U.S. law enforcers said yesterday that they have shut down a computer network that distributed illegal copies of "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" before it appeared in movie theatres.
Federal agents executed 10 search warrants and seized the main server computer in a network that allowed people to download nearly 18,000 movies and software programs, including many current releases, the FBI and Homeland Security Department said.
The Elite Torrents network, found online at www.elitetorrents.org, relied on a technology called BitTorrent that allows users to quickly download digital movies and other large files by copying them from many computers at once.
The network signed up 133,000 members who collectively downloaded 2.1 million files, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Homeland Security Department.
Visitors to the Web site on Wednesday saw a notice that read, "This site has been permanently shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement."
The raid targeted administrators of the network and those who provided movies and other copyrighted material. Similar cases in the past have found that such "first providers" are typically entertainment-industry insiders, rather than outside hackers.
Agents executed search warrants in Arizona, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. No arrests have been made, but the investigation continues, ICE spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback said.
Elite Torrents offered a "virtually unlimited" selection of material, ICE said. The latest Star Wars movie was available on the network more than six hours before it was first shown in theatres, and within 24 hours it was copied more than 10,000 times.
The Motion Picture Association, an industry group, helped with the investigation, ICE said. Movie studios are trying to avoid the fate of the music industry, which claims it has lost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sales due to online file sharing.
Digital movies are about 50 times larger than music files, which makes them more cumbersome to download. New technologies like BitTorrent, however, and increased high-speed Internet use are closing the gap.
The MPAA has managed to shut down at least five BitTorrent networks through lawsuits and has also sued individuals who use them.
BitTorrent networks have caused headaches for software makers as well. Apple Computer has sued three men for posting the latest version of its OS X operating system on a BitTorrent site six months before it was commercially released.