Inside the online movie underground

Forget streaming video. Bootleg versions of nearly any movie you can name are already available online

For an elite brand of pirates, it's about money, power and politics. You're a Napster user and Metallica fan who got busted for downloading "I Disappear" a couple weeks back. You may not be able to listen to new tracks on your PC for a while. But what's to stop you from downloading a first-run movie? Not much.

There are no file-sharing Web sites that could be subject to digital piracy lawsuits like the ones facing Napster. But the geek underground is trading versions of nearly any movie you can name online, thanks to widely available compression and playback formats.

"This scene has anyone and everyone involved," said Arizona software developer Donald Moore.

Piracy is about money, power and politics, according to Moore. Consumers are mad as hell, and they aren't going to take it any more.

"Piracy is the tool that allows consumers to drive down prices," Moore said. "They're realising they have no power to punish companies for unfair pricing, price fixing, limited distribution for DVDs."

"I don't see how pricing and piracy can be put in the same sentence. Piracy is theft, pure and simple," said Emily Kutner, an anti-piracy spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America.

"The motion picture industry employs hundreds of thousands of people -- everyone from employees who work in the offices, grips, gaffers, catering crews," Kutner added. "If anybody would stop to think of the number of people who need to be paid for an honest day's work, they might not question pricing."

It started with Vivo, said one online movie aficionado who asked not to be identified by name. With low frame-rates and resolution, the quality was poor. Then came video CDs, or VCDs. It really took off when Microsoft released its Media Player ASF format. And DivX has added DVD quality to the equation.

Movies released in VCD format are generally "Screeners," which movie companies send to rental stores while the movies are still in theaters. They make perfect copies, and are a favourite among pirates, he said. "Telesyncs" are made by pirates who go the theatre with camcorders.

Some groups specialize in Microsoft's ASF format, which can compress most movies onto two CDs. One trading group calls itself QASF (an acronym for quality ASFs), another group flouts anti-piracy laws by calling itself LASF (for leached ASFs).

An ASF version of "Transformers, The Movie" runs 162Mb. But the quality isn't as good as an MPEG version of the same movie, which runs 200Mb or more.

Most ASFs are copies of VCDs, which use MPEG-1 compression and are popular in Asia in Europe. Again, movies tend to be stored on two CDs for playback on VCD players or PCs. A VCD version of "The Flintstones Rock Vegas" runs roughly 872Mb.

DeCSS, a hack of the DVD encryption scheme widely distributed online, led to a lawsuit against the popular hacker site 2600.com. But movie pirates are still passing it around.

Instructions for ripping DivX movies are posted on several Web sites. The format is significantly smaller than a DVD, but the quality is just as lush. A typical DivX feature runs 650Mb.

Distribution may be a cinch online, but downloading takes hours, not minutes.

"Don't even think about downloading VCDs at 56k," Moore said. "Maybe ASFs, but not VCDs or DivXs."

Time is money, for pirates like anyone else. In other words, the cost savings may be negligible. Movie prices are climbing into the double digits, but VCR rentals cost less than half that. Pirated movies also have their limitations. The quality isn't as good as DVD, and most can only be replayed on a computer.

None of that matters to determined pirates. Moore sees irony in the twin piracy lawsuits filed against Napster by Metallica and Dr. Dre.

"All of us have been taught to be good little consumers, to have everything NOW and to have a lot of it," said Moore. "When we do exercise our consumer skills, we get smacked down."

Online movie pirates better be prepared to get smacked way, way down, according to Kutner of the MPAA. "Put it this way, you never know who you're talking to online," she said. Movie investigators are watching, and the government is getting involved, too.

"Metallica suing Napster put a face to the piracy issue," Kutner said. "And once you put a human face on an issue such as intellectual property, there is going to be a mad rush to explore and debate and to judge the issue."

The impact of Napster will be felt far beyond the confines of the record industry's executive suites. And few software programs have generated as much controversy as Napster. Go with Bill Burnham for a brief history and predictions for Napster's future.

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