Internet pirating of Oscar-nominated films is worse, despite campaign

Studios can't agree on a way to halt it

FBI launches probe

February 13, 2005|By Lorenza Munoz and Jon Healey | Lorenza Munoz and Jon Healey,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD - One year after the Motion Picture Association of America began its highly publicized campaign against pre-Oscar piracy, the problem is even worse.

There are significantly more Academy Award screeners - copies of films - available on the Internet for downloading than there were last year, according to Web sites that track online piracy, including all five films nominated for best picture.

And because the Academy Award screeners are DVDs - not VHS videos, as they were last season - the quality of the copies is much better.

The FBI is investigating several cases, including the leaking of Warner Bros.' Million Dollar Baby and Sony Pictures Entertainment's Spanglish and Closer.

"We take this criminal activity very seriously," said Louis J. Caprino Jr., acting special agent in charge of the criminal division of the Los Angeles FBI office.

The studios routinely send out so-called screeners to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the guilds and other groups to publicize their Oscar hopefuls during the awards season, which begins in November.

This season, the problem of screeners winding up on the Internet "is substantially worse" than before, a person at one studio said. In part, that's because the studios couldn't agree on a method for combating piracy.

Some studios opted, for example, not to send out release forms asking academy members to pledge not to share their screeners. The forms, spelling out the potential consequences of disseminating screeners, were so unpopular last season that the academy didn't require members to sign them this year.

What's more, the studios didn't present a unified front on watermarking, a sort of fingerprint that identifies the owner of each screener. Some chose not to place identifying watermarks on screeners of films already out on DVD, reasoning that anyone who wished to pirate them would have done so by now.

Although watermarks don't prevent piracy, they do help the studios track down the source of a leak. That's how authorities last year nabbed Carmine Caridi, an academy member who had lent his screeners to an acquaintance, Russell Sprague.

Sprague will be sentenced on federal copyright infringement counts this month. Caridi was expelled from the academy and ordered to pay Sony and Warner Bros. more than $600,000 in damages.

"The lion's share of [screener recipients] are honest," said Darcy Antonellis, senior vice president of worldwide piracy operations for Warner Bros. Entertainment. "Unfortunately, it only takes a few to make files available that cause this chain reaction around the world."

In dollars-and-cents terms, screener abuse is a relatively small part of the movie piracy problem. According to the motion picture association, most counterfeit discs - whose sales cost the industry $3.5 billion in 2004 - come from bootlegs secretly taped with camcorders in theaters.

But studio executives are eager to protect screeners because piracy on the Internet is closely linked to illegal sales on the streets. DVD bootleggers often download master copies from the Web, where purloined screeners offer top-quality picture and sound weeks to months before a film is legitimately available for purchase.

Last year, the campaign against piracy seemed headed for a victory when Cinea Inc., a division of Dolby Laboratories Inc., announced that it had developed a new player and disc system that makes copying difficult and easier to detect.

Cinea discs are protected by electronic locks and can be seen only on a Cinea player. What's more, as a disc plays, the player inserts a unique watermark into the movie itself. That means that if someone manages to copy a movie as it is playing and then puts that copy up on the Internet, Cinea says it can identify whose player was used.

But Cinea could not deliver the machines in time after offering to send special players free to every member of the British and American academies.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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