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Technology Stalks Hollywood

New online technology threatens the film industry's status quo for copyrights and distribution. It's like Napster, for movies, and it won't fill up your hard-drive.


Armchair pirates' next target

"Character," according to the old mantra, is how you behave when nobody is watching you. "Piracy," according to the old definition, is something bad guys do on the high seas.

But computer, online and digital technologies have evolved so rapidly that piracy is now possible from the privacy of your own home. And nobody (almost) can watch you there. Armchair pirates don’t go by names like Bluebeard or Calico Pete, but like the very nastiest of their seafaring predecessors, they feel no guilt after thieving.

Online file-sharing technologies like Napster have thrown the music industry into a tizzy, as it tries to figure out how to reign them in. As soon as one service gets shuts down, or a technology bows to court-enforced licensing pressure, others show up. Industry profits have fallen, as music-lovers prowl the mostly-unpoliced Internet for rich pickings, taking business away from old-fashioned record shops.

It was only a matter of time before the film industry became host to the same parasite.

The latest mutation of file-sharing technology goes by the name DivX, and Hollywood is already swatting at it just as ineffectively as the music industry swatted at Napster and MP3, when they spread globally through the Net.

Speedy transfers

Transferring files via high-speed connection, DivX can send a feature-length film from server to hard drive in about 30 minutes, according to its inventor. This is a potential bonanza for pirates.

But differently from Napster’s masters, DivX’s inventor, a Californian company called DivXNetworks, is acting quickly to license its own technology to whatever film and video production companies want to co-operate.

In this way, the company pre-empts some of the risk to the industry’s legally-established rights regarding copyrights and distribution. But there is no guarantee how individuals consumers will use the technology, and the likelihood that the technology will mutate – modified by individual techies and hacker-types – is great.

A whiff of blackmail

There may be a whiff of blackmail in such business, but it hasn’t stopped jittery producers from taking DivXNetworks’ bait. The technology is not just valuable to pirates, but also to companies interested in broad but easy, low-cost distribution.

The Jim Henson Company, of "Muppets" fame, is one of the most recent producers to sign a deal with the San Diego company, purchasing the right to distribute upcoming promotions in DivX format, reports the technology news agency CNet News.

Lesser known producers, meanwhile, see it as a chance to win the interest and loyalty of logged-on film-lovers. One small US film company puts its releases straight into DivX format and releases them, says Thomas Vehmeier, who runs a Cologne-based website: www.divxonline.de.

"Of course its popularity spread like wildfire and they became well-known. So this format can sometimes help struggling producers become famous and get their films shown," Vehmeier tells DW-TV’s Germany Today.

It can be downloaded onto most every computer.

So how you react to this report is up to you, depending on your character. Nobody (almost) is watching.

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