Australian Pirates May Be Behind Record Mass Movie Screeners Leak

Hollywood has broken two very different records this holiday season. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has become the first movie to reach US $1 billion in gross sales in just 12 days. This beats the previous record of the movie “Jurassic World” which had the additional benefit of sales from the world’s second biggest market, China. Star Wars opens in China in January and so it will likely push its sales to even more astronomical levels.

The other record however is one that the movie industry will not be so proud of.

According to TorrentFreak, movie pirates have released 12 DVD quality movie previews, called screeners for download on the Internet. These screeners feature movies like the latest James Bond Spectre, the new Tarantino movie “The Hateful Eight” and a list of others that include: Suffragette, Legend, In The Heart of The Sea, Joy, Steve Jobs, Spotlight, Creed, Concussion, The Danish Girl and Bridge of Spies.

What is even more worrying for the movie industry however is that the group of individuals behind the releases, who go by the name of Hive-CM8, claim that they have 40 screeners in total to release.

Screener DVDs are typically sent to a range of movie producers, critics and movie awards voters under strict conditions to avoid the films being leaked. Security mechanisms are built in to the films that can theoretically tie a particular movie back to a specific person sent the screener.

The FBI are already investigating how a copy of The Hateful Eight, linked to Andrew Kosove, the co-CEO of film production-finance company Alcon Entertainment, wound up in the hands of the movie pirates.

Hive-CM8 are thought to be a loose collective of individual movie piraters associated with the website which makes money from early releases of the movies to subscribers of the site. The site appears to be run by an Australian(s) given the name, the Australian cultural references and the location of the Twitter account in Melbourne, Victoria. The site is allegedly not responsible for the process of producing the pirated movies, nor does it host the content.

For the movie industry, the problem of sending screeners out to reviewers and potential awards voters is a challenge that doesn’t seem to have any simple solutions. Previous attempts to stop sending preview DVDs was met with fierce opposition from many, especially the smaller independent film makers, who saw their chances of being noticed by reviewers being significantly affected by not being able to market their films in this way.

Technically, the pirates are able to remove security measures added to the films like digital watermarks that link the movie to a specific individual. There is little the movie industry can do to prevent this as all measures they could take come with the disadvantage of complexity and cost when the purpose of the exercise is to get as many key people to see the movie and promote it. As soon as a movie has leaked, the companies involved can issue “takedown notices” to Google and even to the “torrent” sites that link to the copies available for download. Thousands of links have been taken down since the latest batch of screeners hit the Internet over the last week. Despite the attempts to take down links, the movies are still readily available and Spectre is expected to see at least a million downloads over the few days since its release on the Internet.

Legal measures may have more effect. Last week, five of the UK’s most active movie pirates were sentenced to a total of 17 years in prison for their releasing over 2,500 films. Investigators from the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), tracked the downloaders through slip-ups they had made with leaving traces of their identities on forums and posts. This is one of the weaknesses of people who engage in movie piracy that they often seek praise and thanks for their efforts and this requires the establishment of identities that are not always as anonymous as they think.

Other legal avenues have been far less successful. Attempts to go after the public who download movies and threaten them with huge fines has recently met with failure, at least in Australia. Other attempts to use new legislation to force ISPs to block sites associated with piracy of copyrighted content are also likely to have a very limited effect.

In all likelihood, movie piracy is going to be something that the industry will just have to live with as long as the incentives to use high quality previews still exist. It is no coincidence that Disney has chosen not to send preview copies of Star Wars to anyone. Disney also employed a range of special anti-piracy measures by issuing encrypted versions of the film to exhibitors with the keys to decrypt them being sent separately. Despite this, people have been able to record versions of the film using video cameras and there are copies already in circulation. It is unlikely that given the success of the film so far, that Disney will be too worried. There is also the fact that Star Wars is definitely a movie that should be experienced on a big screen.

The Conversation

David Glance is the Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



    Easy to defeat. Don't put in such obvious watermarks. Have a scene fade to black a few frames quicker, stay black a few frames quicker. Speed the credits up a few percent.

    If you want to get real fancy, add random items to the background and stuff. Things that look normal, not a huge big watermark. Much easier to trace, harder to remove.

      I think they use forensic watermarks where i think it makes a couple of frames marginally blurry, in theory it should make the mark unnoticeable, but from what i have read online tweaking the colours of the film renders the watermark unreadable by the software.

