Studios file lawsuits over movie distribution

May 9, 2008 1:33:23 PM PDT
Three film studios have sued four Ohio residents to stop them from illegally sharing movies online, part of a string of similar lawsuits filed around the country in recent years. The Ohio residents have distributed the films "Hitch," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and "Good Night and Good Luck," among others, according to the lawsuits filed Thursday in U.S. District Court by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. and two subsidiaries of Sony Pictures -- Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. and Screen Gems Inc.

The four used BitComet, iMesh and Kazaa media sharing systems to disseminate copyrighted movies without permission, the studios claim in their simultaneous lawsuits.

The lawsuits are part of a bigger effort to reduce film piracy which the industry says costs it $18 billion a year, Elizabeth Kaltman, a spokeswoman with the Motion Pictures Association of America, said Friday.

The association has filed hundreds of similar lawsuits on behalf of studios around the country, part of an effort dating to the end of 2004, Kaltman said. Many of the cases have been settled by the defendants agreeing to pay movie companies a few thousand dollars apiece.

Last month, Disney Enterprises Inc. sued a Texas man for allegedly distributing illegal copies of "House of Wax" and "Bambi."

In March, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. sued a Missouri woman over what the studio said was illegally distributed copies of "Napoleon Dynamite" and "The Dukes of Hazzard."

In 2006, an Indiana woman paid $6,000 in damages and $4,403 in court costs to settle a lawsuit brought by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. over the alleged illegal copying of "Alien vs. Predator" and other films.

"We want to send a message to people that they're not anonymous when they're on the Internet," Kaltman said. "They are going to be held responsible for the consequences of their action."

The studios are also making their case through proposed legislation and education, including pointing people to studio Web sites where content is legally available for free, Kaltman said.

The lawsuits are similar to the approach the music industry took to stop the illegal downloading of music files. In the past few years the industry sued more than 30,000 people for illegal downloading, many of them college students using university Internet services.

The movie studios have been somewhat more creative in their approach to the problem, said Corynne McSherry, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit and online free-speech advocate.

But the film industry's lawsuits are still a big club to use against individuals and aren't all that successful in addressing the overall problem, McSherry said.

"It's thousands of people who are essentially being terrorized and intimidated," she said. "Paying lawyers a lot of money to sue your potential customers is a really bad approach to growing your business."

Phone numbers could not be found for three of the four individuals named in the lawsuits. A message was left with a fourth, John Mitchell of suburban Columbus. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. alleges Mitchell used iMesh to distribute "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" on July 9, 2005, without permission.

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