A free speech advocacy organization with a history of tackling civil liberties issues in cyberspace has joined the legal defense team of a company sued by Hollywood for fueling the online movie trade.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that has represented hackers in the past, announced it would help represent MusicCity, the Nashville-based company several major movie and music companies sued in Los Angeles federal court last month for copyright infringement.

MusicCity distributes a software application called Morpheus, seen by the recording industry as the "next Napster" for its ability to maintain a growing network of users swapping copyright material online.

Napster users logged on to the company's central servers before a federal court judge ordered the song-sharing service offline. Morpheus is more of a pure peer-to-peer program, which eliminates the need for central servers and routes users directly into its online community.

Wednesday afternoon there were 485,000 people logged on the Morpheus network sharing more than 66 million files.

During the month of October, Morpheus users and others with similar software, transferred 1.81 billion files over the growing network, according to Webnoize, a company that analyzes digital entertainment industries.

The companies suing MusicCity include movie studios MGM, Columbia and Disney along with music companies Sony, Universal and Warner.

Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti said when the suit was filed last month "those named in this suit have sought to profit from works protected by copyright, without obtaining the copyright owner's permission."

But the San Francisco-based EFF sees a larger crackdown in effect and hopes to defend MusicCity by leaning on court precedent.

"Just as the entertainment industry tried to ban the VCR, now it aims to outlaw the technology that is the next killer app of the Internet," said EFF attorney Robin Gross said Tuesday.

Gross was referring to the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision that rebuffed the film industry's unsuccessful attempt to stop the sales of VCRs. The film industry thought movie piracy would run rampant, but the high court found that most people would use VCRs to simply "time-shift," record television programs for later viewing.