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Nabbing (some) camcorders

Spider-Man 3 photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

The movie industry's assault on piracy in theaters has intensified in the past couple of years, and the most quantifiable result is a dramatic increase in the number of people stopped in the act of filming a movie. This morning, the MPAA and NATO (the National Association of Theatre Owners, not the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) announced (download release here) that workers and customers at multiplexes around the world had stopped 31 attempts to record Spider-Man 3 in its opening weeks. Three people have been arrested in connection with the nine incidents in the U.S. (and a fourth is expected to be charged, according to NATO's Patrick Corcoran), and 15 arrests have been made in other countries (10 of them in Malaysia, home of a vibrant counterfeit DVD industry). That's a whopping number of incidents and arrests; I could find reports of only one arrest in connection with camcording Spider-Man 2, although I vaguely recall that there may have been two or three efforts foiled.

 

One reason for the increase in U.S. arrests is that Congress made it a violation of federal law two years ago to make an unauthorized recording of a movie in a theater. Many states (including California) also have enacted laws against "camming" in recent years, and NATO started offering rewards to theater workers who stop pirates in the act. Sony also went to unusual lengths to stop cammers, including hiring extra security guards for Spidey 3's pre-release screenings and premieres.

MPAA CEO Dan Glickman said the anti-camming efforts "helped give Spider-Man 3 a fair shot at its record-setting opening." No question that Spidey 3 had a great opening weekend -- $151 million in the U.S. and Canada, and $382 million worldwide. But pirates still managed to circulate several camcorded versions of the film online as the pic was hitting U.S. theaters, with one of those versions making onto DVDs that Sony found in Chicago and New York on opening weekend. Ouch. One cam evidently shot in Russia got fairly good reviews at a site that tracks online movie bootlegs.

IMHO, cases like this make it hard to divine the precise relationship between online piracy and Hollywood's revenue. These days, the first wave of online piracy is sustained by only one or two cams; once a release group has beaten the rest of the pack to a movie, the competition shifts to the next title (and, later, to be the first to release a bootleg of the DVD). So a single decent cam of Spidey 3 getting onto the Net was enough to feed the movie piracy scene. Nevertheless, the movie is well on its way to shattering box-office records. Maybe the number would be even higher if there were no cammed versions available -- perhaps some people who would have gone to the multiplex changed their minds after watching the bootleg. And maybe fewer people will buy the DVD because they've downloaded a comparatively low-quality copy for free. Or maybe the movie's stars, story and marketing, combined with a paucity of competition and a huge number of screens, have produced a juggernaut. Camming shouldn't be tolerated -- there's just no justification for it. And there's no question that the crackdown will help the industry. The question is, how much?

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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