Box office hits fall victim to Web pirates

Three current box office hits--"Lara Croft: Tomb Raider", "Shrek" and "Pearl Harbor"--are among the most-pirated movies over the Web for the month of June, researchers said Tuesday.

Three current box office hits--"Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Shrek" and "Pearl Harbor"--are among the most-pirated movies over the Web for the month of June, researchers said Tuesday.

MediaForce, a digital copyright enforcement company, said the top-pirated film on the Web for June was "Snatch", followed by "Pearl Harbor", "Traffic", "Tomb Raider", "Shrek", "The Matrix", "Gone in 60 Seconds", "Hannibal", "Gladiator" and "X-Men." The New York-based company estimated that the list incorporates about a million pirated copies for the month of June.

The announcement underscores Hollywood's susceptibility to copyright piracy on the Web. The Motion Picture Association of America has filed a handful of lawsuits aiming to stop illegal downloads of films, including a high-profile case that charged an online hacker magazine with posting code that could theoretically be used to copy DVDs.

MediaForce's list "demonstrates that online movie piracy is a very real threat to the movie production industry, especially when three of our Top 10 are current, first-run production movies," said Aaron Fessler, chief executive of the company. "This isn't a real abstract format where people are trading third-run movies. This is hit, current-production stuff out there and freely available in a digital format."

Some researchers, however, say the biggest challenge is not stamping out piracy. Rather, film studios need to work together to provide viewers access to a wide array of movies. Several major studios have said they are preparing to distribute films online but they are still far from setting launch dates for such paid services.

"The MPAA hasn't offered any guidelines for how movies might be paid for by subscription, so people are turning to what they can get away with," said Richard Doherty, director of research for The Envisioneering Group, a Seaford, NY-based technology testing and market research firm.

In addition, Doherty said the movie industry has not produced any hard evidence to back its claims that online piracy is costing it billions of dollars a year.

The film studios "haven't given a scale to what this piracy is, and therefore they're not taken as seriously in Washington as they might otherwise," he said.

Fessler said that movies not yet released on DVD could be pirated and distributed over the Web by bootleggers recording in a theater with digital video cameras. He said that people working in a theater or a production house also could leak pre-released films.

Movie piracy is going to be a "massive, massive problem" in the coming months, he added, as tools that convert movies from DVD format into a viewable, pirated format become easier to use. In addition, Fessler said he believes broadband access is becoming more prevalent, making it easier to download large movie files.

Doherty said that broadband is not necessarily the issue.

"Broadband is not the enemy here so much as the camcorders that are used to capture the movies in the first place," Doherty said.

MediaForce, which was founded early this year, said it scans the Net every 15 minutes, identifying places--such as Web sites, newsgroups and peer-to-peer services such as Gnutella and Aimster--that host pirated materials. The company said it also helps copyright holders--such as musicians George Harrison and John Coltrane--pull their pirated materials off such networks.