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New wrinkle in movie swapping

Anonymous programmers produce "RatDVD," new software that facilitates movie swaps with all the DVD extras intact.

A group of anonymous programmers has released a new software tool online that threatens to raise the stakes for Hollywood studios fighting Internet movie-swapping.

Dubbed RatDVD, the new software crunches video from movies into small packages, while creating a single file that keeps intact DVD "extras"--alternate endings, outtakes, director's commentary and the like.

Because it retains all these extra features, allowing them to be burned back onto a DVD or browsed on a computer, the software is already being discussed in video-focused Net circles as a potential successor to the most popular formats used for trading movies online today.


What's new:
Anonymous programmers have produced "RatDVD," new software that facilitates movie swaps with all the DVD extras intact.

Bottom line:
The software, and similar tools that will inevitably emerge, are likely to be bad news for Hollywood piracy-fighters trying to keep their wares off the Net.

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On their Web site, the programmers say they created the software because most movies available online were little better than digital VHS tapes, without the additional features that made DVDs interesting. Reached by instant message, one of the lead developers said the software could be used for archiving purchased movies on a home PC, but that people likely would use it to swap movies online as well.

"I don't know what people will use it for; that's an individual decision," said the programmer, who asked to remain anonymous. "I don't think the program does anything illegal, although it certainly could be used illegally."

Released just a few days ago, the software has yet to prove itself as a lasting force in the critical world of the Internet underground. But it, or similar tools that will inevitably emerge, are likely to be bad news for Hollywood piracy-fighters trying to keep their wares off the Net.

Movie-trading has grown steadily over the past few years as access to broadband has expanded sharply in many countries around the world, and as freely available compression technologies such as DivX and XviD--which squeeze massive movie files into manageable packages--have become more sophisticated.

For the most part, however, movies traded online have been simple "linear" files of the film, without any of the extra features found on a DVD.

Hollywood studios have ramped up their Internet antipiracy efforts in recent months, filing several waves of copyright lawsuits against individual file traders and working with criminal and civil authorities around the world to shut down sites that have served as hubs for film trading.

A Motion Picture Association of America representative had no immediate comment on the release of the new software.

"I think it's a bad thing," said Mark Ishikawa, chief executive officer of BayTSP, a company that tracks online piracy for copyright holders. "What this means is you now have the full DVD experience online, where before you just had the movie."

According to the RatDVD programmer, the software has been a group project, involving a shifting team of between six and 12 people over time.

The software does not itself break the encryption that prevents most commercial DVDs from being copied. Despite legal pressure from Hollywood studios, other programs that perform that task remain readily available online, allowing people to copy DVD files directly to their hard drives.

Once those uncompressed video files are on a hard drive, the RatDVD software transforms them into a new video and audio format, keeping the DVD menus intact. The programmer said his team had created their video format from scratch, although they had studied the work of the XviD and MPEG 4 standard group.

The group is remaining anonymous even though they believe they are acting legally, the programmer said.

"It's hard to say what will be illegal next in the U.S., and the MPAA is already trying lawsuits in foreign countries based on U.S. law, which although absurd, has to be considered," the programmer wrote. "Let's just say we're cautious."