It's supposed to be the next big thing the ultimate online copyright dispute.

It's video, you see, and it's free for the taking on the Net. Animated shorts, music videos and full-length movies are being traded back and forth as freely as Microsoft Outlook viruses and bad jokes.

Hollywood executives should be up in arms, worried that people will abandon movie theaters to watch pirated films on their computers. And journalists should be raving about how this is just like Napster, only better.

At least, that's what you'd expect to hear about something like Scour (www.scour.com). The site's video-swapping feature could indeed be described in those dramatic terms but only by someone who hadn't tried it.

A short test drive reveals that Scour is at least a decade ahead of its time. Usually, that would be a compliment. In this case, though, it reflects the fact that the Net's video underground isn't quite ready for prime time.

Scour and a competing site, iMesh (www.imesh.com) want to make it easier for people to swap all sorts of files, including videos. They're modeled after Napster, the wildly popular site that helps people trade music stored as MP3 files.

Since most of the songs traded through Napster are unauthorized copies of commercial releases, the recording industry has tried to choke off the service with a fistful of lawsuits. But the legal battles have served only to make Napster hotter than most of the bands whose copyrights it violates.

Bandwidth barrier

Scour seems to be hoping for the same fate. When you download the software, you're asked to approve terms of service that include repeated warnings about copyright law.

The site says it will surrender your personal data to lawyers bearing subpoenas, hanging you out to dry if you're caught downloading material without the express written consent of Major League Baseball or whoever else might be miffed.

But before you get a chance to live dangerously, you'll have to overcome the hurdles that make video more trouble than it's worth for all but an elite group of high-bandwidth users.

Film clips are sluggish enough when they're stored on the high-powered servers of commercial Web sites with big fat data pipes. Scour relies on files stored on the hard drives of ordinary users and their consumer-grade Net connections. Downloading a full-length movie under these circumstances is like sucking a 64-ounce milkshake through a coffee stirrer.

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