      While your idea isn't bad, it would be prohibitively time consuming if the movie studio has to send out hundreds of screeners at a time.

      The problem isnt so much the watermarks being obvious or not, its that each review copy needs its own personal touch to make it unique.

      Can do all those things you suggest, but if you have to do it 1000 times (roughly how many people vote on the main awards), you have a problem. Even needing to do it 50 times would be a pain, and that would be the minimum needed to narrow it down enough.

        Perhaps they should switch to a digital only format, and they can easily add all the watermarks they want

        It's really not that hard. If it's a matter of volume, you could divide your review copies into 2-10 SLIGHTLY different identifiable batches. Say you do 4 batches. So for 1000 copies(4x250), you send them out, and you find out that batches 2 and 4 have been leaked online. Success. You know there's at least two pirates. The next time, you do the same thing and focus on the 500 people in 2&4. If instead, you initially made 10 batches instead of 4, you might narrow those two pirates down to 200 people. It's really a question of how lazy the studio is, and how much they care.

        But really like darren said, it's not hard to do. You could technically do it with one pixel in one scene. For example... you have a 100x100 shadow in the movie somewhere, and in one copy, you adjust pixel at row 38 column 35 to be a slightly different shade of black to the original. Audio too. Spreadsheet the discrepancies. It's not something that needs to happen for EVERY release... it's to weed out the leaks. I am sure that I personally could do it, and I have no experience. If you paid 5 people over a week to do something like that, it'd be done easily.

        The only way that it wouldn't work is if two leakers were working in conjunction with one another and could hex-verify the rips against each other or something... but that would seem to be a lot of effort and proactive of them.

          It still wouldnt be that easy. It assumes the leaks come from just a couple of sources, when other information suggests its far wider than that. This story has it that this years leaks may be from Australia. Last year it was the US, a few years ago it was the UK. There's no consistency of source year on year.

          The industry has tried these things before to reduce the field, and the leak just moves to somewhere else the next time. They've narrowed it down to a single person, only to find that member was out of the country the whole time from when it was sent to when it leaked. It could have been any of a thousand people.

          Secondly, its also assuming the marker survives the ripping process. The subtlety needed probably wouldnt survive a rip down to 720p let alone 540p, I'm not even sure it survives just a 1080p rip to avi or mkv to be honest, that conversion always leaves some artifacting thanks to the compression algorithms. So is that subtle change The Mark, or just some artifacting?

          You're right, its down to how much effort the studios want to put into it. And what I'm saying is that the effort needed isnt worth it for them. That doesnt mean they arent going to try, but they've been trying to block this for a decade with no luck.

            The focus needs to be on the source material, not the upload origin; someone in Russia could upload via a relay in Australia. But if the source material is clearly marked somehow, then there will only be a few consistent leaks... even if it's a few dozen people rather than one or two. If you're "an honest reviewer", then you're probably not going to pirate one year then not the next. It's a process of narrowing down and elimination.

            Fair enough the ripping process may change the original content... but that is something that can be tested. If it's too subtle, then it can be increased. It just needs to be something which can be unexpected and overlooked. A watermark or something obvious won't cut it.

            They must be really bad if they've done this for a decade with no luck.

          That sort of thing won't work very well because the content is distributed digitally (so comparing is easy) but compressed (so making subtle adjustments is hard).

          All they need is two copies from two different sources; find the differences and zero them out - the hex-verification scenario that you suggest. If they can obtain one screener, obtaining a second is probably not going to be much harder.

          Adjusting a single pixel isn't all that easy because the DVD itself compresses the video and that is then recompressed for distribution, which will remove anything particularly subtle. You can bet that they're also taking other measures to obfuscate any digital watermarks that they may have missed.

    My experience with "screeners" is that they are low definition, not high definition, 720 x 304 is poor quality to my eyes, particularly on a 55" screen. "The Revenant" screener, for example is 720x304. Isn't the problem with the distributor and their recipients, rather than the Pirates who somehow mysteriously obtain them?

    Wouldn't a streaming service be better, so each "client " has a unique login etc, to watch the video on a server, so you can log who has watched what video and from where?

      Same problem. The physical nature of screener discs is hugely favored by the smaller studios, because its more "in your face", so to speak, than some somewhat uniform screener UI. They fear getting lost in the mass of other movies, and a physical disc is a visual reminder to the voter to watch it.

