Oops. The Movie's Leaked Online

Michael Moore's new documentary about America's health-care system and pharmaceutical industry may be called "Sicko," but chances are he's the one feeling a little queasy today. Although it's not due to hit theaters until June 29, "Sicko" is already playing on thousands of screens across the country—the result of a leak that has it playing for free on numerous peer-to-peer networks online, including BitTorrent, Pirate Bay and others.

Moore, the controversial left-leaning director behind "Farenheit 9/11" and "Bowling for Columbine," could not be immediately reached for comment. But a spokesperson at The Weinstein Company, Moore's distributor, tried to put a positive spin on the apparent piracy. "Health care impacts everybody right in their homes, and it is not surprising that people are eager to see 'Sicko' and become part of a larger movement," Sarah Rothman wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. "We are responding aggressively to protect our film, but from our research it is clear that people interested in the movement are excited to go to the theater so they can be part of the experience and fight to reform health care." Still, the backers of Moore's film would surely rather recoup the $10 movie ticket when the film opens than let a bunch of people watch at home for free.

This is the second such leak of a major film release in less than a month. A studio-quality print of Eli Roth's horror flick "Hostel: Part II" surfaced on peer-to-peer networks May 29—10 days before its June 8 release date. (Is there a "movement" represented by the demand for a flick about rich people who pay to watch the violent murders of svelte coeds?) Elizabeth Kaltman, a spokesperson at the Motion Picture Association of America, says in 2005 the worldwide motion-picture industry lost $18.2 billion to piracy. Just over seven of that is attributed to Internet piracy, she says, calling the problem a "huge threat" to studios and filmmakers. Other estimates, like those from the National Legal and Policy Center, put Internet piracy losses closer to $2 billion. However you calculate that figure, though, it has been going up every year.

The threat is a global one. A recent study of filmgoing habits in 13 countries by the research firm Parks Associates found that 3 percent of the average American's movie collection was downloaded from the Internet for free. When the 12 other countries are factored in, that average leaps to 14 percent. In China, for example, fully 34 percent of the average personal movie collection is composed of Internet downloads; only 18 percent is purchased legally.

As a result, the MPAA has launched a "multipronged" approach to combating piracy, according to Kaltman. Law-enforcement agencies around the world have been recruited for the fight; they're being trained on how to identify a pirated product and tasked with cracking criminal networks that facilitate mass reproduction of films, she says.

Still, the problem is not as severe as the one facing, say, the recording industry. It's harder to download movies than it is to download songs; the files are bigger, you need more computer memory and, since a lot of film downloads come from folks who sneak cameras into theaters and film the screen, quality issues abound. Among the most popular vehicles for downloading movies is BitTorrent. Users log on, connect to other computers via the peer-to-peer network and download films from each others' hard drives. As bandwidth gets wider and wider and Internet users get more sophisticated, John Barrett, Parks Associates' director of research, predicts piracy will further menace the film industry's bottom line. "It's almost like the drug trade," he says. "You do all you can do to stop it but at a certain point you have to acknowledge stuff will get siphoned off at some point." Sounds like the health care system is not the only American industry in need of a little triage.