May 10, 2002 3:55 PM PDT

"Star Wars" clones appear on Net

Copies of the next "Star Wars" movie are circulating online more than a week before its theatrical release, marking the latest setback to the major studios' fight to protect entertainment from Net piracy.

"Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones," which is set to open in movie theatres May 16, can be downloaded from Usenet, or discussion groups linked to the Web. The groups allow visitors to trade conversation, photos, and audio and video files on various topics.

The bootleg's availability is a continuing sign of the entertainment industry's uphill battle to fight Net piracy. Newly released films are typically available on the Internet 24 hours after they debut in theatres, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. And as increasing numbers of consumers adopt high-speed access to the Web, downloading large movie files has become easier and provides for higher quality downloads.

File-sharing communities such as Morpheus are hotbeds for sharing bootlegged material, including audio files and DVDs. Last month, a copy of the hit movie "Spider-Man" was available a day before its theatre debut.

A sample clip of the "Star Wars" film obtained by CNET News.com showed reasonably good quality. In full-screen mode, the picture was letterboxed and somewhat blurry, inferior to a typical VCR movie. The sound quality was good, however.

A movie distribution group called "FTFVCD," or "F**K the Feds," took credit for distributing the movie.

"We are pleased to bring you this early release of one of the most anticipated movies of the summer. We enjoy helping the scene out wherever we can. Haters don't bother us, fans we appreciate," read the notes included with the film.

Lucasfilm, maker of the "Star Wars" saga, would not comment on its early release over the Net, deferring to the MPAA, which is charged with defending the films of seven movie studios from Web piracy.

"We investigate all incidents of film theft," said Emily Kutner, director of public affairs worldwide on anti-piracy campaigns for the MPAA. Though she could not comment on any investigation of "Star Wars," Kutner said the organization takes copyright infringement very seriously. This year alone, the MPAA has sent 18,000 cease-and-desist letters to Internet service providers hosting sites that offer movies illegally.

"Sometimes before a film is put into wide release, the studio may do a screening and unfortunately someone will sneak in with a camcorder. (Then they will) make it illegally available on the Internet," Kutner said.

Kutner could not estimate the financial losses of Internet piracy to the studios, but she said they are mounting.

"There is an incalculable financial loss to (the movie industry) right now and that will only grow as the ability to pirate movies on the Internet through broadband access is available to more people," said Kutner.

The Los Angeles Times first reported the online appearance of "Attack of the Clones."

News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.

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