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Thousands of satellite television “pirates” in Florida and across North America are under attack by lawyers for DirecTV who have filed hundreds of federal lawsuits against consumers who allegedly bought mail-order decoders enabling them to steal the company’s digital programming. In U.S. District Court in South Florida, more than 300 suits were filed in May alone against consumers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. And many more actions are on the way — both locally and elsewhere, according to a spokesman for DirecTV. The new wave of litigation is the latest move by Los Angeles-based DirecTV in the Internet war between the company and satellite pirates looking to tap in for free. So-called “pirate Web sites” that sell decoders and advocate their use sometimes cast the fight as a matter of freedom of access to information. One site even taunts DirecTV for its “ineffective” strategy to solve “their tremendous piracy problem.” “What they want is freedom to steal,” said DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer. Mercer said there are no industry estimates of the losses caused by piracy. The recent South Florida defendants were identified by DirecTV two years ago following the seizure of records in a May 2001 raid on a California mail shipping facility called Fulfillment Plus. They were among more than 100,000 people named in those records as purchasers of illegally modified access cards. “It’s a nationwide campaign and just part of our comprehensive strategy to fight piracy,” Mercer said. “These are generally people who purchased devices to steal our signals on the Internet. We believe what we’re doing sends a very strong message.” DirecTV is demanding that violators be ordered to pay $10,000 in damages for each “pirate access device” purchased by a defendant, plus $850 in attorney fees. The $10,000 figure is the amount of damages that’s provided for in federal law. Mercer likened DirecTV’s legal blitz to past litigation efforts by the nation’s cable TV companies targeting thieves who tapped into their programming. “We never sued end users, as we call them, until very late last year,” Mercer said. “Effectively, we’ve opened up a new front in the war on signal theft.” DirecTV has hired law firms from around the country to bring cases. Cases in Florida are being handled by Stump, Storey Callahan & Dietrich in Orlando, Fla. James A. Boatman Jr., an associate at the firm, is the lead attorney. Boatman declined comment. Nine-year-old DirecTV is a division of Hughes Electronics Corp., which in turn is a unit of General Motors. Hughes had 2002 revenues of $8.9 billion. DirecTV is the nation’s largest provider of digital satellite television, delivering 225 channels from broadcast centers in Castle Rock, Colo., and Los Angeles to millions of U.S. subscribers via multiple satellites in orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth. Consumers pay between $34 and $88 a month for various programming packages. In its court filings, DirecTV says it has spent $1.25 billion developing its system. At the consumer end, that system features a small satellite dish, an integrated receiver/decoder and an access card that is necessary to operate the receiver-decoder. “Several major sources of pirate technologies” used the Fulfillment Plus facility in California to ship illegally modified equipment to customers, according to complaints filed by Boatman. Those manufacturers are identified as Vector Technologies, DSS-Stuff, DSSPro, DSS-Hangout, Whiteviper Technologies, Meadco, Intertek, Shutt Inc., and Canadian Security and Technology. Everyone identified in those records was sent a letter by DirecTV promising that the company would forgo litigation if they would surrender their illegal access devices, promise never to buy them again, and pay damages of approximately $3,500, Mercer said. Many people complied. So far, 8,700 consumers who balked have been hit with federal civil suits alleging violations of the Federal Communications Act and federal wiretap statutes. That includes approximately 5,000 lawsuits filed nationwide in May, Mercer said. Newspapers in Richmond, Va., and Allentown, Pa., recently have reported the filing of numerous federal signal theft suits in those states by DirecTV. “There was a wave of suits then because we had a statute of limitations deadline to meet at the end of May regarding the raid at the fulfillment center,” Mercer said. No case of alleged signal theft brought by DirecTV has yet gone to trial, he said. The new lawsuits filed in Miami briefly describe the ebb and flow of the ongoing e-battle between DirecTV and satellite freeloaders. “As part of its efforts to combat piracy, DirecTV periodically develops and administers electronic countermeasures, which are commonly referred to in the satellite piracy community as ‘ECMs.’ ECMs involve sending a stream of data that targets access cards using known modified software code and disables those access cards,” according to the suits. Pirates dubbed one highly successful company ECM “Black Sunday”. To fight it, the complaint says, they developed an armada of illegal devices with names like “bootloaders, dead processor boot boards, glitchers, HU loaders, emulators and unloopers.” In April, Mercer said, the company obtained many more names of possible future defendants in what he described as a “virtual raid” in which 18 computer servers were seized. They were being used to host 63 pirate Web sites operated in the U.S. and Canada,” he said. The largest site the company hit was “Decoder News.” It had 23,400 subscribers — people who paid for access to gain the latest software before hacking into the DirecTV system. “We are now analyzing the servers and extracting the names of end users from the forum parts of the sites,” Mercer said. “We fully intend to pursue them.”

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