
The MPAA uses special monitoring software from San Diego-based Ranger Online Inc. The automated software provides the Internet address of the file-swapper, which the MPAA forwards to the relevant Internet provider.
The MPAA then asks the provider to contact the user with an ultimatum: Remove the copyright files from your computer or have your service disconnected.
Almost everyone served with a cease-and-desist letter by their Internet provider complies, Jacobsen said. The group said it does not keep records of how many users have actually been disconnected, though at least one recipient has fought back.
InternetMovies.com, a Hawaii-based Web site, filed suit against the MPAA for causing a business disruption after it was tagged for illegal file-swapping and had its Internet service disconnected. Jacobsen said the MPAA will wage a vigorous defense.
Some critics of the MPAA’s initiative question how long Internet providers will continue to assist the hunt against their own customers.
It’s just too expensive for the providers to lose those customers, said Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group representing defendants in copyright infringement suits.
“Hollywood is pressuring intermediaries to do their police work. That was never the intention of copyright law,” von Lohmann said.
But the MPAA says Internet providers have many reasons to cooperate: They don’t want illegal activity on their networks, they don’t want to be exposed to litigation and they don’t want users eating up extra bandwidth by trading large movie files.