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UPDATE: Alleged Screener Pirate Faces Charges, Suit

29 Jan, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

A man accused of duplicating Academy Awards screeners and making them available over the Internet will face federal criminal charges and civil lawsuits in Los Angeles.

Russell Sprague, 51, will be extradited to Los Angeles to face federal criminal charges of copyright infringement and illegal interception of a satellite signal.

Two days after a judge ruled he should be tried in Los Angeles on criminal charges, studios Warner Bros. and Columbia TriStar sued Sprague and his alleged accomplice, actor and Motion Picture Academy member Carmine Caridi, 70, for damages stemming from copyright infringement.

Sprague was arrested Jan. 22 at his Homewood, Ill., home, where authorities found duplicating equipment and copies of 36 awards screeners, according to court documents. He appeared in federal court in Chicago to face charges at a hearing Jan. 23 and was released on his own recognizance. At a separate hearing Jan. 26, a judge determined he should be sent to Los Angeles for trial. A date for his first Los Angeles appearance has not been set, an FBI spokeswoman said.

Among the titles found in Sprague's home, according to the criminal complaint against him, were The Last Samurai, Calendar Girls, Mystic River, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Thirteen, Something's Gotta Give, The Matrix Revolutions, X2: X-Men United, Cold Mountain, In America and Under the Tuscan Sun. Sprague's home also allegedly contained a variety of VHS, DVD and computer duplicating equipment. Authorities also found “unilooper” machines used to reprogram satellite signal access cards.

The screeners he allegedly duplicated were traced back to Academy member Carmine Caridi, an actor who appeared in “NYPD Blue” as well as two of the “Godfather” movies. Authorities said Caridi had sent as many as 60 screeners to Sprague over the past three years, believing he was merely a film buff who just wanted to watch them.

Attorneys for Sprague and Caridi could not be reached for comment by press time.The Warner complaint seeks $150,000 for each infringing use and names Mystic River and The Last Samurai in the complaint, while Columbia's complaint seeks a choice of $150,000 or actual damages for each infringement, naming Something's Gotta Give and Big Fish.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) tried to clamp down on screener circulation to curtail piracy, putting its foot down with a screener ban in November. However, a federal judge lifted the ban Dec. 5 after independent filmmakers sued, contending the ban hurt their chances for awards. MPAA president Jack Valenti vowed to appeal the decision, but the judge would not let the ban remain in place during the appeal.

Following the court order, studios sent watermarked copies of the movies on VHS to Academy and other awards voters.

Authorities used the watermark technology to trace the errant screeners to Caridi, according to the court filings.

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