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Study Finds Studio Employees, Contractors Responsible for Most Video Leaks

15 Sep, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

Movie studio employees, contractors and distributors are responsible for leaking up to 77 percent of unauthorized high-quality copies of movies finding their way to the Internet, according to an AT&T Labs study which will be presented over the weekend.

“Prevention of outsider attacks is often a wasted effort when strong measures are not first put in place to prevent insider attacks,” stated the authors of “Analysis of Security Vulnerabilities in the Movie Production and Distribution Process,” which studied proliferation of movie files on the Internet.

Leaks from within the studio system may include unauthorized copying in the editing room; from advance screeners sent to critics and awards judges; digital through-the-air recording thought to come mostly from theater projection rooms because they have direct audio tracks but video shot using handheld camcorders; and unauthorized copying of DVD or VHS content at replicators, marketing firms or other studio-associated businesses.

The prevalence of high-quality copies available on the Internet after the theatrical release but before the DVD release suggests consumers are the smallest segment of pirates feeding the pipeline, the report contended.

“Fresh (before or during cinema release), good quality copies (TV quality or better) are almost impossible to obtain through an outsider attack” it stated. The study considered a copy to be the work of an insider if any of the following elements were present: 1) the movie showed up on the Internet before theatrical release; 2) contained “editing room artifacts such as boom microphones in shot” or was obviously not the completed film; 3) presence of industry markings or watermarks; camcorder-style visual quality married to directly captured audio; copies clearly generated from commercial DVDs or VHS before street date.

The analysts at AT&T Labs studied titles that were in the Top 50 box office draws between Jan. 1, 2002 and June 27, 2003. The list of titles tracked included 312 feature films from all the major studios; that number was whittled to 285 that were easily available online.

“Of the 285 movie samples we examined, 77 percent appear to have been leaked originally by industry insiders,” wrote Lorrie Cranor, lead researcher on the project. “On average, movie samples we examined were indexed [online] 100 days after theater release and 83 days before DVD release. While only seven of these movies were indexed prior to their theatrical release, 163 were indexed prior to their DVD release date.”

Furthermore, just 5 percent of the movies studied debuted after the DVD release, which the authors said suggest very few of the movies illegally traded online are consumer rips.

They noted, however, that some ripped copies may leak from the last stop on the studio distribution chain: store employees and stores that violate street dates.

Studios have a great deal more control over preventing digital piracy at the source than they are exercising, the authors suggested. They recommended the studios adopt “chain of custody” controls that are already common to law enforcement and other industries, such as design and manufacturing.

“Unlike in a consumer environment where it may be difficult to track down and punish every individual who makes an unauthorized copy, insiders who are identified as the source of a leak can be fired from their jobs or have their contracts terminated, in addition to being subjected to legal action and possibly criminal prosecution,” the report concluded.

The Motion Picture Association (MPA) did not immediately return calls seeking a comment on the study.

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