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Theater piracy law snags first victim

A 19-year-old Missouri man pleads guilty to recording "Bewitched" in a movie theater and distributing the file on the Internet.

A new federal law aimed at discouraging camcorder-equipped movie pirates has snared its first catch.

Federal prosecutors said Curtis Salisbury, 19, pleaded guilty on Monday to using a camcorder to record movies in a St. Louis, Mo., theater and distributing his recording on the Internet.

When Salisbury worked in the box office of a theater, he and others entered the projection booth after-hours and used a camcorder and audio recorder to tape "The Perfect Man" and "Bewitched" in June, according to the plea agreement. Sentencing is scheduled to take place in a San Jose, Calif., federal court Feb. 27.

Salisbury appears to have been the first person prosecuted under the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, which Congress approved in April in an effort to curb online piracy. One section of the law stipulates that any person who uses an "audiovisual recording device" to tape a movie in a theater can be fined up to $250,000 and imprisoned for up to three years. The charge of Internet distribution could carry additional punishment.

Although the Department of Justice wasn't divulging many details, a representative of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California said Salisbury was caught as part of an undercover operation being conducted in the San Francisco area. That investigation, called Operation Copycat, resulted in indictments against four men this summer. Salisbury's recordings, among others, were transmitted to servers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The movie studios applauded the government's announcement. "We want to thank the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI for their efforts to crack down on movie pirates," said John Malcolm, a vice president at the Motion Picture Association of America and a former Justice Department official. "Their attention to this growing phenomenon is crucial in our fight to protect copyrighted materials."

Applause also came from Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who supported the antipiracy measure in Congress. "This conviction is a victory for America's creators," Smith said. "Copyright thieves are now on notice that stealing intellectual property will not be tolerated."

The stiff criminal penalties were controversial when they were being considered by politicians, with critics saying such punishments, which are usually reserved for violent crimes, may not be the best way to engender respect for copyright law.