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Bootlegged films building online

LOS ANGELES -- In not-too-secret online forums, Wesley Snipes's latest movie, ''Blade: Trinity," is the subject of intense discussion and evaluation.

But unlike typical movie fan sites, the chatter from visitors to websites such as VCDQuality.com doesn't key on the vampire film's plot, acting, or visual effects.

Instead, computer users dish out praise or criticism on the caliber of video and sound achieved by online groups whose sole mission is to make available unauthorized copies of Hollywood films within a day or two of a movie's debut, if not before.

For these bootleggers, who authorities say represent the top of a distribution pyramid for pirated movies, software, and music, it's all about the bragging rights for being first to copy a hot title or releasing the best-quality replica.

''On the top sites, on those really private sites, the sport is about the next film and the next game," said Marc Morgenstern, vice president and general manager of Overpeer, a unit of Seattle-based Loudeye that searches the Internet for pirated content on behalf of entertainment companies. ''They score even more points if they do it before the release date."

Members of these so-called ripping groups, also known as warez groups, created a community referred to as ''the scene." It exists primarily in the Internet's back alleys -- private Internet Relay Chat, a precursor to the modern instant messaging software, or Usenet news groups that function like bulletin boards.

Unlike popular file-swapping networks, where millions of files -- mostly for music -- are shared relatively easily, it's not easy to find a place to download a movie.

''The scene is a very close network. Everybody knows everybody else but they haven't met them," said Bruce Forest, a Norwalk, Conn., consultant who says he belonged to the scene for years and now advises entertainment companies. ''It can take years until you can get access."

Typically, large movie files are broken down into text that appears to the naked eye as gibberish. Files are distributed through news groups or made available through sites or private computer servers accessed by File Transfer Protocol, an early conduit for exchanging data on the Internet.

Only trusted members of the scene, or those who help get early copies of movies, software, and music, are granted access to private File Transfer Protocol links where the newest and highest-quality bootlegs are available.

These files eventually trickle down to file-sharing services such as BitTorrent, and from there titles can be copied further.

Trading of large movie files isn't as much of a problem as the swapping of music files, but film studios are trying to focus on it before the problem gets worse.

They want to stem it at the source. Once movies migrate from the scene to P2P, or file sharing, the entertainment companies are left few options: Sue computer users and follow the music industry's tactic of flooding the P2P networks with bogus files to make bootlegs tougher to find.

On VCDQuality and other websites, ripping groups with names like ''Pirates of the Theater," ''The Empire Group," and ''VideoCD" advertise the movies they have.

The groups are typically hierarchical, with tiers of leadership, said John Malcolm, head of the Motion Picture Association of America's antipiracy unit.

''There are many of them out there, highly organized, very clandestine," Malcolm said. ''They're tough nuts to crack."

The groups are often dedicated to converting video shot inside movie theaters or copied from studio screener DVDs.

To get the latest film or software, these groups seek out contact with Hollywood studio insiders, employees at CD and DVD pressing plants, and marketing staff with access to early copies.

While entertainment companies have targeted file-sharing services and users with litigation, they have not discouraged insiders who supply the ripping groups with advance film screeners, DVDs, and other content.

In one publicized case in April, an Illinois man pleaded guilty to copyright infringement for distributing online the screener copies provided by a Hollywood insider.

Many of the websites, news groups, and Internet Relay Chat boards discourage overt mention of bootlegging. Discussions are typically framed as advice for making legal backups.

Websites like VCDQuality advertise themselves as information clearinghouses and don't host any files. Nonetheless, a recent scan of the movies listed by groups at VCDQuality turned up several films released within the past four weeks, including ''Meet the Fockers," ''Ocean's Twelve," ''Fat Albert" and ''Finding Neverland."

The site's administrator did not return e-mail queries.

While users of file-sharing programs like Kazaa, eDonkey, and LimeWire are relatively easy to track, the covert nature of the scene has made going after warez groups more of a challenge. Authorities don't have a fix on how many such groups exist.

''There are a lot of similarities with the drug war," said David Israelite, chairman of the Justice Department's Intellectual Property Task Force. ''You never really are going to eliminate the problem, but what you hope to do is stop its growth."

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