The company that produced "The Hurt Locker" sued thousands of so-far unidentified people it says illegally downloaded the Oscar-winning war movie, in one of the most direct efforts by the movie business to clamp down on the kind of digital piracy that has plagued the recorded-music industry.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by Voltage Pictures LLC, seeks damages and an injunction against 5,000 people it claims used an anonymous file-sharing protocol called BitTorrent to distribute copies of the movie, in some cases months before its release in U.S. theaters.
A critical success and the winner of the best-picture Oscar for 2009, "The Hurt Locker" nonetheless did poorly in theaters, taking in just $16.4 million domestically.
Though the movie business has not engaged in the kind of mass lawsuits that the music industry once used, digital piracy is a major concern.
In an email, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America said: "The MPAA and our member companies have absolutely nothing to do with these lawsuits."
A spokeswoman for the studio that distributed "The Hurt Locker," Summit Entertainment, had no comment. Lawyers for Voltage Pictures did not respond to email or telephone messages.
The movie business has generally focused on creating viable, legal ways for audiences to get movies. The studios also have sought the cooperation of Internet service providers in keeping pirated movies off their networks.
Eric Garland, chief executive of BigChampagne LLC, which tracks file-sharing activity, said in a recent interview: "The digital entertainment marketplace is overwhelmingly a pirate market."
Unlike earlier lawsuit campaigns by the music industry, which involved the coordinated efforts of numerous record labels and their trade organization, the "Hurt Locker" suit appears to be a unilateral effort by the film's producers, without the involvement of the Hollywood studios or their trade body.
Suing individuals for file sharing blew up into a public-relations nightmare for the Recording Industry Association of America. That trade organization in 2003 launched a massive legal campaign against tens of thousands of people alleged to have distributed music illegally online. After growing numbers of sympathetic defendants were identified—very young children, old people who said they didn't own computers, even a dead person—the music industry eventually abandoned the campaign. Some record executives maintained that the lawsuits had a deterrent effect.
The process of suing people for downloading can be complicated and costly. After the relatively straightforward task of recording the Internet protocol, or IP, address of each person offering a piece of media, the plaintiff must learn who that numerical address belongs to, generally by sending a subpoena to the Internet service provider associated with it.