EFF, among others, has the details. 20,000 BitTorrent users are being targeted not by the MPAA but by a group, “U.S. Copyright Group”, representing independent filmmakers. The lawsuits in question are actually John Doe suits based on information collecting with some BitTorrent filtering or monitoring software. 30,000 more users will be targeted over the next several months. All will receive essentially a settlement demand letter that, if not accepted, could lead to further legal action.
As EFF explains, the motivation here is pretty blatant compared to similar past efforts by DirecTV and the RIAA against their respective pirates. U.S. Copyright Group is looking specifically to generate a new revenue stream, not to punish infringement or deter piracy. As Fred von Lohmann says in the post, copyright law has indeed become unhitched from reality in this instance.
To me this suggests another potential target for reform. It is one thing for an intermediary to have a moneyed interest in publication and any subsequent infringement action. But lawyers who had nothing to do with production and distribution?
The revenue here might profit the filmmakers but it will undoubtedly benefit the lawyers prosecuting this scheme, whether the demands are settled or lead to subsequent suits. If we could limit the incentive for lawyers to propagate these settlement rackets, then everyone’s energy could be better focused on the legitimate question of how we reward creators for their efforts and encourage them to create more works.