FBI Makes Arrest in Oscar Screener Case

One small step against piracy, one giant leap for Jack Valenti.

The Motion Picture Association of America’s president–who last September tried (and ultimately failed) to orchestrate a “screener” ban, believing DVD and VHS copies of Oscar contenders were a source of bootlegging–had his suspicions confirmed Thursday when FBI agents arrested Russell Sprague, 51, for allegedly using the Internet to distribute VHS copies of films sent to him by a Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member, actor 69-year-old Carmine Caridi, The Associated Press reports.

Sprague will appear in federal court Friday in Chicago to face criminal copyright infringement charges. It is the first arrest in the bootlegging of screeners in the United States, the FBI said.

According to AP, authorities searched Sprague’s home in Homewood, Ill., and found hundreds of copies of Academy screeners, such as The Last Samurai, In America and Shattered Glass, as well as an array of duplicating and illegal satellite television interception equipment. The FBI said Sprague used a software program to convert the VHS tape into DVD format and then sent the original tapes back to Caridi.

Variety reports the arrest was initiated 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.

Using the inserted digital watermarks on the Academy screeners, the FBI was able to trace the illegal films to Caridi, who then, according to the FBI affidavit, explained his arrangement to send all his screeners, approximately 60 per year, to Sprague. Caridi, a veteran film and TV actor and a member of the Academy for more than 20 years, claimed he received no money for the films, and believed Sprague was merely a film buff who wished to watch them, Variety reports.

Investigators told AP a search of Caridi‘s Los Angeles apartment turned up 36 original Academy screener tapes as well as large quantities of FedEx shipping labels bearing Sprague’s address, which, Caridi said, were supplied to him by Sprague. The actor has not been charged but additional arrests have not been ruled out, FBI spokeswoman Laura Bosley told AP.

The MPAA, which represents studios, last year banned the distribution of screener DVDs and videotapes over concerns about piracy but partially lifted the ban after complaints from filmmakers, producers and independent production companies.

The studios changed the policy in October to allow special encoded screeners to be sent to Academy Award voters only. A federal judge in December, however, granted a temporary injunction lifting the screener ban in a lawsuit brought by independent production companies, which argued the policy put them at a disadvantage. The studios then sent screeners to thousands of awards voters.