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Invasion of Piracy 

How to watch The Phantom Menace in the privacy of your own home

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
Art by Peter Bennett

I have seen Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on a laptop computer, which makes me the enemy of all things Lucas whether I want to be or not. Lucas' company, Lucasfilm, has threatened to sic the FBI on anyone who circulates surreptitiously digitized copies of the space opera -- pirated copies that, the Lucas company fears, could cut into the film's hefty take at the box office. With dire solemnity, Lucas pronounced these threats long before the film was released, though nothing could alter the certainty that this was as sure a sure-fire moneymaker as Hollywood ever foisted upon the public.

For obvious reasons, then, I cannot reveal where or when or how mine eyes have seen this downloaded version of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. And I conquered the temptation to obtain a copy for my own personal library. I viewed the bootleg blockbuster for research purposes only! But that crazy Ben-Hur rip-off scene looked pretty cool. Even on a laptop.

The movie resides on two CDs. It was patched together seamlessly from a downloaded series of sequential MPEG 1 chunks that had been burned on to inexpensive disks with a recordable CD-ROM drive. It isn't easy to get, but by that I don't mean to suggest it's difficult to locate. It is not. Rev up your IRC client, pay a visit to the channel #VCD and ask for it. Chances are, someone will have a copy they're willing to send you. But downloading the Star Wars movie (or any movie) demands a stoic tenacity that even a Jedi would admire. The final, feature-length file occupies between 617 and 714 megabytes depending on which "release" you choose to download. Even over a superfast cable modem, the download can take hours. Downloading over the highest-speed telephone modem, at 56kbps, requires almost as much patience as camping outside a movie theater for a month.

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Fast pipes are the most important factor in the expansion of the Internet, but no other aspect of the Net relies on bandwidth more than video. Even in accelerated Internet time, the day when home computers will serve as fully functional multimedia boxes is still far off. But the movie business is wasting no time responding. Chastened by the music industry's slow-footed response to the MP3 phenomenon, the motion picture and TV industry is already moving to squelch online film piracy. "We are seeing an increasing phenomenon here," says Ken Jacobsen, the Motion Picture Association's anti-piracy chief. "We have only brought a handful of civil actions so far. There have been a handful of criminal actions, but we think that that will increase substantially."

Some of the pirates are out to make a buck. Most are not. Films are copied, digitized and distributed for free by clandestine groups such as Evil ISO, Kraven and VCD Europe, mostly just for the underground prestige of having done it. Compared to the vast crowds who see the movie in the theater, the number of illegal downloaders is microscopic. In many cases, they are the same people.

Star Wars is the most famous film circulating on the subterranean circuits of the Net. There are dozens of others. I was privy to a laptop viewing of The Matrix, and the new Austin Powers flick was on the Net just days after it hit theaters (but I chose not to sit through that one again, even for free).

Nor is the illicit selection limited to geek flicks and dumb comedy. Divorcing Jack, a satirical thriller about Northern Ireland which has been suppressed in the U.K., is prominently listed on bootleg-movie search engines. Notting Hill and The Thirteenth Floor both cropped up on the Net quickly as well, along with The Mummy, Entrapment and dozens more, including the expected array of porn films.

How do they get there? There are two methods of stealing a major motion picture and placing it on the Internet. The "camera job" involves positioning a video camera at a strategic point in a theater, for example, the projection booth. Then the digital bandit videotapes the image off the screen. If he's really good, he can tap into the theater's sound system as well. The copy of The Phantom Menace that I viewed was a camera job. Picture and sound were surprisingly good, save for letterbox-like borders on the top and bottom of the frame.

The Matrix dupe was a "screener," copied from an advance videocassette that had been distributed to people in the movie business. Somewhere along the line, one of those industry pros slipped the tape to an underground video group. Within days, even hours, the film went worldwide on the Internet. Screener releases are often delayed by about a month. Camera jobs appear almost simultaneously with a film's appearance in theaters.

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