U.S. government sues operator of pirate comics website

The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday filed a lawsuit against Gregory Steven Hart, who operated HTMLcomics and five similar pirate websites.

The complaint asks for a federal judge to order Hart to forfeit the domain names of the sites -- among them, HTMLcomics.com, ComicBooksFree.com and PlayboyMonthly.com -- which the government says were used to commit criminal copyright infringement.

HTMLcomics hosted more than 100,000 copyrighted titles, from Batman and The Amazing Spider-Man to Hellboy and Dilbert. Hart had asserted that because the comics couldn't be downloaded, the website was legal and "like a lending library." He reportedly told his attorney the site received up to 500,000 hits a day.

In April the FBI searched Hart's home in Tampa, Florida, seizing records, hard drives, computers and DVDs containing copyrighted images. The raid followed an investigation spurred by a consortium of publishers and copyright owners, including Marvel, DC Comics, Dark Horse, Bongo Comics, Archie Comics, Conan Properties International, Mirage Studios and United Media.

Hart claimed as recently as December that he had spoken with Marvel representatives, and "all is good." "Our approach is not distribution," he wrote on a comics forum, "hence the reason we've been around for over a year, and will be around for a long time to come. Google is using our site as a reference of how to create an online library, and not violate copyright laws."

However, according to the lawsuit, Marvel and other companies sent letters to Hart demanding that he remove their publications from the site. Curiously, Hart reportedly said that if no publisher agreed to a revenue-sharing arrangement, he would continue to operate the site without charging users.

At the time of the HTMLcomics shutdown, Hart had more than 6 million pages from some 5,700 separate series.

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