In a newspaper interview, Gilberto Sanchez acknowledges uploading the film, but says he obtained it from a street vendor. Has the trail for the original leak gone cold?
Greg SandovalFormer Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
The FBI has accused the man who allegedly was first, or among the first, to upload a pirated copy of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" that circulated online in April. What authorities have apparently yet to do is identify the original source of the leak.
On Wednesday, after Gilberto Sanchez was charged in New York with violating federal copyright laws by posting "Wolverine" to a file-sharing site a month before the film's theatrical release, he told reporters from The New York Daily News: "It's just ridiculous. I bought it from a Korean guy on the street for five bucks. Then I uploaded it. I didn't make any money."
Sanchez, who is 47 and works as a glazier, doesn't appear to have any direct ties to 20th Century Fox, the Hollywood studio that produced "Wolverine," or the film industry. To hear Sanchez tell it, he was way downstream from the original leak and authorities should be on the lookout for one of the thousands of New York street vendors.
But Sanchez's explanation raises more questions than it answers. The first of which is whether the trail of the person who first leaked the movie has gone cold in the eight months since the unauthorized copy first appeared on the Web. Security experts I've spoken with, however, say long delays are common with these kinds of file-sharing cases, which sometimes require law enforcement officials to spend months compiling evidence.
The two things that almost everybody agrees on are: 1) the case illustrates once again how hard it is to protect digital content, and 2) Sanchez isn't the original source of the leak.
In April, someone posted to the Web an incomplete version of "Wolverine," which cost $100 million to make and stars actor Hugh Jackman. The indictment filed against Sanchez in Los Angeles earlier this month did not say whether he was allegedly the only person to upload it or the first, but Sanchez is the only person who's been indicted in connection with the investigation. The copy that began circulating online was missing music and many computer-generated effects but was still a popular attraction. According to Big Champagne, which tracks file sharing, the movie was viewed 4 million times before it was screened in theaters on May 1.
In the months after the leak, "Wolverine" went on to gross $375 million worldwide, so it doesn't appear the pirated copy prevented the film from turning a profit. But 20th Century Fox, which produced the movie, argues the unauthorized version was watched about 14 million times online and no matter how one slices it, the leak cost the studio big money.
More recently, the U.S. Attorney's office has begun efforts to extradite Sanchez to Los Angeles, according to Philip Weinstein, his attorney. Weinstein said he has advised his client not to comment on the case.
According to my Hollywood sources, the authorities have ruled out Sanchez as the original source of the leak.
At many top studios, security is tight. Access to working copies is restricted. Copies are tracked and the names of anyone who touches them are supposed to be recorded. That happens not only at the studios but often at the firms hired to do post-production work, such as special-effects houses.
While sources say Sanchez didn't have that kind of access, what isn't clear is whether he knows someone who did.
The government said in its indictment against Sanchez that he posts comments on the Internet under such usernames as "SkillfulGil" and "SkillyGilly." A Google search showed that those names are prevalent at some video-sharing sites as well as numerous music-themed community sites, including MySpace and Crazypellas.net.
"I had FBI with search warrant in my place. They took my PC. Now (they're) building a fed case on me for the same thing. Copyright Infringement ...So I guess I'll (be) made an example of."
--Web post from SkillfulGil
Many of the posts from these sites are accompanied by snapshots of a person resembling the Gilberto Sanchez who was photographed by the Daily News on Wednesday.
In one 2008 post at Crazypellas.net, SkillfulGil discussed ripping and posting movies to the Web. At the same site on July 7, two months after the "Wolverine" leak, SkillfulGil wrote: "I had FBI with search warrant in my place. They took my PC. Now (they're) building a fed case on me for the same thing. Copyright Infringement...So I guess I'll (be) made an example of."
An FBI spokeswoman said Tuesday that Sanchez's residence was searched by agents last summer.
Tracing the source of the leak
If, like Sanchez says, the leaked "Wolverine" copy was first available on bootleg DVD and was sold from a street corner to any passerby, then isn't it logical to assume others uploaded the movie to the Web? Couldn't tracing the discs back to their source help lead agents to the original leak? And if there were others who uploaded the film to the Web, wouldn't the government be arresting them as well?
According to my film industry sources, one possible reason that federal officials haven't arrested anyone else is that they may be building a case.
One example for how long it can take to build a case was illustrated in last year's leak of "The Love Guru."
FBI agents had to follow a long trail before filing a criminal complaint nine months after the original leak. (Ben Sheffner, a well-known pro-copyright blogger and attorney, posted a copy of the criminal complaint at his site, Copyrights & Campaigns).
In that case, agents had strong suspicions early on about who leaked the much-maligned Mike Meyers film, according to court documents.
Jack Yates, an employee of Los Angeles Duplication & Broadcasting ("LADB"), was asked to make screener copies that were supposed to appear on talk shows for promotional purposes (one of the copies went to Jay Leno). Yates, however, was seen on the company's video cameras making an extra copy and taking it to his car.
In interviews with agents, Yates denied knowledge of the copy. So federal officials were forced to track down the IP address associated with the first uploading of the movie.
The trail of who obtained a copy of the film involved multiple people but Yates was eventually undone when investigators traced it back to his cousin.