PARIS -- The curtain has risen on the third act of one of the most ambitious French musical productions, one whose goal is to end digital piracy.
More than two years after France approved a tough crackdown on copyright cheats, the agency that oversees it sent its first cases to the courts last week. Some repeat offenders may temporarily be cut off from the Internet.
Studies show that the appeal of piracy has waned in France since the so-called three-strikes law, hailed by the music and movie industries and hated by advocates of an open Internet, went into effect. Digital sales, which were slow to get started in France, are growing. Music industry revenues are starting to stabilize.
"I think more and more French people understand that artists should get paid for their work," said Pascal Nègre, president of Universal Music France. "I think everybody has a friend who has received an e-mail. This creates a buzz. There is an educational effect."
But the curtain has not yet come down for the fallen file-sharers. As a presidential election nears, opposition to the law is heating up.
Rivals of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who championed the measure, say that it infringes on civil liberties. His opponents, building on the momentum from a successful campaign to defeat two U.S. congressional bills aimed at curbing piracy, as well as a swell of protest against an international copyright treaty, want to repeal or revamp the French law.
The agency that administers the three-strikes system, known by the French abbreviation Hadopi, had sent 822,000 warnings by e-mail to suspected offenders as of the end of December. Those were followed up by 68,000 second warnings, issued through registered mail. Of those, 165 cases have gone on to the third stage, under which the courts are authorized to impose fines of €1,500, or nearly $2,000, and to suspend Internet connections for a month.
Éric Walter, the secretary general of Hadopi, said that the relatively low number of third-stage offenders showed that the system had succeeded.
"Our work is to explain to people why piracy is a bad thing and why they should stop," he said during an interview in the agency's nondescript headquarters behind the Montparnasse train station in Paris. "When the people understand that, they stop. Of course, some people don't want to understand. Then we have to transfer their dossiers to the justice system."
A report commissioned by Hadopi, which has a budget of €11 million and employs 70 people, showed a sharp decline in file-sharing since the system was put in place.
A separate study by researchers at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh suggests that Hadopi has given a lift to legal downloads via the Apple iTunes music store. Since the spring of 2009, when the debate over the measure was raging, through mid-2011, iTunes sales rose much more strongly in France than in other European countries.
While there is no proof that Hadopi was responsible, the study says the case for a link was bolstered by the fact that sales of musical genres that suffer from high levels of piracy, like hip-hop, rose much more than sales of low-piracy genres, like Christian and classical music. The researchers calculated that Hadopi resulted in an extra €13.8 million a year worth of iTunes music sales in France. Adding the potential benefit to other legitimate digital music services, including fast-growing online streaming services, which provide music for online playback rather than downloads, the gain could have been substantially larger, they said.
"We suggest that with regard to mitigation of sales displacement by piracy, a national anti-piracy policy combined with educational efforts is much more effective in the longer term than a small number of high-profile lawsuits," the researchers wrote.
The question of how to deal with piracy has vexed media executives, exercised policy makers and polarized the public debate in many countries.
After sites like Napster appeared more than a decade ago, the recording industry in the United States pursued a campaign of lawsuits against individual file-sharers, but later backed away because of widespread objections.
Since then, the U.S. authorities and media industries appear to have focused much of their attention on the supply side of the piracy equation. In January, the U.S. Justice Department shut down Megaupload, a so-called locker service. It charged seven people connected with Megaupload with aiding piracy.
The U.S. music and movie industries reached an agreement with major Internet service providers last year to develop a system in which the providers would take "mitigation measures" against accused copyright infringers; those steps could include slowdowns in connection speeds. But the mechanism has yet to be implemented, and it stops short of the French approach, which is enshrined in law and has tougher penalties.
Several other countries, including South Korea and New Zealand, have adopted French-style anti-piracy measures. In South Korea, where the law took effect in 2009, music sales rose 12 percent in 2010 and 6 percent in 2011, according to the music industry federation. Sales in other countries mostly continued to decline.
Lawmakers in Britain have also approved a three-strikes law, though it has yet to be implemented. But there is other evidence in Europe that tougher online copyright enforcement can lift media industry revenues, at least briefly. Music sales rose 10 percent in Sweden in 2009, for example, after the country tightened up its copyright laws, bringing previously lax standards into line with E.U. norms.
Mr. Nègre, at Universal Music, said it was probably no coincidence that Sweden and France had produced the two big European success stories in the legitimate digital music market: the streaming services Spotify and Deezer. These companies -- the former was founded in Sweden, the latter in France -- resemble pirate sites in that they give users access to millions of songs free, at least for their basic services.
Even opponents of Hadopi acknowledge that the law has resulted in a change in online behavior, though they dispute whether its effect on music industry sales has been beneficial.
Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, a group that campaigns against restrictions on the Internet, said the law had resulted in increased use of virtual private network software and other anonymity tools.
"Apparently some of its intimidation is having a psychological effect," he said of the three-strikes law, but added: "The political costs of creating an institution like this are tremendous."
Stories like that of Robert Thollot, a teacher who lives near Saint-Étienne, in central France, have not helped. Mr. Thollot was accused of illegally downloading songs by David Guetta and Rihanna, as well as the film "Iron Man 2."
Mr. Thollot argued that someone had pirated his log-on to a nationwide Wi-Fi network and downloaded the material while he was in class. After interviewing him, Hadopi dropped his case.
"It's like when someone steals your bank card number," said Renaud Veeckman, co-founder of SOS Hadopi, an organization that offers legal help to people who have received warnings from the anti-piracy agency. "Are you responsible, or are you the victim?"
SOS Hadopi has worked with five people whose dossiers have reached the third stage, including Mr. Thollot; all five have been cleared before going to court. This suggests that the actual number of cases that have been forwarded to the justice system may be considerably lower than the 165 third-strike offenders cited by Hadopi. Mr. Walter at Hadopi declined to provide a specific figure.
Whether any of the cases of accused pirates will come to court before the first round of the presidential election, scheduled for April 22, is unclear, as is the fate of Hadopi after the vote.
To Mr. Sarkozy's right, the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, says she would scrap the law and replace it with a so-called global license, under which consumers would be free to share content and artists would be remunerated in other ways, perhaps with revenue from new taxes.
On the left, the Socialist Party's nominee for president, François Hollande, also opposes Hadopi.
"We think it is ineffective, obsolete and built on false logic," said Aurélie Filippetti, a Socialist member of the National Assembly who serves as Mr. Hollande's spokeswoman on cultural matters.
The Socialists, some of whom previously championed the global license, backed away from it once Ms. Le Pen took it up. Ms. Filippetti said, however, that there could still be a role for new taxes on Internet service providers, search engines or other Internet companies, with the proceeds being distributed to artists. Mr. Hollande also wants a tougher crackdown on sites that enable copying, and a push to develop better legal digital content offers, she said.
Mr. Sarkozy, who announced his candidacy for re-election last week, is sticking to his guns, saying he would try to strengthen Hadopi, giving it more power to crack down on unauthorized streaming and other new forms of piracy.
Mr. Walter insisted that politics had played no role in the decision to send the cases to the courts now, before the election. Hadopi is run as an independent agency.
"I'm proud to work on one of the only initiatives in the world to say, 'O.K., we have just been speaking for 10 years, we need to try something,"' Mr. Walter said. "The point was not to know if it was a good idea or a bad idea; the point was to try something and then to say, 'What have we learned? What do we know now?"'
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .