"Jesse" is a movie pirate. He's pilfered so much content online that when he peruses Netflix looking for something to watch, there's nothing for him to choose because he's seen just about everything. The San Jose resident is just one of countless numbers of people all over the world - and in central Illinois - who engage in file sharing, thanks to a rapid increase in streaming video Web sites that require little technical know-how.

"Jesse" is a movie pirate. He's pilfered so much content online that when he peruses Netflix looking for something to watch, there's nothing for him to choose because he's seen just about everything.


The San Jose resident is just one of countless numbers of people all over the world - and in central Illinois - who engage in file sharing, thanks to a rapid increase in streaming video Web sites that require little technical know-how.


"It runs far and deep," said Jesse, who spoke to the Peoria Journal Star about his habits on condition of anonymity because he recently received a warning letter from his Internet provider about his pirating habits. He thought it would be good to keep a low profile, even though he's since quit his habit.


"It's endless, where the information comes from. They're never going to stop it, people are always going to do it one way or another," he said.


TorrentFreak.com, a Web site that tracks downloads, released in December a list of the Top 10 most pirated movies of 2008. By the site's count, "The Dark Knight" has been downloaded more than 7 million times around the world. BigChampagne Media Measurement, a company that collects information about file sharing activities, tracked daily activity of "The Dark Knight" and found that it was illegally downloaded up to 170,000 times a day in July, the same month it was released in U.S. theaters.


So, who are these pirates? Perhaps you know some of them yourself. They might be parents who don't have time to get out to the theater. They might be college graduates who, in this economy, don't want to spend the money on a ticket and pricey concessions. It might be your neighbor down the street who can't help himself - the technology makes it so easy, and the chances of getting caught seem so slim.


But the movie industry refers to file sharing as "digital theft" - no different from swiping a DVD off a store shelf.


"Stealing is stealing," said Elizabeth Kaltman, a spokeswoman for the Motion Pictures Association of America. "Taking something that doesn't belong to you, that you haven't paid for, that you don't have a license to take, that nobody's given you permission to use, that's stealing."


Free for all


Jesse, 35, didn't have any moral qualms when he started file sharing about a year and a half ago. He started out with television - episodes of "Battlestar Galactica" and "Doctor Who," which he got from a friend.


"Then I realized how easy it was, and I always wanted to see 'Lost,' I always wanted to see 'Prison Break,' " he said. Eventually, he added movies to the mix.


"My dad and I watch a lot of foreign movies, artsy flicks. I like the stoner movies - 'Superbad,' 'Pineapple Express.' I like them all. And the fact that I could watch them for free made them easier to watch, because then I knew if I didn't like it five minutes into it, I wasn't losing any money. I could just delete it and find something else," Jesse said.


These days, you don't have to download a file to view a movie. Content can be found on a number of streaming Web sites, which can be accessed easily.


This differs from another way of pilfering content; with BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol, users would download pieces of a film, sharing the pieces with other users in the process. It could take hours. Now, all it takes is a few clicks of your mouse, and you can find just about anything - including movies that haven't even hit theaters yet. Jesse viewed the Al Pacino film "88 Minutes" six months before it appeared in Peoria theaters.


How is this content available? Some movies come from studios' advance screening copies, some come from "camcorders" - viewers who tape the movie using a handheld camera. It happens in theaters all over the world as release dates are scattered; "The Dark Knight," which was released July 14 in the U.S., wasn't released in Japan until August. The film quality varies widely.


"I prefer to watch something that's a screener," Jesse said. "The worst version you could get would be a cam version, where you can hear the idiot with the camera opening his Skittles. Those are really intolerable to watch, especially a dark movie like 'The Dark Knight,' something that's real dark and shady. You don't get the lighting and the sound is always terrible."


So, how can these Web sites operate without getting shut down? Many of them are run in countries that have few - if any - copyright or piracy laws.


"It's not just a North American problem, but a worldwide problem," said Brigitte Buehlman, industry issues liaison for the National Association of Theatre Owners. "Technology is just making it easier for movie thieves to share the information globally."


Game over


It's easy to pirate movies. It's pretty easy to get caught, too.


"People are not anonymous on the Internet," said Kaltman of the MPAA, "and there are companies who are paid to basically scour the Internet looking for infringements. It's very easy for (a user's) Internet protocol address to be identified."


Jesse says he received a letter from his Internet service provider when he returned home from a vacation around Christmas. The letter notified him that Columbia Pictures detected the downloading, "Quantum of Solace" at his IP address on Dec. 26. He was notified to delete the offending material and send documentation that he had done so. It also said that he could be sued for $250,000 if his IP address came up on their radar again.


Jesse says he was out of town that date, and while he has the option of disputing the claim, he chose not to. He actually did pirate "Quantum of Solace," but not on that date, he said.


After receiving the letter, Jesse immediately trashed everything on his hard drive and quit pirating, cold turkey.


"It was fun while it lasted, and it was really super convenient," said Jesse, who said he doesn't want to pay for gas to drive to Peoria to see a movie that he isn't even sure he'll like.


"I justified it in my own mind because of the distance (to the theater) and the cost involved. I guess I even thought, who would look in a town of San Jose?"


Danielle Hatch can be reached at (309) 686-3262 or dhatch@pjstar.com.


Running rampant


TorrentFreak.com, a Web site that tracks downloads, released in December a list of the Top 10 most pirated movies of 2008, downloaded on BitTorrent, a program that saves files using a peer-to-peer file sharing communications protocol:


1. "The Dark Knight" - 7,030,000


2. "The Incredible Hulk" - 5,840,000


3. "The Bank Job" - 5,410,000


4. "You Don't Mess With The Zohan" - 5,280,000


5. "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" - 5,240,000


6. "Juno" - 5,190,000


7. "Tropic Thunder" - 4,900,000


8. "I Am Legend" - 4,870,000


9. "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" - 4,400,000


10. "Horton Hears a Who!" - 4,360,000