Hundreds of Internet users, including college students, may be subject to lawsuits beginning Tuesday from the Motion Picture Association of America for illegally downloading movies. The MPAA has already sent out cease and desist orders to tens of thousands of suspected downloaders, including some GW students, University officials said.
The suits are the latest development in the media industry crackdown on Internet piracy. The MPAA forecasts an ongoing litigation campaign that will closely mirror what the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents music labels, has already done.
Since September 2003, the RIAA has filed more than 6,200 suits against Internet users, including three GW students. It is unclear at this point if any GW students will be named in the initial round of MPAA lawsuits.
Rich Taylor, vice president of public affairs for the MPAA, said the suits have become necessary because the increasing availability of high-speed Internet connections has made it easier to share extremely large video files. Taylor noted that the intent of the suits is to educate the public while curbing the swell of movie files being posted and swapped on the Web.
“The idea is to close the barn door before the horses get out,” Taylor said.
Taylor also said the MPAA has been monitoring the Internet Protocol addresses of users who are suspected of sharing movies illegally over peer-to-peer networks such as KaZaa, eDonkey and Gnutella. IP addresses can be used to identify computers.
Taylor said the MPAA does not yet know the identities of these users, and that the first step in the litigation is to subpoena the names of individuals from Internet Service Providers, including colleges and universities.
“The suits just go out against John Doe,” Taylor said. “You don’t know who you are filing the suit against.”
The lawsuits seek up to $150,000 in financial damages per motion picture shared in violation of copyright law. Taylor said the movie industry loses $3.5 billion per year due to piracy and that the increasing number of films posted on the Web will only make that figure grow.
“If we forecast ahead and do nothing at all, we’ll see real (financial) damage,” Taylor said.
Alexa Kim, communications director for Student and Academic Support Services, said GW does not plan to take any immediate action in response to the MPAA suits. Kim’s department engineered a deal this summer with Napster and iTunes that allows students to legally download music files.
“Students know it’s illegal, so I don’t anticipate that we’ll be sending out an advisory,” Kim said.
Kim said specific students suspected of downloading movies have already received warnings about their Internet use. The MPAA has sent out tens of thousands of cease and desist notices to the Internet Service Providers of targeted IP addresses in advance of the lawsuits.
Kim confirmed that GW has received such notices and that they have been passed along to the responsible students.
Taylor said many of the lawsuit targets have received and ignored such notices, but that the MPAA makes no assurance that a warning will be sent before litigation is filed.
After the RIAA sued three GW students, the University established contracts with Napster and iTunes in an attempt to curtail illegal music sharing on campus. Kim said that out of 7,100 students eligible to use the systems, approximately 2,200 have activated their subscriptions.
Although there are no plans for GW to implement a legal movie downloading service, Kim said it is still within the realm of possibility.
“Those services are not nearly as mature as the music services,” Kim said. “But that’s definitely an option that students have expressed interest in for the future.”