Originally created 01/24/04

FBI makes arrest in Internet movie piracy case



LOS ANGELES -- A man who allegedly used the Internet to distribute Oscar "screener" movies sent to him by a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been arrested in Illinois, authorities said.

FBI agents arrested Russell Sprague, 51, on Thursday after an early morning search of his Homewood, Ill., home turned up hundreds of copies of screener films such as "The Last Samurai," "In America," and "Shattered Glass."

Sprague was to 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.

Agents said the films have been traced back to a longtime Academy member, 69-year-old actor Carmine Caridi, who was described as a friend of Sprague's.

In addition to the movies, agents said they found an array of duplicating and illegal satellite television interception equipment in Sprague's home about 20 miles south of downtown Chicago.

A woman who answered the telephone at Sprague's home Thursday evening hung up without comment.

Caridi told investigators he sent VHS copies of about 60 movies he received each year to Sprague. He allegedly told investigators he received no money for the films, and believed Sprague was merely a film buff who wished to watch them.

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. Two screeners recently circulated on the Internet, "Something's Gotta Give" and "Big Fish," were identified by Sony Pictures as having been shipped to Caridi.

Warner Bros. studio recently alerted the FBI that copies of its "The Last Samurai" and "Mystic River" were being made freely available for download on the Internet. It was not known if those copies been traced to Sprague.

Caridi, a veteran film and TV actor, has been a member of the Academy for more than 20 years. He appeared on TV's "NYPD Blue" and in such films as "The Godfather: Part II" and "The Godfather: Part III."

Caridi has not been charged but additional arrests have not been ruled out, FBI spokeswoman Laura Bosley said.

Caridi's attorney, Richard Millard, told the Los Angeles Times that the actor "was embarrassed to learn that his name was associated with the film that was being improperly distributed."

Sprague and Caridi had been introduced by a mutual friend a decade ago, Millard said, adding that Caridi "had no idea anyone else would be seeing" the films he sent Sprague.

Investigators said a search of Caridi's Hollywood apartment turned up 36 original Academy screener tapes, including "The Last Samurai," "In America," "Shattered Glass" and "Mona Lisa Smile." Large quantities of FedEx shipping labels bearing Sprague's address were also found, authorities said.

An Academy spokeswoman declined to comment.

The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents studios, last year banned the distribution of screener DVDs and videotapes over concerns about bootlegging, but partly lifted the ban after complaints from filmmakers, producers and independent production companies.

The studios changed the policy in October to allow the shipment of encoded videocassettes that would allow tracing 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 other awards voters.