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MPAA Ups Litigation Against Consumers

12 May, 2008 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Taking a page from the music industry's counter-piracy playbook, the Motion Picture Association of America last week filed separate copyright infringement lawsuits against five Ohio residents for allegedly accessing and distributing movies illegally on the Internet.

The suits, filed May 7 in U.S. District Court of Ohio in Columbus, claimed defendants Mike Thompson, Irevor Lisi, Larry Mercer, Jack Mitchell and John Mitchell in 2005 and 2006 used file-sharing services BitComet, KaZaA and iMesh to illegally access movie files of Constantine, Good Night and Good Luck (Warner Bros.), The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hitch (Sony Pictures) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (20th Century Fox), among others.

In addition to unspecified financial damages, the suits seek to stop the defendants from further copyright infringement; destruction of all downloaded and burned copies of aforementioned titles and legal costs.

The file-sharing services were not named in the suits.

Elizabeth Kaltman, communications director with the MPAA, said the suits were part of a multi-pronged effort that includes legislation, education and public awareness to curb piracy in the United States.

“[Consumer] suits are not the cornerstone of our litigation strategy. However, they have been a tool in our [arsenal] to help raise awareness about the consequences of engaging in these activities and to remind people that they are not anonymous on the Internet,” Kaltman said. “There are consequences.”

She said there are numerous third-party sites whereby movies and TV shows can be downloaded legally.

Corynne McSherry, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group, said the suits displayed an increased fervor by the MPAA, which she said has been quietly using the courts to go after individuals since 2004.

By comparison, McSherry said the Recording Industry Association of America has filed legal actions against more than 30,000 people, including students, for allegedly accessing pirated music online.

“It's unfortunate that MPAA is following this approach,” McSherry said. “File sharing is hotter than ever. Millions are still doing it. [It's] not being demolished or arguably diminished by litigation.”

She said the defendants would be under financial pressure to settle rather than push for a trial. McSherry said she believed previous settlements between individuals and studios ranged from $3,500 to $5,000.

She said fighting the studios in court would incur substantial legal costs, including $350-to-$700 hourly attorney fees.

“Attorneys don't come cheap,” McSherry said.

She said studios have been more proactive than record labels regarding dissemination of their content on the Internet. And she agreed there is a difference pursuing commercial pirates versus individuals.

“[It's] not a very clever business model to sue your [potential] best customer,” the lawyer said.

The MPAA earlier this year retracted a previous claim that 44% of movie piracy in the United States was committed by college students. The trade group later downsized the estimate to 15%.

The trade group is using the data to push for federal legislation mandating colleges and universities enact stricter filters on their networks.

“No matter how many times you sue, it is just a drop in the bucket,” McSherry said. “Right now [file sharers] are your enemies. Make them your customers.”

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