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Turning the Camera on Movie Pirates

Companies are heeding the film industry's call for help, devising high-tech ways to detect camcorders in theaters

September 19, 2004|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood's billion-dollar question landed in Howard Gladstone's e-mail one night: "Can you find a camcorder operating inside a movie theater?"

His company, Trakstar of Weston, Fla., responded by whipping up a camera detector out of technology that soldiers use to spot snipers. That's the answer, Gladstone says -- but he may be only half-right.

Portable digital video cameras, or camcorders, lie at the root of Hollywood's global piracy problem. Armed with ever-smaller and more powerful cameras, bootleggers in theaters manage to copy every major film within days of its release. These underground versions soon pop up on pirated disks sold in Los Angeles, London, Berlin and Shanghai -- offering people around the world a crude copy of a big-time release for less than the price of a movie ticket.

Trakstar is one of a small but growing number of companies trying to sell Tinseltown a high-tech defense against those pesky cams. But even as these firms answer Hollywood's call, studio executives question whether a single silicon-powered bullet can kill this type of piracy.

Once a digital camera is spotted, who can be relied upon to confront and hold the suspect until the police arrive? A 17-year-old usher making $7 an hour? Beyond that, who will be paying for the detection equipment, which is likely to cost thousands of dollars per movie screen? And how long can any anti-camcorder technology work before the bootleggers find a way around it?

Despite all that, Gladstone is confident that Trakstar has an effective solution: a tamper-resistant device that uses brief bursts of energy to detect camera lenses and digital sensors.

At least one other company -- Sentek Consulting, a San Diego start-up run by two former Navy SEALs -- is offering a competing camcorder detector. Meanwhile, two companies are modifying movie projectors, trying to interfere with camcorders without damaging the picture on the screen.

To stamp out illegal recording, the technologies would have to be installed in a significant number of the 100,000 movie screens around the world, and that wouldn't be cheap.

On the other hand, the stakes for Hollywood are much higher than the equipment's price tag.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America estimates that studios lost $3.5 billion in potential sales last year to bootleggers.

Although pirates have been leeching profit off the movie industry since the advent of the videocassette recorder in the 1970s, digital video recording and high-speed Internet connections have magnified the problem exponentially. Pirates these days can duplicate their bootlegs in minutes, make unlimited numbers of perfect copies and send their wares electronically around the globe.

Typically, a movie is recorded in theaters only a handful of times, creating enough raw material to feed thousands of bootlegging operations worldwide.

For example, the same version of "Hidalgo" popped up on street corners, in malls and at flea markets on four continents shortly after the film's U.S. release in March. And all the early bootlegs of "Seabiscuit" last year appear to have come from a single illegal copy.

That's why studios see defeating camcorders in the theaters as crucial to choking off the entire supply line of pirated movies.

The main element of Trakstar's Pirate Eye system is a shoebox-size device mounted next to the movie screen, facing the audience. An emitter inside the box bounces energy waves off the seats one small group at a time, and a sensor records the reflections. The reflections are analyzed using software from Apogen Technologies Inc. of McLean, Va., a government contractor best known for image-processing gear. The software was designed to pick out a camcorder in a sea of bodies, seats, popcorn tubs and soda cups.

Typically, pirates don't rely solely on the darkness in a theater to camouflage their mischief. They also will cover their camcorders or stick them in obscure places they hope ushers and other moviegoers won't see.

But to record a movie, they have to expose the camcorder's lens and point it steadily at the screen. And that's what Trakstar's system looks for -- the reflected image of a camera lens.

One advantage to Trakstar's approach, Gladstone said, is the involvement of defense contractors such as Apogen.

"They never design a system without understanding what the obvious countermeasures would be," he said. "The war against piracy is an ongoing battle of measures and countermeasures."

Gladstone successfully demonstrated the detector in February to industry executives at the Digital Cinema Laboratory, a project of the Entertainment Technology Center at USC. But several studio executives told Gladstone that they wanted one more feature: the ability to spot "pinhole" cameras with lenses a fraction of an inch wide.

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