      Worse, if you went through a central streaming service, you're just putting all the movies in one location, and all it takes is one leaked login for a group to access the entire library. You're creating so many other problems and issues it wouldnt be worth the effort.

      You also have awards ceremonies every other week, from AFI awards through Golden Globes, and on to the Oscars. Each of those need their own voting process, each of those would want their own control over how contenders are distributed. Not to mention the studios desires in protecting their assets.

      Nice idea, but it creates other risks that probably fail just as much.

      Good idea in theory, but in practise it would be a nightmare to set up. And with VPNs and smart DNS services it would be easy for someone to log in from another country but appear to be in a state in the US. DVD screeners are the way to go.

      That's still easy to break as you just set your PC to record what it's playing then edit out the watermarks.

    Maybe don't send out your movie that isn't even released yet out to randoms on a DVD which is easy to copy.
    Morons will never learn.

      This a hundred times. Your movie gets voted in for the year it was properly released.

        this assumes that the people voting for them would PAY to watch every movie at the cinema, which they dont/wont, it would be like requiring video game reviewers to buy the game - only top end games would get reviewed

          Surely it would be easier to send out free movie tickets instead of DVD's. Or have some sort of pass.

    When I was doing interviews years back, Lionsgate sent me a digital screener link for CABIN FEVER 2. It had a hugeass watermark across the screen... "PROPERTY OF LIONSGATE: ONLY FOR THE EYES OF (MY NAME)" (yes my actual name).

    That surprised me. It was there the whole entire movie. It was ingrained into the image and never left the screen, bottom left to top right. The movie was in glorious 1080p and the fact is, if it got pirated they would know EXACTLY who leaked it. Prior to getting the screener, they asked my address, my phone number, wanted a copy of my damn drivers license to make sure.

    Mind you the movie was a giant turd, which doesn't matter, but I am REALLY surprised more studios have not adopted this method????? It seems so f*cking obvious to me???

    Last edited 11/01/16 11:52 am

      The movie was in glorious 1080p and the fact is, if it got pirated they would know EXACTLY who leaked it.

      No, they'd know what source was used. If you had it at your place and some mug broke in, stole the disk and then leaked it on torrents, who's responsible then?

      Not you that is for sure because you didn't leak it; your stolen review copy was.

      Just on a side note and sorry in advance if I cross the personally line but it seems you've been through every kind of job on the planet. How did you manage that?

      When I got my PhD I couldn't get a job to save my life and only found work from overseas that allowed me to work from home.

      Last edited 11/01/16 12:04 pm

        I'm 38 years old, I've never had a career but I've had a fuckload of things I've set out to do on the side and I've done them. I've worked for movie sites, I've worked in retail. I've done a lot of things. I can back up what I'm saying.

        Here's my interview with Rider Strong (the kid from Boy Meets World).

        I'm the kind of person who when he sets his mind to something, he goes and does it. I get kinda one tracked until its done. That can be very bad in some situations. It's cost me relationships and until I realised it, damaged my relationship with my son in his early years, thankfully I took hold of it and realised what I was doing, fixing that particular issue.

        If you get given access to a link for review, it's your responsibility that the link remains safe. That's the agreement you sign or click, that's the long or short of it. You are the one they make the agreement with, noone else. So if it gets out, you're financially responsibile for any compensation unless you can go and prove you should not be responsible. Anyone else who's had to sign any of these or read through the contracts can tell you the same. But proving you shouldn't be responsible is an utter, utter bitch.

        But as for sites, I've had work published in Empire Magazine (interviewed Doug Jones for Hellboy 2), interviewed people for various movies (Chloe Moretz for Kickass, Let Me In and Eli Roth for Cabin Fever bluray for instance).

        And my very first one from 2006 over on Aint It Cool News before our falling out...

        I'm now doing my Bachelor of Education, because quite frankly, after 15 years of flittering around job to job, hobby to hobby and fun thing to fun thing, it's time to get my shit together and make a *life*. Because while I've had a lot of *fun* I don't have much to show for it... which in itself is kinda sad to be honest.

        Oh and my claim to shame is I'm the guy that leaked the ending of THE MIST online and got AINT IT COOL NEWS banned from set visits... :P lol

        Last edited 11/01/16 12:15 pm

          I'm 38 years old, I've never had a career but I've had a fuckload of things I've set out to do on the side and I've done them. I've worked for movie sites, I've worked in retail. I've done a lot of things.

          No-one has ever questioned your ability to back up your claims. I guess you could say I was showing jealousy how you seemed to get any job you wanted.

          But based on what you said it looks like there's my problem right there: I focused mostly on programming and cloud computing research and didn't like elsewhere.

          Thanks for the comment, :).

          Because while I've had a lot of *fun* I don't have much to show for it... which in itself is kinda sad to be honest.

          Don't have a lot to show? I beg to differ.

          Try being a cloud computing research academic. Even though I have a PhD, outside of friends and family is just shows how to wastes five years of one's life for a piece of paper that costs $35 from a shame site and closes more doors than it opens.

          Last edited 11/01/16 1:38 pm

            Jesus christ that must be soulcrushing. There must be some career out there that uses it that pays well???

            I remember the first year of Uni I was working in a highschool, one of the teachers literally told me she had a degree in mathematics and dance. I can't imagine two more entirely seperate fields...

            Then it dawned on me. She actually wanted a job... dance definitely was not going to get it for her.

              Jesus christ that must be soulcrushing. There must be some career out there that uses it that pays well???

              Not in Australia; only overseas. I'd say more but I think I've gone far enough off topic. Again, thanks for the comments.

        There's a comment coming, it's just awaiting moderation lol... it's got a few links.

    They're digital enough now that they could if they wanted. Its still the number of times they'd need to do it. The simplest and quickest ways to do it (watermarks) are relatively straightforward to take out if you have the tools and knowledge, so to get something traceable, but subtle enough for the uploaders to miss becomes too big a chore.

    Anything thats easy enough to try would be easy enough to detect and remove. All the ideas put forward here have already been tried, and still havent done jack to stem the uploads.

    End of the day, its the smaller studios that suffer the most with this. The qualifying rules mean The Revenant qualifies, simply because it was shown at Sundance, or Canne, or something like that before Oct 31, despite not really hitting the cinemas until now. So their tactics force them to distribute review copies to the Academy(ies) before it actually hits the cinema proper. Its a problem partially of their own making.

    pretty sure this happens every time around the Oscars season, these DVDs get sent out for review to judges.

    The movie industry should invest in a private , Netflix style streaming service for the screeners.

    No more mailouts.

    They should just release the movies before (or at least, the same time) as the screeners. For example, Hateful 8 is still not in release here in Australia (about 9 days away I think). I really want to see it, kinda stupid that I could download the screener and watch it weeks before it's even in cinemas here. Especially considering it's been in US cinemas for a couple weeks already.

    This has been a problem for years - staggered film releases, delayed DVD release, etc. It's slowly getting better but it's still not where it should be yet.

    Note: I haven't downloaded the screener for Hateful 8 I'm hoping to see it on the big screen and watching it on PC/TV would spoil the experience.

    edit: Forgot to mention, the incredible sales figures of a bunch of movies (Jurassic Park, FF7, SW:FA) pretty much confirm that the movie industry isn't really making the huge losses they claim* as a result of piracy.

    * There is undoubtedly some loss but nowhere near the losses they claim.

    Last edited 11/01/16 3:16 pm

    While what they are doing is illegal, id like to point out murderers, molesters and other unsavoury ill doers get off with a fraction of the sentence these people are getting.

    How is 17 years justified when far worse atrocities are simply ignored or dismissed with the wave of a hand.

    Hey mate, sorry for intruding, but there may be a few places you can look, depending on what city you're in. I'm an in house recruiter in Sydney (specialising in tech - I won't say which company as this is my own opinion, not theirs and I don't think we could hire you) and I know quite a few companies that are increasingly specialising in cloud here, especially data focussed ones. Take a look at Ambiata, NICTA, CBA (if you really want to feel crushed, but their Omnia team is good) amongst others. Also, if you're a fresh PHD, you may well find a lot of interest from a range of start ups.

    The thing I've noticed over the years is the best candidates and the smartest often don't fit into the narrow brackets most businesses advertise for, it's more the so called "hidden" jobs that they are suitable for. Join some meetups and talk to folks, you'll have to do it for a few months, but once you become known and maybe do a talk on a subject you're interested in, the offers will come flooding in.

    Don't despair mate and if you're ever in Sydney, come along to Developer Drinkups (you can find it on to start networking, I'd be happy to have a chat and intro you to a few people.

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