Video Hackers Working on MP3-style Movie Files

Divx, Circuit City's pay-per-view DVD format, may be dead, but DivX, a new video-copying phenomenon, is alive and well. The hacker-developed technology is said to allow copying and transmission of "high-quality pictures" over the Internet in much the way MP3 audio files can be shared by music fans. With DivX and a broadband connection, a full-length film can be downloaded in a few hours and stored on a recordable CD, according to several reports in late March.

The films are transferred and stored using MPEG-4 video technology, with an MP3 audio stream. DivX files can be accessed through an add-on to Microsoft's Windows Media Player, copied from DVDs played on computers running the Linux open-source operating system.

The quality of such films is open to question—Internet video, despite all the hype, is still abysmal. A DVD can contain 4.7Gigabytes of information, as opposed to a maximum of 750Megabytes on a CD. Video stored on CDs is, at best, highly compressed. DivX-hacked films have been described by those who have seen them as of "VHS-tape quality." Fast connections will allow users to download a 650MB compressed video file in about four hours. Dial-up modems require about one day to accomplish the same task.

The threat of widescale ripoffs of DVDs isn't here yet, but the existence of DivX has sent a shudder through the film industry. As broadband connections become more widely available and digital storage capacity becomes greater and cheaper, the potential for wholesale copying will increase enormously. Hollywood has long wrung its hands over the technology-rich future; consumers have and will continue to have high-tech tools and the expertise to use them, and it seems unlikely that any technical fix for the copy-prevention problem will remain inviolate for long. Besides, hackers love a challenge.

The situation is similar to the music industry's problem with the MP3 phenomenon two years ago: They ignored the problem until it was too late to do anything about it, and now a flurry of lawsuits against and related websites is in progress. The film industry's legion of attorneys may soon be put to work on similar cases. "DivX . . . is definitely going to stir up some trouble," Napster discussion group manager Wayne Chang told CNET news.