NEW YORK, May 19, 2005 — -- Within hours of the world premiere of "Star Wars," an ABC News investigation found counterfeit versions could be bought on the streets of New York City, and downloaded off the Internet for free.
Studio executives had feared and Internet analysts predicted that exactly this would happen.
"I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner," said Xeni Jardin, a contributing writer to Wired magazine. "A lot of people were expecting this and there are actually Internet betting pools as to exactly how fast this would happen."
The Internet copy of the final installment of the "Star Wars" saga, "Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," showed up on BitTorrent, a popular file sharing site used by thousands every day, much to the chagrin of Dan Glickman, president and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America.
"There is no better example of how theft dims the magic of the movies for everyone than this report today regarding BitTorrent providing users with illegal copies of 'Revenge of the Sith,' " said Glickman in a statement. "My message to illegal file swappers everywhere is plain and simple: You are stealing, it is wrong and you are not anonymous. In short, you can click, but you can't hide."
And law enforcement officials say the burned-in time code across the top suggests the source was a studio print, perhaps the work of an industry insider.
The movie piracy business is a worldwide multibillion-dollar enterprise that shows no sign of being stopped, said officials familiar with the problem.
"These are individuals are very sophisticated," said Marcy Forman, director of the Office of Investigations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "They have the latest technology and they are able to make very good counterfeits."
ABC News bought a copy at a store in Chinatown for $5.
"They told me they had a huge shipment and had been burning them all day," said ABC News' Aaron Selverston.
Across the world in China, which some consider the center of movie piracy, the movie industry scheduled a "Star Wars" premiere last night attended by top American studio executives in Beijing in part to ward off DVD piracy.
"The more movies that come here that people can see on the screen like this, there is less reason they will have to go buy the pirated movie later on, because the movie will come here," said Glickman.
Huge numbers of high-quality counterfeits are produced and shipped around the world from China, according to law enforcement officials.
And studio executives say the counterfeits and free downloads off the Internet threaten to undercut their industry, as it did with the music industry.
But not everyone agrees.
"George Lucas and Fox are still going to make a ton of money off this film," said Jardin. "People who love this film, people who love what 'Star Wars' means are still going to go see it in the theaters."