The final chapter of the Star Wars saga has gone over to the Internet's dark side.
"Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" has been leaked onto a major file-sharing network just hours after opening in theatres, at a time when Hollywood is increasingly concerned about online piracy.
At least two copies of the film, which was first shown in theatres in the early hours of Thursday, have been posted to the BitTorrent file-sharing network -- a new and increasingly popular technology that allows users to download large video files much more quickly than in the past.
The Motion Picture Association of America has been aggressive in going after Web sites that provide "tracker" links that enable BitTorrent downloads of copyrighted material, including six lawsuits this week against sites with links to TV shows.
According to Web site Waxy.org, one print was leaked on Wednesday before the film was even released in theatres. The movie was time-stamped, suggesting it may have come from within the industry rather than from someone who videotaped an advance screening.
One popular tracker Web site showed more than 16,000 people currently downloading the film via BitTorrent.
Hollywood is trying to avoid the fate of the music industry, which claims it has lost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sales to illicit file-sharing networks.
Movie files are about 50 times larger than music files, which makes them much more cumbersome to download, but new technologies like BitTorrent and increased high-speed Internet penetration are closing the gap.
There was no official comment from privately held Lucasfilm Ltd., but a person familiar with the matter said the production company became aware of the situation on Wednesday night and had assigned a team to look into the origins of the leak.
The MPAA, which represents Hollywood’s major film studios, issued a statement condemning BitTorrent.
“There is no better example of how theft dims the magic of the movies for everyone than this report today regarding BitTorent providing users with illegal copies of ‘Revenge of the Sith,’” MPAA President Dan Glickman said. “The unfortunate fact is this type of theft happens on a regular basis on peer to peer networks all over the world.”
The film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, declined comment.