Elite Torrents, an invitation-only website for sharing pirated goods, received some unwelcome guests Wednesday: the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
Federal agents shut down Elite Torrents with an assist from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which accused the site of helping people make illegal copies of Hollywood films. Agents in eight states also executed search warrants against 10 Elite Torrents administrators and suppliers, potentially gathering evidence against thousands of other users.
The move was the first by federal law enforcement officials against people using BitTorrent software, the most popular tool for downloading pirated videos and large files. But the crackdown on BitTorrent-powered pirates is likely to become much more complicated: A new version of BitTorrent could render websites such as Elite Torrents obsolete, forcing the studios to go after infringers one by one.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division said that the investigation into Elite Torrents was continuing and that criminal charges were expected to be filed. The search warrants remained sealed Wednesday, and none of the suspected infringers' names were released.
Created by software developer Bram Cohen, BitTorrent speeds up the process of copying a large file online by letting users download small file chunks from multiple computers simultaneously. Unlike other file-sharing programs, however, the BitTorrent software does not give users a way to search for files stored on other users' computers.
Sites such as Elite Torrents, known as "tracker" sites, filled that gap. They compiled a searchable list of links to files stored on other computers, enabling people running BitTorrent file-sharing software to find and download them.
These sites proliferated quickly, but the MPAA has slowly been shutting them down through lawsuits and, in some cases, with the help of law enforcement agencies around the world. Of the 21 sites targeted before Elite Torrents, 90% have been shuttered, the MPAA said.
Reflecting the crackdown, Elite Torrents' site told visitors last week, "Don't worry, we are still here." It also offered a link to a bootlegged copy of "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith."
Early Wednesday morning, federal agents seized the computer that hosted the Elite Torrents site and put up a substitute Web page announcing its demise. With logos for the FBI and Homeland Security, the new page states that "individuals involved in the operation and use of the Elite Torrents network" could spend five years in prison if convicted of copyright felonies.
Elite Torrents, the first private tracker site to be taken down by authorities, made its links available only to invited members. It had more than 133,000 members and aided more than 2.1 million unauthorized downloads of more than 17,800 movies, TV shows, software programs and other files in the last four months, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Tracker sites have been attractive targets for anti-piracy efforts, but software developers are coming up with alternative ways to find "torrents" that would eliminate the need for centralized indexes. Most notably, on Tuesday, Cohen's team added a search function to the BitTorrent website, enabling people to find torrents wherever they may be stored on the Web.
Cohen said the site would search for authorized and unauthorized torrents but would remove links to pirated works if asked by the copyright owner.
Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the MPAA, said eliminating tracker sites would make it harder for the studios to attack online piracy. "But these are challenges we are fully prepared to meet," she said.