Snip from a piece I filed for Slate today:
Academy members and movie production workers may wring their hands over piracy in public, but backstage some of them are apparently file-swapping like tweens. Despite studio attempts to prevent leaks online this year, and the threat of jail time and steep fines for movie pirates, at least four screeners are on file-sharing networks already. More may follow.
During Jack Valenti's reign as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, panic over awards-season leaks reached such heights that studios banned all screeners in 2003. This miffed academy voters, who had become accustomed to the comforts of viewing at home. The ban was later reversed, but the problem didn't go away. In recent years, screeners have been issued on DVDs that contain watermarks—hidden data strings—used to trace leaks back to their sources. Other anti-piracy measures include encrypting DVDs so that they will only play in special machines supplied exclusively to voters.
Academy members or others tapped in to the screener-distribution chain have already posted copies of Syriana, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, North Country, and Memoirs of a Geisha to BitTorrent, complete with "FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION" blurbs and studio IDs.
Link to "Memoirs of a Free Geisha" on Slate.com.
Don't believe me? Try it yourself: Go to a BitTorrent search engine like Torrentspy.com and type "Syriana" in the search box. Click "Go" and look for a result tagged as "movie," with a name like "SYRIANA DVD RIP." The file size should be a few gigs or more, depending on how it was compressed. Leakers often compress, resize, or alter files in an attempt to shake off data that investigators can use to trace the file. Then look for chatter like this in the comments field: "Is this the 2005 flick ???," asks one anonymous user on the return page for a King Kong result; "Obviously, nigga!," replies another.
If the file is high-quality, doesn't bear tell-tale marks of camcording (back of some guy's head in the lower third of the frame), and displays a block of text like "FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION" throughout -- congratulations! You may have spotted a screener in the wild. You may also have broken the law.
(Disclaimer: I do not, and Boing Boing does not, condone the unauthorized downloading or distribution of copyrighted movies. This example is provided for informational purposes only, not as inducement to commit copyright infringement).
Image above: snapshot I took inside Thomson content security CTO Jian Zhao's office. He developed an app there for inserting watermarks -- strings of numbers -- into each frame of a movie file. Another program, which you're seeing here in action, plows through watermarked files to detect and identify them. The watermark in this case is a 40K chunk of data; fifteen numbers. Image 1, Image 2.
Update: Of course, filesharing networks aren't the only place you'll find screeners on the internet. An eBay query for "Academy Screener" right now yields about a dozen auctions for presumably illicit hard goods. Here are screenshots, in case the auctions are taken down: one, two.
Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: email@example.com.