California criminalizes recording of pix

WASHINGTON — On Jan. 1, California will join New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia on the short list of states that have outlawed camcorder use to tape movies off the bigscreen — the No. 1 way of producing unauthorized movie files for distribution on the Internet.

But the MPAA, which shepherded the bill in California, is hoping that dozens more states will act to criminalize camcorder recording of movies as it pushes its anti-piracy agenda on the legislative front.

“We’ve found cameras in lapels, we’ve found them in hats, now if we find them you can go to jail,” said Vans Stevenson, senior VP of state legislative affairs for the MPAA.

Although taping a movie from the screen is a copyright infringement, theater owners do not own the copyright on the movies they show, so they currently have no grounds for detaining someone caught with a camcorder or for confiscating the tape.

Was just civil violation

Under a bill signed into law Thursday by Gov. Gray Davis, taping off a movie screen becomes a criminal, not just a possible civil, violation of law.

“The key word in the law is operate,” Stevenson said. “It makes it illegal to operate a recording device while a movie is being exhibited for the purpose of making a recording.”

New law will give theater owners the authority to detain people caught using camcorders while they contact the police.

“We expect it will happen much like shoplifting in a store,” said state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-L.A.), chief sponsor of the bill. “But the bigger thing is just to have the deterrent. Right now, it’s just not against the law to do it. We’ve closed that loophole.”

The law, which makes videotaping via camcorder a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine, was drafted to cover new kinds of digital devices as well.

Covers other devices

“We were very careful in the wording to cover any device now or in the future, because of the multiplicity of devices that can record,” Stevenson said. “If your cell phone can record it’s covered by this law.” Although camcorders have long been a source of street-level piracy, the bane of retailers, it’s only in the past two years, with the dramatic increase in movies being swapped over the Internet, that the MPAA has focused systematically on the problem.

“What we’re concerned about is what’s coming,” Stevenson said. “We know that camcorders are the No. 1 source of movies on the Internet now, but as it gets easier to download movies because of faster Internet connections, the problem is going to get worse. We want to get out ahead of that.”

Fueling the frenzy is the rapid decline in the price of DVD recorders and DVD-R drives in PCs that allow consumers to copy files downloaded from the Internet, just as the spread of cheap CD burners helped fuel music swapping over the Internet.

According to Sonic Solutions, a maker of DVD-burning software, the average price of DVD recorders has fallen from $400 in 2002 to $225 this year and is projected to hit $150 by 2004.

Some 15 million recorders and drives are expected to ship this year, tripling the number sold in 2002. By 2004, shipments are expected to hit 40 million, according to Sonic.

Other states targeted

Stevenson said the MPAA hopes to introduce camcorder bills in a dozen or more states over the next year. An effort earlier this year in Oregon was stymied when the legislative session there ended before lawmakers could focus on the bill.

This month, the MPAA was stung by a report released by AT&T Labs fingering the studios themselves as the largest source of illegally traded movies on the Internet.

The study examined 285 high-quality movie files found on peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa and traced 77% of them to what the study called “insider” sources, such as post-production houses and the studios’ own editing suites.

MPAA criticized the study, however, saying that by focusing only on high-quality copies it overlooked the vast majority of camcorder copies, which tend to be of lower quality than post-production dubs.

“There are things that get out as a result of leaks, but that’s not a major source of Internet piracy,” said Tom Temple, director of Internet anti-piracy enforcement for MPAA.

Camcorder main foe

Camcorder copies represent at least 80% of the movie files on the Internet, according to Temple.

In July, a bill was introduced on Capitol Hill by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.) that would make camcorder recording a federal offense.

That bill has languished, however, as the piracy action in Washington has shifted to the music industry’s campaign of litigation against downloaders.

Lobbyists for the MPAA are hoping to get the anti-camcorder provision added to a separate anti-piracy bill, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), which is tentatively slated for markup by the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property next week.

Although a federal law would be helpful, Stevenson said, the MPAA would likely continue its campaign in the states in order to give local prosecutors authority to pursue the shutterbugs.

Also on Thursday, Davis signed a bill giving the Recording Industry Assn. of America a seat on California’s High Tech Crime Task Force Advisory Committee, which helps plan law-enforcement efforts to combat computer crime.

“By adding music and video piracy to the list of offenses tracked by the state’s High Technology Theft Apprehension Prosecution Program, this law will help with enforcement efforts for these serious crimes that threaten California’s important entertainment industry,” RIAA president Cary Sherman said in a statement.

The bill was sponsored by Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn (D-Saratoga).

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