FBI charges pirate with copyright infringement

It turns out Jack Valenti’s fears about Oscar screeners weren’t so far-fetched.

The FBI on Thursday arrested Russell Sprague of Homewood, Ill., in connection with an Internet piracy ring that allegedly obtained many of its films from an Academy member, actor Carmine Caridi.

According to an FBI affidavit, Caridi has been sending all of his Oscar screeners over the past three to five years to Sprague, who transferred them into digital format and, possibly with acquaintances, put them online.

Using new digital watermarks that have been inserted into recent Academy screeners, copies of films such as “Master and Commander” and “Love Actually” that made their way onto peer-to-peer trading sites were traced back to Caridi.

Sprague has been arrested and charged with criminal copyright infringement and, due to equipment also found in his house that can be used to intercept DirecTV signals, illegal interception of a satellite signal.

He will make an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Chicago today.

While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has stated that it will consider expelling any member found guilty of violations, it would not prosecute: That job falls to the copyright holder, which is the studio.

Studios affected by the piracy ring include Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, Fox and Disney.

On Thursday, Warner Bros. Entertainment spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti said, “Our intention is to protect our copyrights to the fullest extent of the law.” She also was quick to praise the U.S. attorney and the FBI “for vigorously protecting our copyright. We can’t thank them enough.”

Reps at several other studios said they are investigating and have made no determination yet of any possible actions.

The arrest may cause some rethinking among those who protested the temporary screener ban. After studios announced the ban, it quickly became apparent that awards screeners are invaluable for voters during the awards season.

However, the piracy argument was overshadowed by other considerations.

Well over 100 copies of movies were seized from Sprague’s home by the FBI, including many that have not yet been released on DVD or home-video. Illegal duplication equipment that Sprague allegedly used to transfer Caridi’s VHS screeners onto DVDs was also seized.

The arrest was spurred by private investigations undertaken by several studios. It started after the FBI was contacted by Warner VP and intellectual property counsel David Kaplan, who informed a special agent that his studio had found illegal copies of “The Last Samurai” and “Mystic River” online and that other studios appeared to be the victims of Internet piracy resulting from Oscar screeners as well.

Working with a representative for Technicolor, which inserted the digital watermarks into Oscar screeners, the FBI first traced the illegal pics to Caridi, who then, according to the FBI affidavit, explained his arrangement to send all his screeners, approximately 60 per year, to Sprague.

Thesp, who turns 70 today, told an FBI special agent that he believed Sprague was a film buff who only wished to view the screeners and he was not aware that they were being duplicated.

Caridi, who had a recurring role on “NYPD Blue” and appeared in films such as “Bugsy,” could not be reached for comment.

Sprague allegedly provided Caridi with Fed Ex boxes and shipping labels for this purpose. After allegedly making digital copies, he returned the screeners to the thesp.

Until this year, Caridi had technically not violated any Academy or studio rules. After the screener ban was initiated in November, however, the Acad asked members to sign forms accepting full responsibility for the tapes — meaning that if they lent them or gave them away, they were responsible for subsequent use.

The FBI confirmed that Caridi signed that contract.

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