July 10, 2002 12:00 PM PDT

Studios sue defunct $1 movie site

The movie studio's trade association filed suit Tuesday against Film88.com, a would-be Internet video Web site that has allegedly popped up in several incarnations around the world.

Calling the site a "piratical, virtual 'video-on-demand' business," the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its member studios sued the company and an individual allegedly associated with it in a California federal court.

The suit largely appears to be aimed at stopping the site's owners from reappearing online in another incarnation. Film88 itself, whose operations were allegedly based at least partly out of Iran, has already been shut down and replaced with a message board and a note from the company's owners.

"We have made clear many times that we are not pirates," Film88.com's site now reads. "We have proposed to major studios in Hollywood to pay 30% of our movie rental price as copyright compensation...However, Hollywood has reacted negatively."

According to the MPAA's complaint, the same company, called Broadband Universal, allegedly has been responsible for two sites. The suit also names a Malaysian businessman, Alex Tan, and his California-based corporation, called MasterSurf.

The cat-and-mouse saga of Film88 provides a daunting window into the difficulties faced by movie studios, record labels and other copyright owners as Internet piracy takes on an increasingly international flavor. The film industry's trade association has successfully shut down movie-streaming sites at least twice. But as countries that lack strong copyright laws upgrade their network infrastructure, that type of enforcement action could become more difficult over time.

Film88's original incarnation, the lawsuit alleges, was based in Taiwan under the name Movie88. That site, which launched in February, provided the most sophisticated video-on-demand site seen to date on the Internet.

While the studios themselves were struggling to create similar sites, Movie88 allowed viewers to stream movies with a high video quality for just $1 apiece, using RealNetworks technology. The company offered hundreds of Hollywood movies to viewers.

Working with the Taiwanese authorities, the MPAA was able to shut that site down. Then Film88 appeared in June.

In an earlier interview, Film88 operator Hail Hami told News.com that the new company was separate from the older venture but had recruited staff and taken ideas from Movie88. Iran was chosen as a base partly because the country did not respect foreign copyrights, the company said.

But that site was also quickly shut down, after MPAA contacted an Internet service provider in the Netherlands that was hosting Film88's content.

Film88 representatives could not immediately be reached for comment. A message on Film88's site, addressed to "valued users and geeks," says that it has ceased operations for technical reasons and criticizes Hollywood for responding negatively to its 30 percent revenue-sharing offer.

Mark Litvack, the MPAA's worldwide legal director for anti-piracy efforts, said the site had never contacted his organization, although it might have approached individual studios. But that didn't matter, he said.

"To steal first and offer to pay later at a price that you determine unilaterally is not acceptable," Litvack said.

 

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