The television and movie industry is facing its own form of Napster, the file-sharing network that gave the music industry a headache.
Britons and Americans alike have discovered a new file format, called DivX, which lets them squeeze entire movies and TV programmes into files that can be exchanged over fast connections.
And to make matters worse, a US company, Replay TV, offers a TV recorder incorporating a computer hard disk that lets people swap shows and movies as easily as lending each other videotapes.
The industry is fighting back and has launched swingeing lawsuits against the operators of the file-sharing networks over which DivX files are traded, and the makers of the Replay TV recorder.
But the signs are that the best it can hope for is a moral victory – because the power to swap the files is already being exploited around the world.
"If it weren't for downloads, I would only [have seen] up to series five, episode six," said one Dutch fan of the US series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in an online forum.
The signs are that students are exploiting the high-speed connections available at universities to get the files, just as happened with Napster. And indeed, there are great similarities. The DivX format is to video files what MP3s are to music CDs – a highly-compressed version that can be played on a PC and passed down a high-speed line. Typically, a half-hour TV show makes a 200 megabyte file – which can be downloaded in about 10 minutes with a broadband line.
Among the most popular TV programmes being swapped online are the cartoon series The Simpsons, the gangster series The Sopranos and the comedy Sex and the City.
The same system is now arriving in Britain, with more and more people getting high-speed broadband connections. Scores of sites have links where people can download free software that will play DivX files on their machines.
In the US, Replay TV has sold hundreds of its hard-disk recorders but has been hit with a lawsuit by the Motion Picture Association of America, sibling to the record industry's RIAA, which shut down Napster. "I don't think they can survive the lawsuits," said Andrew Cresci, vice-president of TiVo, which also makes a hard-disk based TV recorder – but does not offer the file-sharing of Replay TV.Reuse content