Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Tuesday, 28 July 2009 13:33 UK

Tackling the film piracy problem

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince premiere
Pirates were at work just days after the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince premiere

By John Andrew
BBC News

As a father and his sons are jailed at London's Southwark Crown Court after making £7m in a fake DVD and piracy scam, a look at how the industry is attempting to deal with the problem.

The film pirates have had a busy month.

On 15 July, the sixth film in the boy wizard saga-Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was released in UK cinemas.

To see how quickly pirated versions of this would end up online or on the street we enlisted the help of Lacors - the body which helps councils enforce regulations. It put out an alert to trading standards officers across England.

Sure enough by Saturday morning - the start of a crammed "Potter Weekend" for cinemas - pirate DVDs were already being seized at boot fairs in Surrey and Staffordshire, selling for as little as £3.

It is estimated that film and video piracy costs the UK film and TV industry close to half a billion pounds a year and cinemas the equivalent of a whole month of box office takings. It is often linked to organised crime, including drugs and people trafficking.

Typically, the people who try to record films from cinema screens work in teams
Phil Clapp, chief executive of the Cinema Distributors Association

It may be hard to believe that most counterfeit versions start with a camcorder at the back of a cinema, but the industry says that 90% of the titles that appear shortly after a film's release, and before the official DVD version, start life in this way.

"Typically, the people who try to record films from cinema screens work in teams", says Phil Clapp, chief executive of the Cinema Distributors Association.

"They'll choose a mid-afternoon performance as soon as possible after the film's released. Three or four of them will turn up. Two will sit at either end of a row, essentially blocking other people from coming down the aisle.

"They'll clamp the camera to a seat or use a tripod obscured by a coat. They'll often use microphones, placing them three of them four seats either side to get a stereo effect."

The teams compete to get the cleanest recording and have been known to earn as much as £30,000 for the best version.


The pirate DVDs that result are sold in pubs, car boot fairs or on the streets, often going at three for £10 or less. They vary hugely in quality, but the general consensus is that they are getting better, with fewer examples of people walking across the screen or munching popcorn.

Cinema staff are trained how to spot the camcording teams, often with the use of night-vision goggles. But despite the on-screen warnings against camcorders and mobile phone videos, cinemas have only limited powers to deal with them.

While they can ask culprits to leave, they cannot confiscate their camera or the recording they have made.

According to the Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact), even when the police are called, an arrest is seldom made.

The federation says other countries, including the US, Canada and Italy, already have a specific law against camcording in cinemas and believes the UK should follow suit.

New law

"That way, when we call the police they know exactly what they're dealing with" says Fact's Director General Kieron Sharpe. "They'd know they'd be able to arrest them for a criminal offence."

Cinema distributors say countries with such a law have seen the number of attempted camcordings go down markedly.

But a spokesman for the Intellectual Property Office, part of the Department For Business, says existing law, in the form of the 2006 Fraud Act, already covers this issue.

He argued that while other countries have brought in anti-camcording laws, the evidence on their effectiveness is far from clear.

There are also those - including some police officers - who question industry claims that camcording accounts for 90% of pirated films.

Earlier this year the online appearance of a near complete version of Wolverine before the film's release suggests that the industry's production process is not as watertight as people think.

The industry, though, insists it takes strict action against leaks, including making sure that any pre-release copies provided for the Oscars and Baftas are clearly marked and traceable.

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