Canada camcording on thin ice

Ottawa moves on criminalization of in-theater taping

Following a months-long full-court press by the major U.S. studios and Canadian exhibitors, the Canadian government appears set to introduce legislation that will crack down on film pirates and finally criminalize the camcording of movies in theaters here.

Federal Heritage Minister Bev Oda is expected to table the amendments to the criminal code today in the House of Commons.

"We're delighted about the government's initiative," said Douglas Frith, president of the Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Assn. and the Hollywood studios' point man in Canada.

While he doesn't know the exact wording of the proposed legislation, Frith ex-pressed confidence that the Canadian mea-sures will follow earlier ac-tion by 38 U.S. states to effectively criminalize camcording at the multiplex.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday told California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is on a three-day trade mission to Canada, about plans to introduce the long-awaited legislation.

The camcording issue moved front and center earlier this year, when 20th Century Fox threatened to delay the theatrical release of its movies in Canada if the government refused to move against organized crime syndicates that camcord movies here for their pirated DVDs (HR 1/24).

Warner Bros. Pictures made its own move May 7, when it announced it would cancel all sneak-preview screenings of its movies in Canadian cinemas to protest governmental inaction.

That was preceded by the Office of the United States Trade Representative, in late April, placing Canada on a "country watch list" alongside Belize and Tajikistan for its failure to heed repeated calls to strengthen copyright protections (HR 5/1).

Raffaele Papalia, chairman of the Motion Picture Theatre Association of Canada, applauded Ottawa's move on film piracy.

"Stealing intellectual property such as movies is theft, regardless of new technologies available that make this an easy crime to commit," Papalia said. "We anticipate the laws being proposed will now recognize this and penalize these thieves."

Current Canadian law makes camcording in cinemas a legal problem — the major studios can sue for copyright infringement — but not an illegal act.

The CMPDA contends bootleg DVDs routinely originate from theaters in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, with the resulting illegal movies becoming available via DVD in more than 45 countries and online through 135 Web services.

To stem that tide, Canadian exhibitors have hired security guards with night-vision goggles to patrol theaters and trained young employees to spot patrons with camcorders.

But unless cinema operators can prove that someone caught videotaping intends to generate income from piracy, current Canadian copyright law deems offenders little more than trespassers.

The CMPDA's Frith said he expects the new movie piracy legislation brought before the House of Commons will likely impose fines or jail sentences on anyone convicted of videotaping movies for distribution as bootleg DVDs.

"We need this in the criminal code so that if you're caught, we don't have to prove distribution," he said.

Frith said one major deterrent effect of criminal convictions for illegal camcording here will come from affecting the ability of individuals to cross into the U.S. or elsewhere internationally.

"We've had two particular groups (of pirates) in Montreal that are active, and this will be a deterrent and, secondly, impose significant penalties," he added.

The CMPDA will now lobby opposition politicians in Ottawa to ensure all-party support for the anti-piracy legislation so it can be debated in the House of Commons and passed before Parliament breaks for the summer in mid-June.