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Invasion of Piracy

Art by Peter Bennett
GEORGE LUCAS, I AM YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE.

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.

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.

Two Web sites serve as the hub of the VCD (Video CD) scene: ISO News (http://www.isonews.com) and DupeCheck (http://www.dupecheck.com). DupeCheck is a search engine, ISO News a straightforward list. Neither offers downloads. After all, that would be illegal. The sites list all of the new "releases" from various pirating organizations. ISO News includes a page of information about each release, listing quality of sound and picture, method of capture (i.e., screener or camera job) and basic production info about the film.

Occasionally, at the bottom of an info page, the bootleggers leave a little message. On one page, Evil ISO offers "employment" opportunities. The group, which is associated with an Argentina- based Web site devoted to the game Quake (http://www.evilones.com.ar), urges aspiring criminals to send any digital contraband their way.

Once you, the clandestine consumer, ascertain from one of these sites that the film you desire is available, you then go to the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and place your request. Trading on the IRC can be anonymous for people who have their Internet accounts set up right, and users are much more difficult to trace than are the owners of Web sites, which resides at a static locale in cyberspace. Nonetheless, the fluid nature of the IRC is not a guarantee against getting caught, warns the Motion Picture Association's Jacobsen.

"There are people who agree with us that copyright needs to be protected and who are willing to assist us in working through the IRC and providing us with information," says Jacobsen. √Ę

CONCURRENT WITH THE BOOTLEGGING BOOM is a legitimate (i.e., commercial) net-casting business, even though the audience for both aboveboard and outlaw online video -- films, television-style programming and "events" such as live concerts and sports -- is still tiny, made up mostly of college kids with their high-bandwidth connections in their dorms.

"Traditional TV people laugh at our numbers," admits Julie Smith, vice president of content development for Broadcast.com -- the oldest, largest and best-known aggregator of streaming video and audio on the Internet. "But a live concert will get us in the tens of thousands of viewers."

Broadcast.com operates a video channel with a large, though still limited, selection of movies available for viewing in real time -- that is, with no download wait. You won't find Star Wars in streaming video here. But you will find Satan's School for Girls, Beast From Haunted Cave ("Screaming young girls sucked into a labyrinth of horror by a blood-starved ghoul from Hell") and The Ape ("Obsessed with curing paralysis, a man slays townspeople to tap them of their spinal fluid").

With Star Wars, The Matrix, The Mummy and a roster of similar blockbusters online for the taking, why would anyone want to watch any of those lesser flicks, or, worse, something like Frat Ratz? The Santa Monica­based Digital Entertainment Network -- the DEN -- produces that and several other shows, including Fear of a Punk Planet and Tales From the Eastside ("Love and danger in East L.A.") for broadcast on the Internet only. The shows are net-cast in bite- size episodes.

I tried for several days to talk to someone at DEN, only to be told that all interviews had to be cleared through the company's CEO, who apparently never cleared mine. So I'm forced to quote DEN's "mission statement" off of its elaborate Web site -- the same place that you'll find all of its programming. "DEN's mission is to provide the youth of today with a revolutionary replacement for the passive, brain-killing experience of watching network and cable television. The DEN Century began the week of May 10th, 1999, when we launched the first wave of our 30 interactive television pilots into cyberspace."

DEN is one of only a few companies producing original programming exclusively for Webcast. More common is the Broadcast.com approach: "repurposing" programming designed for "traditional" over-the-air and cable broadcast. In addition to its film library, Broadcast.com also acts as the Netcaster for 41 over-the-air TV stations. They all use either the RealPlayer or Windows Media Player, the two most popular software applications for playing real-time video over the Net.

As with pirated video, however, legal Netcasts are bound by bandwidth. And a confining bind it is. Viewing video over a 56k telephone modem connection can be an excruciating experience. Stanley Cup Final highlights take on all the excitement of watching Jell-O harden.

The Los Angeles company FasTV.com has, it believes, come up with a solution to this problem: Netcast video in bites of two minutes, tops. More importantly, FasTV's hook is to make video searchable by keyword (made possible because almost all broadcast video is close-captioned, which allows a text-based search).

"We take video and completely digitize, encode and process it, make it fully searchable and index it for the consumer to come in and search by a simple keyword to get exactly the concise clip they're looking for," explains FasTV's marketing and business management VP Chuck Ball.

Founded by United Arab Emirates Prince Khaled Al-Nehayan and housed in the swanky E! building on Wilshire Boulevard, FasTV is basically a news and information service. You can't type in Assman and turn up a clip of Kramer from Seinfeld. But that doesn't mean the service has no entertainment value. For example, FasTV made its first splash earlier this year when it indexed and archived videotape of Bill Clinton's entire grand-jury testimony.

"Who's going to sit through all those hours of Bill Clinton?" Ball asks. "All you really want to know is, where did he talk about the cigar thing?"

Cigar has been the number-one keyword used to search the Clinton testimony, according to Ball, even though "the word cigar was only spoken one time in that whole testimony. But the subject was referred to seven or eight times. So we actually went in and found those seven or eight times and added metatext to the footage. So when you type in cigar, you get these other places, even though the actual word wasn't spoken."

Now that's public service.

FasTV, according to Ball, has no plans to change its bite-size approach, even as cable modems and other "broadband" technologies become widely available (and affordable), thus speeding up the Internet to the point where video will feed as smoothly as it would over coaxial cable. "People will be just as busy in a broadband world," he says. In any case, that broadband world may be further away than hair-yanking, teeth-gnashing 56k surfers might hope. Ball says that by the year 2002, no more than 20 percent of Internet users (never mind the rest of the human race) will be wired for high-speed access.

In other words, regardless of George Lucas' paranoia, online Star Wars piracy will have little impact, restricted by oppressive download waits. Episode II is safe. Safe, that is, from everyone but Evil ISO and their nefarious ilk, who will be there with camcorders ready and aimed at the screens.