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'Screener' Piracy Declines, MPAA Says

April 13, 2004|R. Kinsey Lowe | Times Staff Writer

Piracy of "screeners" issued during Hollywood's awards season has decreased, although 30% of the 2003 movie titles sent out were still illegally copied, according to figures presented at a meeting Monday of representatives of Hollywood studios, independent filmmakers, guilds and various awards groups.

The meeting was convened by Jack Valenti, president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. He attributed the reduction -- from 44% a year earlier -- to increased awareness about the problem and technological advances.

The MPAA created an uproar among awards groups last year when it banned studios from sending out films to be screened, for fear that they would fall into pirates' hands. The MPAA subsequently relaxed the ban so that members of the motion picture academy would continue to receive the perk.

The ban prompted the Independent Feature Project/Los Angeles and other parties to file suit. A federal judge later issued an injunction on antitrust grounds, and the suit was eventually settled out of court.

During the MPAA session, held at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in conjunction with the U.S. attorney's office in L.A. and the FBI, law enforcement authorities said they were cracking down on piracy on three fronts: postproduction leaks, camcorders in movie theaters and awards screeners.

Dawn Hudson, executive director of the Independent Feature Project/Los Angeles, said the session stressed "accountability." "One encouraging thing that came out of the meeting," Hudson said, was evidence that "technology for watermarking DVDs and videocassettes had made a quantum leap forward in fighting piracy by increasing accountability."

There were two reported cases this year of screener piracy involving cassettes sent to academy members, the MPAA confirmed.

A defendant in one of those cases, Russell W. Sprague, 51, of Illinois, pleaded guilty Monday to federal charges related to posting copies on the Internet of first-run movies supplied by an Academy Awards voter, prosecutors said.

Sprague could face as many as three years in prison and might have to repay the studios for losses.

He admitted to copying about 200 movies, including "The Last Samurai" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

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Bloomberg News was used in compiling this report.

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