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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. authorities seized nine websites on Wednesday, accusing them of movie piracy by offering free access to movies such as "Toy Story 3".
Kevin Suh, vice president of content protection for the Motion Picture Association of America, a Hollywood trade group, called the action, "Operation In Our Sites", the "largest takedown of illegal movie and television websites in a single action by the federal government."
It involved U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other law enforcement agencies, and came a week after the White House unveiled an enforcement plan for tackling theft of intellectual property.
Warrants were issued in Manhattan federal court to shut down seven websites: TVshack.net, Movies-Links.tv, FilesPump.com, Now-Movies.com, PlanetMoviez.com, ThePirateCity.org and ZML.com.
NinjaVideo.net and NinjaThis.net were also shut down in another action, but authorities declined to give the location because the investigation is ongoing.
"If your business model is movie piracy, your story will not have a happy ending," Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
Bharara said copyright infringement over the Internet costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars.
Suh said past crackdowns have focused on the sale of pirated content, such as DVDs copied illegally.
This latest action marks a move to target websites that offer pirated content for free and make money by selling advertising or seeking donations.
"Their (the federal government's) shift in focus toward this kind of enforcement is extremely positive," Suh said.
TVshack.net showed an image for the Disney/Pixar movie "Toy Story 3," which is in its second week in theaters, with the words "Watch now."
Other websites targeted in the action had links to such films as "Knight and Day," "Jonah Hex" and "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," which are all playing in theaters.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District said in a statement that Movies-Links.TV had about 3.3 million visitors per month.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that as part of the action, authorities had seized assets from 15 banks, the e-commerce service Paypal and from investment and advertising accounts, but it did not elaborate on the assets. It also said that four residential search warrants had been carried out.
Pat Reilly, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said authorities would replace content on the websites with a banner saying the destinations had been shut down.
Reilly said further actions were expected against the operators of the websites.
Authorities did not disclose the names of the operators of the websites.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte