A video clip from yet-to-air episode four of 'The Sopranos.'
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msnbc.com

While you watched Tony Soprano and gang Sunday night, you probably thought you were watching the premiere of episode three of this season’s “The Sopranos.” You weren’t. In fact, the first four episodes of the HBO blockbuster hit were released on the Internet in August, and what happens in episode four is already known.

HBO SPOKESPERSON Quentin Schaffer confirmed the leak to MSNBC.com. “We are aware they were up before the show went on this season,” Schaffer said.

The four episodes were posted to an Internet newsgroup where piracy thrives. Pirates had to complete a labor-intensive process to see the episodes — it involved downloading dozens of slices of the shows, each over 10 Megabytes in size. The pieces then had to be stitched together by special software.

Only the first four episodes were released to the Web — the first three on Aug. 29, followed by episode four on Aug. 31, according to newsgroups records — giving HBO investigators a pretty good idea of how the content was pirated.

“We sent out review tapes to the press” with the first four episodes, Schaffer said. “It’s hard to narrow down where it came from, to point the finger ... but it may have been (taken) out of those videotapes.”

Schaffer said he didn’t blame the media, but suggested there were multiple ways a pirate could have obtained a press review copy of the first four episodes. He said as a result of the incident, HBO is looking into new ways to protect review copies from piracy.

A link to the videos appeared recently on Binnews.com, but it has since been removed. Schaffer said HBO is currently sending out cease and desist letters whenever it finds the episodes posted on the Internet. Posting the file is illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Both the music industry and Hollywood have been engaged in a race to stay ahead of music and movie pirates. The Motion Picture Association of America plans to send some 100,000 “takedown” notices this year to individuals who are trading movies on file-sharing programs like KaZaa and Morpheus. The music industry had its well-publicized run-in with Napster, and is currently in litigation with both KaZaa and Morpheus

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