By ALEX VEIGA
LOS ANGELES -- In not-too-secret online forums, Wesley Snipes' latest movie, "Blade: Trinity," is the subject of intense discussion and evaluation.
But unlike typical movie fan sites, the chatter from visitors to Web sites like VCDQuality.com doesn't key on the vampire film's plot, acting or bloody 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 online 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 combs the Internet for pirated content on behalf of entertainment companies. "That's where those gangs put feathers in their cap. They score even more points if they do it before the release date."
Old and new meet
Members of these so-called ripping groups, also known as warez groups, have created a community referred to as "the scene." It exists primarily on the Internet's back alleys -- private Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, which is 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 takes more than a casual effort to even begin to find the right 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., digital media 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 so-called top sites or private computer servers accessed by File Transfer Protocol, or FTP, 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 FTP links where the newest and highest-quality bootlegs are available. The use of online nicknames and anonymous e-mail accounts is common.
These files eventually trickle down to file-sharing services such as BitTorrent, and from there titles can be copied further given their higher number of users.
Trading of large movie files isn't as much a problem as the swapping of far smaller music files, but Hollywood film studios want to focus attention on it now before the problem gets worse as broadband usage grows.
They prefer to stem it at the source. Once movies migrate from the scene to P2P, the entertainment companies are left few options: Sue computer users and follow the music industry's tactic of flooding the P2P networks with spoofed, or bogus, files to make bootlegs tougher to find and download.
On VCDQuality and other Web sites, ripping groups with names like "Pirates of The Theater," "The Empire Group," and "VideoCD" advertise the movies they have available.
Individual groups even sport their own logos or tags, images often reminiscent of the low-quality gray and black graphics used on old online bulletin boards more than a decade ago.
The groups are typically very 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 into a certain format, such as video CDs. Others focus on acquiring and copying prerelease DVDs.
To get the latest film or software, the groups seek out and maintain contact with Hollywood studio insiders, employees at CD and DVD pressing plants, marketing staff with access to early copies and anyone else who can get them prerelease movies, openly advertising for them on bulletin boards, Forest said.
While entertainment companies have targeted popular file-sharing services and their users with litigation in recent years, they have not been able to discourage insiders who supply the ripping groups with their crop of advance film screeners, DVDs and other content.
In one highly 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 Web sites, news groups and associated IRC discussion boards openly discourage any overt mention of bootlegging, banning people who do. Discussions are typically framed as advice for making legal backups of DVDs or software.
Web sites 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 repeated e-mail queries for comment.
Layer after layer
While users of file-sharing programs like Kazaa, eDonkey and LimeWire are relatively easy to track and identify, the covert nature of the scene has made going after warez groups more of a challenge. To gather evidence, investigators must peel away the layers of technology the groups hide behind.
In 2002, the U.S. Justice Department shut down a group dubbed "DrinkOrDie," which gained its fame by releasing a pirated copy of the Windows 95 operating system two weeks before Microsoft Corp released it. More than 20 people in the United States were convicted.
Authorities don't have a fix on how many groups exist.
"There are a lot of similarities with the drug war," said David Israelite, chairman of the U.S. 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."
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.