Pirates are invading multiplexes this summer, and we're not talking about the rogues who duel Johnny Depp in ''Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.'' We're talking about the rogues who sit in theaters copying movies with their camcorders, making blockbusters available on street corners and the Web before they even hit cinemas.
Shivering in their timbers, Hollywood studios now employ such swashbuckling tactics as transporting movie reels under aliases, scoping media previews for duplicators, and putting high-tech watermarks on prints to make bootlegged copies traceable to their source. ''We have been extremely careful,'' says Joel Silver, producer of the ''Matrix'' series. ''Press screenings, where they don't normally patrol everything -- that's where [we're vulnerable].''
Which explains why Disney's recent invitations for advance showings of ''Finding Nemo'' included a clear, stern warning: ''This screening will be monitored for unauthorized recording...[which] may subject you to criminal and civil liability.'' Other studios are using military-style special ops. At a press presentation of Fox's ''X2: X-Men United,'' security personnel patrolled the aisles, wearing night-vision goggles to spot recording devices. And those lucky enough to attend early screenings of Warner Bros.' ''Matrix Reloaded'' met a phalanx of veritable Agent Smiths -- down to the dark suits and earpieces -- who closely inspected purses and eyeglass cases, not for post-9/11 red flags like box cutters, but for recording equipment.
Combating piracy ''is the No. 1 priority of this industry in this decade,'' says Warner spokesperson Barbara Brogliatti. And no wonder: In counterfeit videos alone, Hollywood is ''losing about $3 billion to $3.5 billion a year,'' says Jack Valenti, president and chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America. Compounding that figure are some 400,000 to 600,000 daily movie downloads -- a 20 percent increase over 2001.