Wednesday, July 9, 2014

An Experiment in Intellectual Property Theft

Warning: the following contains spoilers for Edge of Tomorrow (2014) although they are not terribly revealing ones and nothing that you could not guess from watching any trailer for the film.

The bold, new Internet paradigm has done an amazing thing. It has lifted millions and millions of people above the squalor and poverty of their lives and enabled them to achieve their hearts's desire. To achieve something they always wanted to do, but circumstances held them back. Now, with the power of the Internet they can achieve these lofty goals and become a petty thief, or a scam artist, or a subcontractor to organized crime, or a sexual exploiter of children or a pornographer.

I have often heard it said by leading figures of the glamourous motion picture industry that the Internet is the very center of the crime of intellectual property theft. It is said that no sooner than they release a film but it shows up on the Internet for downloading from Pirate Bay or similar organizations.

So I decided to run a test and see for myself.

The test was as follows. I would pick a specific film in recent release. It had to have been in the theatres for only a few weeks and not in Academy Award season so that there would be no screener DVDs around to make digital copying easier. The film had to be big enough to have normal precautions taken against theft, but would not be so large a hit as to be an incentive for thieves. Finally, it had to be a film I was willing to go see in the theatre so that I could in good conscience see a bootlegged version, comfortable in the knowledge that I would also go to the theatre and give the studios some money.

Although watchable, the bootlegged copy was obviously not as good as a 720P from DVD for example

The film I chose was Edge of Tomorrow (2014), starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt and directed by Doug Liman. This film was released just a few weeks ago and was not doing well by the standard of expectations that this would be the summer blockbuster movie. On the other hand, it sounded unexpectedly entertaining to me, and I loved the trailer.

NB: In the following narrative, I mention some technical details, but I hope I am not encouraging anyone to violate the law and I do not approve in general of violating copyright.

Because you see, to my surprise, it was trivial to get this film. The copy I got was not too great, but it was watchable, and it was easy.

1. I installed a torrent program on my designated victim Windows 7 machine. I expected this machine to possibly be the victim of malware, so if you are following along with me, be sure to make backups and possibly get anything of value off your computer.  The torrent client I chose was “uTorrent” as least likely to have malware installed.

2. I did a Google search for “Edge of Tomorrow Download” and it did not surprise me that I immediately got lots of possible hits.   This did not surprise me because I knew from experience that there is a lot of "cant cheat an honest man" malware sites ready to advantage of the wouldbe thief.  However, one of them seemed plausible to me.   About the fourth or fifth result was one from It had a 1 GB 720p version and it even listed the source (from an Italian version) and the technical characteristics, e.g. CODEC, format profile, color space, stream size, color primaries and so forth.

3. I pointed uTorrent at the “magnet” link on Pirate Bay, and permitted the browser to invoke uTorrent.

4. The transfer began and said it would take about 2.5 hours.

5. I went and did something else and came back in two hours and it was done.

6. I copied the 1 GB file to a Linux computer so that any malware lurking in the mpg would not do much damage.

7. I watched the movie

Although this was very easy and rather convenient to do, to my amazement, there was one downside that was obvious and ultimately bodes well for the studio. The quality was not very good. It reminded me of an Avid workprint. Although the nominal resolution was 720P, in fact the actual information that was presented was far less. And the color had been quantized. I have included some screengrabs courtesy of VLC and you can see for yourself.

Ironically, the deficiencies of the copy were most prevalent in scenes with lots of fast motion and which were dark.  Now it turns out that in this movie, some of the most interesting scenes, or at least climactic scenes, have fast action and a dark palette.   So the result was that this copy acted like a very long trailer for me.  On the one hand, I now know what will happen, but on the other hand I am genuinely motivated to go see a good version of the film in the theatre.  So the studios should not completely despair: there may be some sort of silver lining to this cloud.

One thing became very clear to me.   Emily Blunt doing pushups is the new sex icon as far as I am concerned.   With a great ethnic name for her character, Rita Vrataski, which is some sort of faux-Polish made up word, and a sexist nom-de-guerre of "Full Metal Bitch", there was genuine character development as the Cruise character fell in love with her after fighting the aliens with her and dying hundreds if not thousands of times.  Watching her die, bravely and heroically, each time.  Always to wake up in the morning and have to introduce himself to her while she is training for the next-day airborne assault.  Her first words are not very friendly because of course due to the time loop she does not know who he is. By the end of the film we realize that the Cruise character, a nebbish advertising guy in uniform, is relieved to be assaulted by her in the morning because it means she is still alive, in a time-loop sort of way.

So now I am a little perplexed.  How can the Pirate Bay site continue to exist?   How can these web sites just publicly say that they have this film and actually do?  I would be less surprised if they hid their activities a little better, e.g. maybe you had to know that Edge of Tomorrow had to be spelled EgDe fo TmOrOrw or something, but no.  Its just right there hanging and waiting to be harvested.

Emily doing her pushup / yoga mashup and displaying (a bird watching term)

I have become very fond of Emily Blunt because of this movie.

So in conclusion, however it is that people are able to make bad copies so early in release (I can guess but it is sheer speculation on my part), it is true at least in this case that a copy was available for download within a few weeks of release.   So the studios are not wrong in saying that there is an issue here.

Edge of Tomorrow on IMDB

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