Weeks before the theatrical or DVD release of top box-office films, file-trading networks are filled with illegal copies that seem to appear out of nowhere.
Movie studios have been hard-pressed to find the culprits and are constantly inventing new ways to prevent pirates from recording the films with their camcorders.
Meanwhile there are various insiders who are pirating the movies long before most of these measures make their way into the theaters.
That is the finding of a new study published by AT&T Labs that shows the majority of pirated movies found on the Internet are leaked by insiders working either directly or indirectly for the studios.
The study, “Analysis of Security Vulnerabilities in the Movie Production and Distribution Process,” found that 77 percent of movies leaked on the Internet came from insiders.
The report defines insiders as people working on the production side of the movie studios, critics who are given advanced copies, advertising companies that receive promotional screenings and copies made by theater employees before release.
Patrick McDaniel, a researcher at AT&T Labs and a participant in the study, said the findings indicate the movie industry needs to examine its own procedures to better protect movies from piracy.
“(AT&T Labs researchers) are just demonstrating that the movie industry needs to take a look at how they are making decisions,” McDaniel said. “(The movie industry) needs to look to their internal processes and look at how they are handling their expensive content.”
The news comes as recent actions by the movie industry stopped the practice of sending screeners (official DVD or VHS copies of movies) to critics. MPAA officials say the move was spurred by an increase in the piracy of movies that were not yet playing in theaters.
A separate study conducted by the MPAA found that out of 68 titles sent last year for consideration for awards, 34 were tracked back as the source for pirated movies.
Many in the movie industry have opposed the ban, which has already caused a large degree of controversy.
McDaniel said the true effect of the ban might not be known in spite of the study’s results.
“The study shows that the screeners are contributing to the piracy,” McDaniel said. “It’s important to be careful at looking at these statistics as the solution. It’s not going to solve all the problems, and it’s impossible to see how the ban on screeners will affect piracy.”
Although there may be some movies that are pirated by screeners, there are still other methods that are contributing to the piracy.
Mentioned in the study is Universal Pictures’ The Hulk, which was leaked two weeks before its theatrical release.
After several months of backtracking, the studio found the person responsible for the leak was a friend of an employee at a print advertising firm that was promoting the movie.
Although the study was conducted by AT&T Labs, McDaniel said the motivation behind the research was to aid the MPAA in its efforts to combat piracy.
“(AT&T Labs) really wanted to help the movie industry find out what their problems are to know how to fix them,” McDaniel said. “(AT&T Labs) looked at this as a way to provide them with more information on the problem.”
To conduct the study, the team gathered statistics on 312 movies that had reached the top 50 with the highest box office yield during the 18 months from Jan. 1, 2002 to June 30, 2003.
Out of the 312 movies, researchers found 285 were being traded illegally on file-sharing networks. Researchers turned to content verifications sites to find when the titles were first placed on the networks.
Content verification sites are described by the study as indexes that provide information including file names, date of uploading, quality and a unique file identification. Researchers only used one file-trading service when conducting their tests.
On average, the study found the movies first appeared on the Internet 100 days after their theatrical release and 83 days before their DVD release.
While only 7 of the movies in the study were indexed prior to their theatrical release, 163 were indexed prior to their DVD release.
The study also found that only 5 percent of movies in the survey were indexed after their DVD release. According to the study, this indicates the effect of consumer DVD copying is negligible compared with insider leaks.
Possible solutions for combating the problem of piracy were also presented by the team conducting the study. Among them was the suggestion to maintain a strict system of signing for content that would treat the movie in the same manner as FBI evidence.
According to the study, this would not only provide a means of determining guilt for pirating a title but would also help to show where the movie was located at all times.
Looking further into the future, the study recommends the movie industry use a secure device for sending screeners. The screener would be contained in a password-secured box that would require critics to call a number to open the container.
The passwords would only be good for one use and would only work for a small time frame. Within this time period, the movie would place an invisible or overt watermark that would print the user’s unique tracking code on the film.
According to the study, this would allow movie studios to keep track of users in case of leakage.
Though the study shows insiders may be leaking the content, it may be a long time before studios can implement the suggested measures.
McDaniel said the changes for the movie industry will require a different approach.
“I think the most important thing they can do is to become introspected about how they handle these things,” McDaniel said. “They need to look at how people are handling things at each step and figure out if they are necessary actions. This is going to require some cultural changes for the industry.”