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'Matrix' sequel spotted on the Net

The inner circle of underground Internet file-swappers is buzzing with claims that a copy of "The Matrix Reloaded" has been released early online.

Underground Internet file-swapping circles were buzzing Wednesday with rumors that a copy of "The Matrix Reloaded" had been released online, a day before its theatrical opening date.

Information posted on several widely read hacker sites described a two-CD release of the Warner Bros. film by a group that had earlier claimed to have posted the "X-Men" sequel, "X2." The news sparked a frenzy of activity in Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels and other forums dedicated to movie swapping.

Some individuals claimed in chat sessions that they had seen copies of the movie, a sequel to the blockbuster "The Matrix," as early as Wednesday morning. CNET could not confirm the complete accuracy of the information. However, still shots that appeared to be taken from the movie had been posted online.

A one-minute sample file obtained by CNET also appeared to be genuine. The video file was of medium quality, providing a watchable but somewhat blurry resolution at full-screen size, but had a dark picture that occasionally made it difficult to make out details.

Tom Temple, director of worldwide Internet enforcement for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), said he had no information indicating that the movie had been released early online.

"We have seen a lot of files named 'Matrix,'" Temple said. He articulated that the MPAA has not yet seen a file on the Internet that actually is the sequel.

The prerelease online of big-budget movies has become a growing concern for Hollywood studios, even if to date the trend has shown little indication that it's undermining box office revenue. The MPAA, in tandem with the Recording Industry Association of America, has sued file-swapping companies whose software provides potential access to pirated films to millions of people at a time.

In their very early stages of online release, movies are rarely available to the everyday Net dweller as a file on Kazaa or Morpheus, however. Shadowy groups with names such as Esoteric and Centropy have networks of people, often spread across the globe, that participate in gaining access to an early screening of the movie, copying it directly or with a video recorder, processing it, and putting it on private sites.

Over the course of hours or days, these files typically find their way into more public file-swapping networks such as Kazaa.

Most big movies do find their way onto the Net before their theatrical release, or within hours of it. The last "Star Wars" movie trickled into file-swapping circles more than a week before it was scheduled to open in theaters last summer.

The Matrix Reloaded is slated to open Thursday in the United States.