The record industry's anti-piracy czar has given a thumbs-up to Operation Digital Gridlock, the Justice Department's attempt to snare individuals who illegally distribute copyrighted material on peer-

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The record industry's anti-piracy czar has given a thumbs-up to Operation Digital Gridlock, the Justice Department's attempt to snare individuals who illegally distribute copyrighted material on peer-to-peer networks.

Attorney General John Ashcroft revealed the initiative on Aug. 25. Congress passed the "Pirate" law this year to allow the filing of criminal charges in piracy cases.

The announcement followed raids by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Texas, New York and Wisconsin, in which computers were seized as part of an investigation into the piracy of copyrighted movies, music and games over P2P networks.

A search was also conducted at Dallas-based Internet service provider Daily Planet, which was not a target for prosecution.

Brad Buckles, executive VP of anti-piracy for the Recording Industry Assn. of America, said in a statement that the raids are "another sign that the federal government places a high priority on enforcement of our intellectual property laws. The import of [Ashcroft's] announcement is unmistakable -- those who use peer-to-peer technologies to deliberately and intentionally flout the law will be held accountable. The consequences may not be simply a civil lawsuit, but criminal prosecutions and jail time."

The warrants issued in the sweep sought evidence about the operators of five hubs of the "Underground Network," an organization of about 7,000 users who, as DOJ prosecutors charge, repeatedly violated federal copyright laws by swapping material online.

Arrests are expected following examination of the evidence, investigators say. The maximum penalty for copyright infringement under the new law is a fine of $250,000 and a five-year prison sentence.

Intellectual-property lawyers contacted by Billboard all agree that federal officers already had the authority to employ criminal prosecutions in piracy cases, but had to be prodded by Congress to enter the new arena of online piracy.

Michael S. Elkin of Thelen, Reid & Priest says, "It's about time that DOJ acted." Elkin was a litigator on the record-industry side in the 2000 case against MP3.com. He is also chairman of the firm's entertainment, media and litigation groups.

Elkin believes law enforcement has been slow to take on digital piracy criminal cases. "I don't think it should have taken Congressional action," he says of the passage of legislation earlier this year that more or less authorizes ("enhances" is the wording in the legislation) the feds to criminally prosecute egregious IP violators.

"The copyright statute is designed to provide prosecutions both criminal and civil," says Elkin. "But up until now, the prosecution efforts have been undertaken by private litigants. And I don't think there is anything groundbreaking or unusual about the types of violations that Justice is clamping down on. These are clear violations that have been recognized by the courts, at least on the civil side."

Elkin also points out that "of course, in criminal prosecutions, the standard of proof will be higher."

Jason Schultz, a lawyer with the free-Internet group the Electronic Freedom Foundation, says, "I note that DOJ didn't go after home end users like you and me, but people operating 'rings.' But looking at the big picture, you've got to ask, Are these actions doing to change anything? Despite the RIAA's lawsuits against individuals, P2P use is still up. Will the DOJ's prosecutions change that? I don't think they will."