Streaming video, the latest trend in online movie piracy.

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Nov. 21 2007 7:29 AM

Transformers ... Now in Streaming Video!

The latest trend in online movie piracy.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

In April 2005, the Motion Picture Association of America announced it was getting tough on piracy. "Dan Glickman doesn't mess around," said an aide to the MPAA's then-recently appointed president. "There's a new sheriff in town." For the bulk of Glickman's tenure, BitTorrent pirates have been the new sheriff's main target. Glickman's anger at the proliferation of illegal copies of Revenge of the Sith on BitTorrent networks resulted in some door-busting crackdowns (courtesy of the FBI) and the first prison sentences for BitTorrent crimes in the United States. The MPAA has also been accused of launching covert ops, including shadow BitTorrent sites and files designed to collect information on downloaders. Just last month, a hacker told Wired News that the MPAA had hired him to get the goods on TorrentSpy, a leading BitTorrent tracker site.

As the MPAA has focused on BitTorrent downloading, however, a newer, more popular kind of piracy method has come along. BitTorrent is out. Streaming video is in.

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Before it was shuttered by European authorities in October, the British-based TVLinks—which offered links to hundreds of pirated movies and television shows—had become perhaps the Web's leading destination for illicit streaming video. If you've never heard of it, you're not alone: A LexisNexis search found only four mentions of TVLinks in major news sources over the past year. The Pirate Bay, one of the most popular torrent Web sites, was cited more than 300 times. The lack of hype didn't stop the site's spread. According to Web traffic analyzer Alexa, TVLinks passed both the Pirate Bay and TorrentSpy in global traffic rank this August. At the height of its popularity, TVLinks ranked 160th in global traffic, near the level of the New York Times.

The rapid growth in pirated streaming video hasn't resulted in any MPAA sting operations. As of yet, the organization doesn't have any strategy for combating it. In a recent interview, the MPAA's general counsel seemed to throw up his hands: "We've been fairly effective in at least controlling the peer-to-peer piracy. But this is a new phenomenon." For now, all they can do is target the U.S.-based Web sites that post links to pirated movies and sue them into submission, as they did to sites like Peekvid and YouTVPC earlier this summer. Given that Peekvid is still kicking, this tack appears to have only a short-term impact. TVLinks was pinched thanks to a British group called the Federation Against Copyright Theft and the Dutch anti-piracy outfit BREIN. A huge coup, right? Not so much. Taking down a site full of links without removing the linked content makes the site easy to replicate. (Greetings, TVLinkVault!)

Demanding the removal of copyrighted files is equally ineffective. As YouTube and Google Video rose to prominence, early Web pirates uploaded whole films and TV episodes. As the policing of these major sites has gotten stricter, the pirates have simply moved their wares to lesser-known video carriers. These destinations aren't popular enough (yet) to be part of the dinner table lexicon, and they're more likely to be based out of China than the United States. Monitoring all of these video hosts would take teams of workers and an incalculable amount of billable hours. Realistically, that's not going to happen.

Another problem with stopping streaming video piracy is that end users have no fear of repercussions. The MPAA's own definition of Internet piracy­—"obtaining movies by either downloading them from the Internet without paying or acquiring hard copies of illegally downloaded movies"—doesn't even cover streaming. And while the MPAA has filed lawsuits in waves against BitTorrent users, there's no record of any lawsuit filed against anyone who has simply streamed a pirated film on their computer.

The rise in popularity of streaming, however, isn't due to the MPAA's ineffective policing. It's the delivery, stupid. Want to download a movie from BitTorrent? First, you have to go to a torrent search site and enter Transformers into the search field. Then, you have to choose which file to download and cross your fingers that the download time will be closer to three hours than three days. You also have to hope that the film hasn't been shot with a handheld camera.

Streaming, on the other hand, is instant. One of the more popular streaming sites, Nabolister, has a simple search bar in the middle of the page. Type in Transformers, and you'll get a series of links. Most of these will open new pages with embedded players that resemble the YouTube interface. Click on the play button, and your movie starts rolling. Within seconds, you can tell if you're watching a high-quality video.

To test how pervasive streaming piracy has become, I searched for this year's 10 highest-grossing movies on a bunch of streaming sites. With the exception of a few low-quality and handheld-camera versions of Transformers and Knocked Up, I found every one of the 10 in a watchable format, using no more than a trio of sites and spending only a few minutes searching. At this point, it's possible to bring Transformers or The Bourne Supremacy into your living room in seconds. All you need is a Web connection and a video cable. That's the sort of thing that can really cut into DVD sales.

All that's saving the studios and the MPAA for now is that streaming piracy has a learning curve. It takes some trial and error to determine what a dead video link looks like and which video hosts offer a higher-quality picture. While the process is less user-friendly than its Napster-style predecessors, it is very similar to the BitTorrent method, with users finding their desired files via the Web rather than a centralized interface. Streaming video users also don't have to download or install any software, nor enter any dangerous, spy-infested BitTorrent networks.

The MPAA, unable to put a crimp in streaming video piracy, should take a cue from the TV networks. Remember when NBC focused on selling its shows on iTunes? Now, NBC and News Corp. have joined forces to create Hulu, where users can stream entire shows for free. Meanwhile, CBS has partnered up with the streaming video venture Joost. The networks, it seems, understand that the download model is on the way out and that streaming is the way of the future. (Hell, even the Pirate Bay itself seems to realize this, noting this summer that it was looking to branch out into the world of streaming.)

The MPAA should be paying attention. The small-screeners have smartly monetized (through advertising) the sorts of video streams that Web users are flocking to. If they wanted, the movie studios could give film buffs what the pirates can't consistently offer: a high-quality picture and a Web destination that won't get shuttered in a matter of months. Streaming is here to stay. If the MPAA is smart, it will decide it makes more sense to make money off it than to fight it.

Dan Morrell is a writer living in Boston.

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