Feds ice Net piracy

Operation in Our Sites to take down offenders

Homeland Security has come to Hollywood’s rescue.

A week after the White House unveiled a plan to combat copyright theft, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York launched Operation in Our Sites, a concerted effort with Hollywood, to take down dot coms that offer firstrun movies and TV shows for download.

Initiative, unveiled by ICE assistant secretary John Morton and reps from the major studios, guilds and the Motion Picture Assn. of America has already seized the domain names of nine websites. They include Movieslinks.tv, Planetmoviez.com, ZML.com, Thepiratecity.org, Filespump.com, TVShack.net, Now-Movies.com, NinjaVideo.net and NinjaThis.net. All had offered such pics as “Iron Man 2,” “The A-Team,” “Sex and the City 2,” “Avatar,” “Lost” and “Scrubs.”

The announcement was made in dramatic fashion on Wednesday, held in a soundstage amid sets under construction on the Disney lot, where Alan Bergman, prexy of the Walt Disney Studios, introduced Morton.

The nine sites have been shut down and an official legal notice was posted on them, alerting users to the seizures. Agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations also seized assets from banks, PayPal, investment and advertising accounts, and executed four residential search warrants in several states for other online ventures distributing entertainment.

Until now, efforts to shut down sites that pirate entertainment have been done on a one-off basis. Operation in Our Sites will be an ongoing effort, and not just in the U.S. but overseas, where ICE has jurisdiction to shut down pirates in 44 countries. Morton said 100 special agents in 11 states and the Netherlands had worked on shutting down the nine sites announced Wednesday.

“This battle won’t be won in the United States,” Morton said. “We have to wage this war globally.”

The org is also monitoring other items distributed over the Internet, such as counterfeit pharmaceuticals, software, electronics and various “products that threaten public health and safety.”

Undercover investigators downloaded a number of newly released movies from the Web sites and their affiliates.

Movieslinks alone attracted 3.3 million visitors last month, with 37,000 having watched “Sex and the City 2” in a single day. NinjaVideo offered “Iron Man 2” two days before of its release. More than 200 movies and 300 TV shows were found on that site. Combined, all of the sites shut down attracted 6.7 million visitors last month.

Most of the films found on the sites were recorded in theaters or obtained “from other sources” and then posted online within hours of their release, ICE said.

Hollywood has long been turning to the U.S. government for help to wage a war against piracy. This has been especially true now that more people can access the Internet at higher speeds and can connect using a variety of mobile platforms.

“Content theft online has become increasingly ubiquitous as technology and software improve and access to the Internet increases,” said Mike Robinson, chief of operations, content protection, for the MPAA. He noted that 39% of all Internet traffic in the world takes place on peer-to-peer download sites that trade copyrighted material.

That has impacted the amount of revenue studios can collect from their films and TV shows, with the sale of DVDs having taken the biggest hit. The lost revenue also has triggered job cuts across the biz.

An estimated 2.4 million people work in the film and TV production industry, which contributes nearly $80 billion each year to the U.S. economy, the MPAA said. But online piracy has made it difficult for studios to generate more coin from their digital divisions.

Paramount, alone said it distributes its product to more than 200 online platforms, but has faced the impact of piracy on a constant basis. Internet users have tried to download “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” more than 16 million times since it was released, according to Frederick Huntsberry, Paramount Pictures’ chief operating officer.

The commercialization of online piracy makes it difficult for consumers to distinguish between legitimate and illegal downloads, said Kathy Garmezy, associate executive director of government and international affairs for the Directors Guild of America. “If left unchecked, this illegal activity threatens the very ability of filmmakers to both earn a living and create the content that is enjoyed by billions around the world.”

She added that 70% of a film’s total revenue and 50% of that collected by a TV show comes from secondary markets.

Several of the dot coms shut down by ICE had also earned revenue from donations and advertising from companies that may not have known their ads were appearing on the sites, officials said.

As it continues monitoring the web for pirates, ICE said it will focus on pulling the plug on other distribution sites and digital content lockers that offer entertainment for free. It has no plans yet to go after and punish individuals that download such content. It will instead focus on educating them that the practice is illegal and “a serious crime.”

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