Hollywood acts to stamp out nightmare of internet pirates

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The Independent Online

Hollywood has joined the music industry in its court battle to stamp out piracy and illegal bartering of their products on the internet. The major film studios this week abruptly stepped into the fray by suing a website that allows users to exchange entire films online.

Hollywood has joined the music industry in its court battle to stamp out piracy and illegal bartering of their products on the internet. The major film studios this week abruptly stepped into the fray by suing a website that allows users to exchange entire films online.

The studios are asking the courts to shut down a little known website called Scour.com. If movie buffs can't be bothered going to the cinema to catch Mel Gibson in The Patriot or George Clooney in The Perfect Storm, but don't fancy waiting for the videos, they can just power up their PCs and find them there.

Just as music lovers have been trading music online for months - most commonly via a site called Napster - film fans are finding the same can be done with movies. This is not confined to old releases - Gladiator or Mission: Impossible 2 may also be available.

The prospect is a nightmare for Hollywood. While the record labels have already been forced to confront the copyright implications of music exchange via the Web, the studios assumed they were immune, for a while at least, because cyber-technology did not allow individuals to download the huge files needed for films.

But the "napsterisation" of film is happening and the movie moguls are starting to panic. With technology being dubbed DivX, websites are appearing that allow users to downloadfilm trailers and, in some cases, entire features on to ordinary CDs in their PCs. DivX is revolutionary because it compresses films to such an extent that downloading is fairly quick.

Hollywood is realising that unless it moves fast, it could quickly lose control of its product to cyber-pirating. In the first shot of a war that is likely to intensify, all the large studios, in alliance with industry associations and the music labels, this week filed suit againstScour, asking the courts to shut the site down.

Scour is essentially Napster plus. While Napster, using MP3 files, is all about music, Scour allows users to trade music, still photographs and entire films. Users may even find copies of feature films released in America but still weeks away from appearing on British screens.

Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America said: "This lawsuit is about stealing. It's a harsh word, but it's the only one that fits. Creative works are valuable property, and taking them without permission is stealing. Technology may make stealing easy; it doesn't make it right."

The suit, filed in a New York court, comes as a judge in San Francisco is preparing to rule next week on a request by the music industry for an injunction to close down Napster.

Ironically, one of those who first spotted Scour after it was developed by university students in California was Michael Ovitz, a former president of Disney. Mr Ovitz, one of its first investors, still holds 20 per cent. He runs Artists Management Group, which looks after movie talent and has interests in production, and so is in the unusual position of being, in effect, a co-defendant in a suit filed by the industry of which he is part.

Nobody is blaming the industry for taking fright. It has always been possible to find bootlegged copies of new films, but that is nothing compared with the prospect of almost anyone acquiring commercial music or films online for free.

But some say the industry is overreacting. The Net research firm Jupiter Communications concluded that Napster is actually boosting interest in music and hence high-street CD sales. "We found that Napster usage is one of the strongest determinants of increased music buying," Jupiter said. "The labels are absolutely ridiculous to come crying to the courts".

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