How the Oscars became high season for film piracy

by Alex Dackevych
BBC Trending


Remember folks, piracy is illegal - especially if the film isn't out yet.

And ahead of the 89th Academy Awards, it's peak time for those seeking to rip off Hollywood's work. BBC Trending has noted a surge of online chatter as high-quality copies of the leading contenders are leaked in bulk - with one anonymous hacking outfit largely to blame.

The culprits take advantage of the fact that movie studios send advance copies of films, known as "screeners", to voters for the Oscars, Baftas and other top film awards. These DVDs are often shipped before the film's general worldwide cinema release, and long before the film is available on DVD or on legal streaming services.

Screeners are usually identifiable by an intermittent on-screen message reminding viewers the film is not to be copied or shared, and they also usually contain watermarks as a security measure against piracy.

But every year they do get leaked online, and 2017 has been no exception, despite earlier reports that fewer leaks were happening this time around. Every Oscar Best Picture contender has now surfaced via torrent: a peer-to-peer distribution system, where files are shared between computers worldwide.

What sets screeners apart from other pirated copies is their high picture and sound quality, and how early they appear online. This contrasts with other types of pirated movies which are usually low-quality camera recordings filmed in cinemas, or copies of films on DVD which have long since ended their theatrical runs.

Along with the illegal releases comes a wave of chatter on Facebook and Twitter about which films have been pirated and where to find them.

BBC Trending accessed one well-known pirating site and within seconds of searching, we were presented with a list of downloadable copies of Oscar-nominated films. Nearly 8,000 people were sharing the Best Picture favourite La La Land.

The vast majority of the illegal copies are linked to an anonymous group called Hive-CM8 - which has claimed responsibility for some of the biggest leaks of Hollywood movies over the past few years.

Very little is known about the group. They release statements on text files that accompany the movie files, but emails sent by Trending to the group went unanswered.

In December, Hive-CM8 issued a statement alongside a pirated version of the action film Assassin's Creed. They commented on the quality of the source ("already nice... no need to add brightness or sharpness") and noted that they added subtitles for foreign speaking parts. They also encouraged anyone with access to screeners to send them leaks.

image captionHive-CM8 statement asking for leaked screeners

Hive-CM8 got some attention back in December 2015 after issuing a statement of apology to Quentin Tarantino after leaking his film The Hateful Eight a week before it came out in cinemas. At the time the group said: "We never intended to hurt anyone." But that hasn't stopped them continuing to pirate films.

The founder of a site devoted to news about torrents says the screeners probably don't get leaked by awards voters. Instead, the files are most likely copied somewhere along the way.

"Screeners come in DVDs, BluRays or are streamed with an online code. Third-party vendors arrange the online streams, and the discs have to be shipped… there are a lot of people with access to discs," says the founder of TorrentFreak, who goes by the pseudonym Ernesto Van Der Sar.

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In one recent case, Warner Bros filed a lawsuit against a talent agency for allegedly allowing screeners to be leaked via its website. Those particular screeners were also made available by Hive-CM8.

Despite repeated requests to contact the pirating group, Van Der Sar hasn't had a direct response from them either. What makes them unique from other groups he's researched is their more vocal behaviour.

"They make statements and are more public (than other groups)," he said.

Could their brazen style tip off law enforcement? One fundamental problem, Van Der Sar, says, is that nobody knows where they're based. "Groups have turned up in the US, UK, Asia and Russia. You can often spot a country from the statements - but there are no clear indicators for Hive-CM8," he added.

There have been successful prosecutions for film piracy. In September 2016, a California man was sentenced to eight months of house arrest and a fine of $1.12 million for leaking screener versions of "The Revenant" and "The Peanuts Movie". But overall, Van Der Sar says, "very few piracy groups are caught and convicted."

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