Warners taking Canada to task

Pressure put on northern neighbor to tackle piracy

TORONTO -- Warner Bros. Pictures says inaction by the Canadian government over movie piracy drove it to cancel all promotional screenings of upcoming releases in domestic cinemas.

"Canada is the No. 1 priority in terms of anti-camcording legislation," Darcy Antonellis, Warner Bros.' senior vp worldwide anti-piracy operations, says of current efforts to get the Canadian government to make unauthorized recording of Hollywood movies in domestic theaters a criminal offense.

Douglas Frith, the Toronto-based president of the Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Assn., which represents major studios in Canada, points out that unauthorized camcording in the U.S. can lead to a prison sentence. But in Canada, Frith insists, lax laws have local cops turning their backs on local cinema operators who phone in to report that someone is camcording in one of their theaters.

"(Organized gangs) take pride in their work. They capture the movies in a hard drive. In three minutes, they are uploading and encoding the material, and 24 hours later, bootleg DVDs are on sale on the streets of Los Angeles," he insists.

Ellis Jacob, president and CEO of Cineplex Galaxy, says the country's largest cinema chain has hired security guards with night-vision goggles to patrol theaters and has trained young employees to similarly spot patrons with camcorders.

But unless cinema operators can prove that perpetrators caught videotaping intend to generate income from online piracy or bootleg DVDs, for example, current Canadian copyright law deems offenders little more than trespassers to be shown the door.

"They'll just say (the videotape) is for my kid. And the police won't come," Jacob complains, noting that known offenders have been caught running from theater to theater to digitally capture the latest Hollywood releases.

Jacob argues that, after 38 U.S. states effectively shifted the problem to Canada by criminalizing camcording in their jurisdictions, Ottawa needs to act.

"We need substantial fines to act as a deterrent," Jacob says.

The CMPDA and other industry players are lobbying Ottawa to enact legislation to make camcording in a theater a criminal offense and to bolster efforts by Canadian law enforcement authorities to deal with counterfeiting.

But back-room maneuvering in Ottawa has so far secured little progress beyond vague promises to lump pirated DVDs with fake handbags and counterfeit medicines into any eventual intellectual property legislation.

On Parliament Hill, the all-party standing committee on industry has been holding hearings into counterfeiting, piracy and its impact on intellectual property.

But the ruling Conservatives have yet to make clear the timing and content of revised federal copyright laws.

"We're working actively on the copyright file, taking our time to ensure changes we introduce are effective," Denis Dummer, a rep for the federal Industry Canada department, said when asked what amendments to Canada's current Copyright Act are planned.

Behind the scenes, government officials argue current Canadian law makes camcording in cinemas a legal problem -- the major studios can sue for copyright infringement -- but not an illegal act.

To prosecute those who pirate Hollywood movies, the major studios or cinema operators must first prove the copy of the film is being made for commercial purposes.

To do that, they must first apprehend the pirates when caught videotaping in movie theaters, a tall task when law enforcement officers are reluctant to respond to calls. By contrast, the police will race to a local Blockbuster video rental outlet to nab someone shoplifting a DVD of a Hollywood movie.

Even so, the federal government has its backers. University of Ottawa law professor Miļæ½chael Geist, an expert in Internet and e-commerce regulation, says current Canadian copyright laws are stronger than major studios let on and that Canada should not blindly adopt U.S.-style laws.

"(Ottawa) is taking a realistic issue (and) recognizing it is very complex and changing rapidly. And the extent they aren't caving in to the Americans is a measure of their policy concern," Geist says.

But the folks at Warner Bros. Pictures aren't impressed.

"Within the first week of a film's release, you can almost be certain that somewhere out there a Canadian copy will show up," Antonellis says.

Other Hollywood studios are similarly losing patience with Canada. In January, 20th Century Fox threatened to delay releases of its movies in Canada to eliminate the threat of unauthorized camcording.

And, on April 30, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative released its annual Special 301 report on intellectual property protection worldwide, and placed Canada on a "country watch list" for not heeding repeated calls by Washington to strengthen allegedly outdated and ineffective copyright protections.