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I’ve been trying over the past few weeks to document movie piracy that takes place over the Internet. I’ve even tried — experimentally, I assure you — to download an unauthorized copy of a movie myself. What I’ve found is that while there may be some peripheral pirates, the industry’s paranoia about pervasive piracy on the Net are grounded more in fear than in fact. What triggered my investigation was an interesting coincidence. On June 7, Walt Disney Company chief Michael Eisner addressed members of Congress and showed some clips from his new flick “Dinosaur.” He warned that Internet piracy threatened the willingness of studios to invest in big-budget movies like “Dinosaur.” That same day, The Washington Postran a story about “Internet pirates.” These bandits watch first-run movies over the Internet or download them to their computers “with a few clicks of a mouse.” The story was careful to point out that the movies were “of uncertain quality” and that the downloads take too much time except for the few lucky souls with superfast Internet connections. But movie buffs willing to live with those limitations could find “The Matrix,” “Dogma,” or even “Mission: Impossible 2,” a movie not available commercially on tape. Between Eisner’s dire warnings and the Post‘s bemused exploration of Internet piracy, I had to wonder whether we’d hit the “tipping point.” Had online movie piracy transitioned from theory to an everyday occurrence that has rightfully gotten Hollywood up in arms? Although Eisner spoke and The Postwrote on the same day, the speech and article were not about the same thing. Eisner was warning about piracy involving movies formatted for digital versatile discs, or DVDs, the high-capacity laser discs that will eventually replace VHS tape. If a pirate can crack the code locking these disks, he can make a 100 percent faithful reproduction. But so far as I can tell, whatever DVD pirates may exist aren’t posting any ripped-off works on the Web. Even if they did, the size of the files would be so gigantic that there would likely be little. The Postreporter, on the other hand, was not writing about DVD-quality fare. His focus was knockoff, low-quality piracy, where grainy versions of film are available for download. It’s the Internet’s equivalent of poorly packaged VHS tapes sold on the street in New York City. In other words, DVD piracy and Internet movie piracy are separate and nonintersecting economic activities. But Eisner and others do a good job of blurring the distinction between a hypothetical threat (DVD piracy) and a real annoyance (low-grade Internet piracy). “My point,” Eisner said with regard to “Dinosaur,” “is that we have created a movie that took four years to make, [and] were it to get in the wrong hands, [it] could be compressed onto a single DVD disk in a matter of minutes and instantaneously put on the Internet while the film is still in theaters.” One problem with Eisner’s reasoning, of course, is that if a movie is in the theater, no one has yet produced a legit DVD version that can be pirated. When a movie still in the theaters appears on the Internet, it’s invariably a low-quality knockoff. Even top officials at the Motion Picture Association of America, testifying during discovery in a recent suit, could not document any connection between DVD piracy and the appearance of those movies on the Internet. But even if there’s no real DVD movie piracy on the Internet, perhaps there’s enough plain-vanilla piracy for the movie studios to fret over. So I contacted Paul Farhi, the Washington Postreporter, and asked him about his own experience. Did he personally find that the copying of movies off the Internet was easy? Did he think the quality of Internet movie offerings was adequate? It turns out that the guy, despite his in-print assurances that Internet movie piracy was doable “with a few clicks of a mouse,” hadn’t actually done any of that clicking himself. “Several people described it to me,” he admitted. He did, however, direct me to a few sites housing first-run movies, specifically Scour.com and iMesh.com. I’m a reasonably knowledgeable computer user with some pretty good computers and a high-speed Internet connection. But I couldn’t find more than a couple of movies. And, once I found them, I couldn’t download the movies no matter how many times I clicked. Another source — a correspondent on a legal e-mail discussion group — was more helpful. He filled me in on the mechanics of Internet movie piracy and put me in touch with people with hands-on experience. These sources — recent college graduates who work in technical positions in the federal government in Washington, D.C. — told me about a brisk-but-narrow market in trading first-run movies. Most of the movies are found on online chat channels known as Internet Relay Chat. But they aren’t there long. Once the films end their theater runs and are in stock at Blockbuster, “they’re pretty much gone from IRC,” another source told me. Typically, the movies are compressed with a scheme known as “DivX” (no relation to Circuit City’s now-defunct pay-per-play format of the same name). By one source’s estimate, DivX quality is potentially “better than VHS quality and not quite DVD quality.” But a DivX copy is only as good as its source material, which is often a handheld camcorder in a crowded movie theater. In other words, the picture and sound quality usually are lousy. Still, as the existence of video street vendors demonstrates, there’s a market even for lousy copies of pirated movies. The consensus among my sources is that this market is almost entirely composed of students with little money to spend but with access to computers (bought by their parents) and high-bandwidth connections (supplied by their universities). “It’s hard to say exactly how many students” use the Internet to download movies, one source told me. “I’m sure a fair amount of them know how to do it.” He speculates that many and perhaps most students with the expertise and tools do it once or twice, then give it up because the quality is so poor. What does all this tell us about the movie companies’ sounding the alarm about Internet movie piracy? Well, I know that it does happen, although it’s apparently limited to student hobbyists and inferior product. But I also think that the movie industry is overplaying the threat. Partly this may be public relations in the context of their lawsuits against the distribution of software that unlocks commercial DVDs. And it also may be a lobbying tactic to strengthen copyright law. But mostly, I think, it’s because the Internet is new and forces us to rethink how we operate. The studios are afraid that everybody will start using the Internet the way those college kids are using it. I don’t think that’s going to happen — neither television nor VCRs have killed the market for viewing Hollywood movies in theaters with popcorn and Jujubes. But that’s what frightens the industry, and that’s why Eisner is telling Congress we may have seen the last “Dinosaur.” Mike Godwin ( [email protected]) is senior legal editor of the E-Commerce Law Weekly, a law.com affiliate, and author of “Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age” (Times Books, 1998).

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