Mark Harris

DivX is a new video file formatStills from a pirate copy of Gangs Of New York
Horror stories about internet movie piracy abound, but just how easy is to get hold of a blockbuster movie from your desktop PC? Mark Harris investigates

A conservative estimate puts the number of film files downloaded via the internet at half a million every day. While many of these are porn or innocent home videos, the majority are pirated copies of commercial films, including the latest retail DVDs and even theatrical blockbusters that have yet to premiere.

There are two main ways to source pirate movies on the webs - peer-to-peer (P2P) services, and forums that rely on private internet messengers to distribute files. Whatever you've heard about the demise of Napster, or KaZaA cleaning up its act, P2P services remains the easiest way to get hold of illegal movie files.

Peer pressure
The latest generation of P2P services - and there are dozens out there - are very efficient, distributing their software all over the net to avoid having a single central server, like Napster, for the authorities to target. After a few false starts (these aren't professional quality programs), I installed one of the newer services, Overnet. After getting the software from their website and installing it, I simply clicked on Search and, within a few minutes, was downloading a DivX copy of Gangs of New York. Because of the size of these files - a two-hour movie will typically be around 650Mb - and sluggish connection speeds, downloading movies is only practical for broadband users. Even so, connections can be flaky and the process can take several hours, or even longer. Mine took about three hours, all together, to download half the movie. Once you've downloaded a file, you're encouraged to set up your PC as a server so other users can then request files from you. In this way, the service expands without any effort (or responsibility!) on the part of original software authors.

All the P2P services I checked offered dozens of versions of almost every new movie and DVD out there. But not all illegal movies are equal - some files are the infamous camcorder-in-the-cinema quality, all jerky visuals and popcorn munching sound. Others are taken from various stages in the production process (telecine for example) and more still are lifted from timecodes and check discs. Even some DVD extras are uploaded.

Files are mostly in the DivX format, which is easy to watch on any modern PC but no match for DVD (or even VHS) in terms of audio and sound quality. If you want to share (or sell) them, saving these files as Video-CDs or even DVDs is now pretty straightforward, thanks to the powerful video editing packages also freely available on the P2P networks.

A losing battle?
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is using software to track users they suspect of pirating movies and mailing out 100,000 letters a year to shut down their internet access. But with new P2P services and techniques springing up daily - and millions of files already out there - it's hard to see this being an effective deterrent. The only thing that's likely to limit downloads are users deciding they're not willing to spend the time install the P2P software and download movies, or simply not being happy with the dodgy video quality they inevitably end up with.

A P2Pirate speaks…
What sort of people are exploiting the internet to pirate films? I tracked down a user who downloads around five movies a month, and got the thumbscrews out: "I got into it through friends I met online about four years ago. It was much more of an underground thing then, none of your Napsters or KaZaAs. People would mostly share their files to friends only, through IRC and private web boards.

I've never been that enamoured with going to the cinema. All of my friends love it and go regularly (even though they watch some of my warez) but I've never seen the attraction, I much prefer watching movies at home. I still buy DVDs, but only the ones I know I love. There are a lot of shoddy movie releases these days and I think the file sharing movement can only help them improve."

No copyright was infringed during the writing of this article and all downloaded files were deleted. Honest.

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