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.

A bootleg copy of the movie "Gladiator," for example, can consume more than 500 MB. When I logged into Scour with my 28.8K connection and requested just the first half of that movie from someone with a cable modem, the estimated download time was 2,338 hours about 97 days. At that rate, I could film my own gladiator movie before I got a chance to see the real thing.

Pipeline for porn

On another occasion, I tried to download a much smaller file identified as a bootleg copy of "Road Trip," a movie starring MTV comedian Tom Green. After four hours, I'd managed to grab about a third of the film. Three hours later, I checked back to find something had gone wrong and my download had been interrupted.

I opened the portion that arrived, figuring I could watch at least a few minutes of film. But instead of a wacky teen comedy, the file was actually a clip from the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee sex video. Though the acting might have rivaled that of "Road Trip," I wouldn't know: It crashed my computer in less than a second.

This sort of performance shouldn't make anyone in Hollywood sweat. While Napster allows people to download nearly CD-quality songs in less than an hour, the quality and speed of online video are bad enough to compel even the cheapest Net users to pay for a movie ticket.

Scour and iMesh will prove popular among porn fans, who won't mind waiting hours for short clips if the alternative involves funny looks from clerks at the local video rental place.

But until high-speed connections are more common in people's homes than dial-up modems which won't happen, I think, for at least 10 years copyright holders needn't worry about sites like Scour costing them any money.

That is, unless someone is dumb enough to sue them.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.

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