A group of filmmakers has taken legal action against 20,000 individual consumers, accusing them of downloading and sharing copyrighted material without permission. The lawsuits, filed over the past few weeks in federal court in Washington, D.C., are an especially aggressive attempt to stem the ever-present piracy problem facing the film and music industries.

The filmmakers are being represented by the U.S. Copyright Group (USCG), a company whose mission is to stop movie copyright infringement and make illegal downloaders pay damages for the content they have stolen, according to its website, aptly named SaveCinema.org.

USCG describes itself, somewhat sketchily, as technology companies and a conglomeration [of] intellectual property law firms [that] work hand-in-hand with each other, and claims that it is owned by intellectual property lawyers with well over seventy combined years of legal and technical experience.

The company makes no bones about its strategy of pursuing exorbitant settlement amounts in an effort to deter future piracy. Research suggests that once a copyright infringer is forced to pay settlement damages far in excess of the actual cost of the stolen content, he will never steal copyrighted material again, USCG's website explains.

The suits are a two-step process. First, USCG files a so-called John Doe suit, in which the defendant is only identified by his or her IP address. The company then issues a subpoena to the appropriate internet service provider to match the address with a real, live defendant. According to USCG's website, the company sends out cease & desist letters demanding payment of damages before it fully pursues the suit.

Among the plaintiffs are the producers of the films Steam Experiment, Far Cry, Uncross the Stars, Gray Man, and Call of the Wild 3D. And the litigation is apparently just beginning; USCG has announced plans to file more lawsuits against 30,000 consumers who allegedly pirated five other films.

As internet access and online social networking have expanded in recent years, musicians and filmmakers have become increasingly frustrated by the extent to which consumers can enjoy their work for free. The first real shot across the bow came in 2000, when rock band Metallica filed suit against the popular music-sharing website Napster. The site was eventually forced to shut its doors, with legal download sites -- most notably iTunes -- taking its place.

In 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America began filing suit against individuals it said were stealing music over the internet.

The Association racked up 35,000 filings before abandoning its efforts in 2008, due in large part to the suits' damaging effect on its image: among the defendants were young children and struggling single mothers. One of those single mothers, Jammie Thomas-Rasset, was ordered in June to pay nearly $2 million after she was convicted of illegally downloading 24 songs to a music sharing website. The award amounted to $80,000 per song.

In any event, piracy is likely to become an even bigger problem in the coming decades. A 2006 study by the Motion Picture Association of America found that film studios lost $6.1 billion per year to piracy, a figure 75% higher than previous estimates of $3.5 billion annually. Additionally, the studies showed that pirates were disproportionately young -- in the United States, 71% were between the ages of 16 and 24, leaving them plenty of time to wreak more havoc.