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A pirate's life online for the latest blockbusters

Films like ”The Phantom Menace” and ”The Matrix” are premiering on the internet whether the studios want them to or not

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The Phantom Menace is coming to an Internet site near you. At least, that’s what Hollywood is afraid of, as a growing number of hit movies are showing up, bootlegged and digitized, on the Web. And after the May 22 theft of a copy of Star Wars: Episode I from a Wisconsin theater, the underground-chat-room buzz grew even louder with rumors and secret Net addresses where illegal copies of the film might soon be available.

Unless you have a cable modem, of course, it’ll take hours to download a copy of Antz or The Matrix, and watching the tiny picture on your PC screen will have you squinting like Mr. Magoo. Nevertheless, the studios are terrified of being blindsided. Remember how the music labels ignored geeks who warned them about MP3? Well, they’re listening now — and so is everyone else. The average surfer’s pokey connection gives the studios an edge, however. ”I think we have time that the recording industry doesn’t,” says Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti. ”But I want to be ready with some encryption to protect movies from piracy when broadband is in 25 to 30 percent of homes.”

Widespread high-speed Internet access isn’t there yet, but the movies are. Scouring the Net, I found everything from 10 Things I Hate About You to Dr. Dolittle to Shakespeare in Love available for free online. According to the MPAA, there are more than 200 sites offering bootlegged films at any given moment.

And that’s the trick: at any given moment. The VCD (for video CD) scene is a moving target. Like rave clubs, the secret FTP sites where people can upload and download pirated movies usually open and shut down within hours. With handles like BlackBox and BiG MonkEy, site operators trade passwords and addresses in anonymous IRC chat rooms, where scores of people lurk waiting for the latest lead.

Also lurking are law-enforcement officials and industry watchdogs. Mikhail Reider, the MPAA’s staff supervisor for Internet antipiracy, says most of what she comes across are poor-quality copies made using digital camcorders people sneak into theaters. ”What you’re seeing is a lot of experimentation from propellerheads,” says Reider, whose investigators turn evidence of copyright violations over to the FBI, which can charge bootleggers with a felony.

For their part, the ”pro-pellerheads” claim they’re just flexing their technical muscles. Says one cyber-pirate, who chatted on con dition of anonymity, the idea is not to avoid paying, but rather to gain ”status in the scene” and get anti-establishment thrills by ”doing something illegal and letting people in Europe see the film.”

Just when the online VCD scene will hit the mainstream is hard to tell. Meanwhile, Valenti worries about protecting movies when legitimate copies begin getting distributed online, which, he says, ”they surely will in the next six months to a year.” By then the picture quality of digitized movies should have improved significantly — even if the scripts and acting haven’t.