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Movie piracy vexes Hollywood as activity increases

Shaun” didn’t need to wait in line to be among the first to see “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.”

Instead, he joined hundreds of thousands of digital line-jumpers who downloaded an illegal copy of the movie off the Internet days before the film’s official opening.

“The quality was poor, but watchable,” he cheerfully reported in an e-mail from England.

The 30-something Shaun says he has been downloading – the film industry calls it stealing – movies for years because films released in the United States often take months to reach England.

Impatient and computer-savvy fans such as Shaun simply look for pirated copies online by Internet Relay Chat, on electronic bulletin boards and Usenet newsgroups, and via file-sharing services such as Morpheus and Gnutella.

Everything from the latest Madonna and Eminem singles to the summer’s hottest blockbusters are available.

“Sadly, most of the films I’ve seen after downloading over the last few years (yes, this has been going on for a while) have just made me glad that I did not waste my money going to the cinema to see them!!!!!” Shaun wrote.

It’s this kind of talk that gives Hollywood producers worry wrinkles that even Botox can’t cure.

Movie downloading isn’t a widespread practice so far, partly because only about 10 percent of Americans have high-speed Internet access at home.

But as that figure inevitably rises, the Internet could see an influx of movie-hungry file swappers itching to use their high-speed connections.

This could ignite a downloading frenzy, emulating the fast and furious movie swapping already occurring in college dormitories with the fastest Internet links on the planet.

“When a friend of mine downloaded `The Matrix’ while it was still in theaters (three years ago) … it took him about a week to download and it was pretty hard to find,” said Daniel Watts, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Nowadays, with 10-megabit Ethernet in dorms, a movie can be downloaded in a matter of hours, and possibly even minutes,” Watts said.

Underground downloaders such 31-year-old “Chef” of the Twin Cities now fret that their piracy paradise could be spoiled if too many newbies crash the party.

“We are concerned it’s going the way of Napster,” he said, referring to the pioneering music-downloading service that flourished for a time but withered from music-industry legal assaults and ultimately vanished as an independent entity.

One thing keeps movie downloading from becoming a consumer craze, though: Most bootlegged films are barely watchable.

Often shot with camcorders sneaked into theatrical previews, such “cam” bootlegs often get spoiled by silhouettes of people rising from their seats to get popcorn or stray comments picked up on the camera’s boom mike.

More sophisticated pirates will sneak preview films to a production facility where they can quickly convert the footage to digital form.

They then sell discs overseas in places such as Hong Kong, where tourists, mostly Americans, snap up stacks of VCDs (video compact discs) for as little as $2.50 apiece.

“Americans love this stuff. We love free stuff and we love to cheat,” said Dave Hecker, who travels extensively to places like Hong Kong as president of RevMedia, a digital media consulting firm in Los Angeles’ entertainment industry.

“It’s not going away,” said Joey Santley, an official at a Los Angeles anti-software piracy company called Media Defender that works with the entertainment industry. “It’s getting worse.”

So why hasn’t everyone stopped trekking to the Cineplex? Largely because picking a movie off the Internet requires technical finesse still far beyond the average computer user’s grasp.

Raw digital movie files don’t fit on an average PC hard drive. This means they must be compressed to a fourth or even a 10th their normal size using various specialized techniques.

That decreases their quality and how large they appear on a computer screen.

Downloading difficulties also discourage all but the most determined cyber-movie buffs.

Under perfect conditions, the average home DSL or cable-modem connection can download a compressed film in a little over two hours, almost the same amount of time it would take to watch it.

But competing traffic on these lines slows a typical download down to 10 to 20 hours – plenty of time to be cut off, as sometimes happens.

“If everybody had nice computers, and lots and lots of bandwidth, everybody would be doing it,” Hecker said. “But it’s not a perfect world.”

Paul Stark, a co-founder of Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone Records, which launched artists like Soul Asylum, The Replacements and The Jayhawks, downloaded hundreds of movies over the past year.

He did so as a consultant for a research project on downloading technology, and he says recent compression advances threaten to produce movies about as good as the original DVDs.

A popular compression technology called DivX has just been updated, allowing movies with near-DVD quality, he says.

Stark, an outspoken digital-music advocate who became vice president of music services for Liquid Audio, a digital-music distribution service, believes Hollywood won’t make the same mistakes the record industry made when Napster caught it by surprise.

Years ago, music files were hard to transfer until the MP3 format was born, he says. Napster made it so simple to find and download free music that even grandmothers were doing it. A craze was born.

The same could happen to the movie industry in 12 to 18 months unless Hollywood beats the pirates to the punch with a legal and easy-to-use movie-type Napster for movies, he said.

“When it becomes easier to use legitimately, people will use it,” Stark said. “Doing it this way now is just a nuisance.”

But piracy may actually help Hollywood in the end, Stark believes. He thinks it’s training consumers to expect movies on demand via their computers.

Recognizing the potential, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Studios and Warner Bros. last year announced a joint venture to create an on-demand Internet movie service for the nation’s 10 million broadband households.

A launch date for their Movielink venture has not been announced. Disney and Fox are pursing their own video-on-demand ventures.

Stark gives such services 18 months to get it right before someone else steals their thunder with superior technology.

Meanwhile, Shaun and Chef both plan to pony up the cash to watch “Attack of the Clones” in a theater.

It’s “a tradition,” Shaun said. “I have seen all the `Star Wars’ films at the cinema.”