It's also the first time the association is suing organizations that direct their members to the Usenet newsgroup system, an MPAA spokeswoman said. The movie group makes little distinction between a peer-to-peer network and the search engines that point to pirated works, saying that all facilitate the distribution of copyright works.
"Disabling these powerful networks of illegal file distribution is a significant step in stemming the tide of piracy on the Internet," John Malcom, MPAA director of Worldwide Antipiracy operations, said in a statement.
The issue of targeting search engines rather than actual file-swapping networks themselves is a delicate one, because search engines such as Google and Yahoo can also be used to find illegal files.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects search engines from getting sued for association to swapped works, but only if the site operators are not aware that the content is infringing, are not receiving financial gain from the links, and act quickly to remove the links when contacted by copyright holders.
Contrary to traditional search engines such as Google, the sites targeted Thursday are filled almost exclusively with links and references to copyright movies, software and music.
IsoHunt, one of the largest search engines targeted, does provide a copyright statement that says, "We respect copyright, and will filter such P2P links at your request." The full list of sites sued Thursday include Torrentspy.com, IsoHunt, BTHub.com, TorrentBox.com, NiteShadow.com, Ed2k-It.com, NZB-Zone.com, BinNews.com and DVDRs.net.
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) attorney Fred von Lohmann said that the courts had not yet ruled on whether search tools could be held liable for copy infringement. Most relevant cases, such as record labels' suit against MP3Board several years ago, have been settled before the issue has come to trial, he said.
"We haven't had a case that really tests the case of whether providing an indexing service by itself an infringement," von Lohmann said.
The MPAA has had a string of successes targeting sites that distribute movies in the BitTorrent file format, shutting down popular hubs such as Suprnova, LokiTorrent, and others. Earlier this week, Hollywood announced that it had collaborated with Swiss and Belgian police to shut down (see CDRinfo's previous news a major European server called Razorback 2, part of the eDonkey network, which was used by as many as 1 million people.
The MPAA previously announced an agreement with BitTorrent.com, the creators of the BitTorrent file-swapping technology who also run a file search engine. Under that agreement, BitTorrent agreed to take down links to feature films in its search tool.