A Chicago man is suspected of making copies of films available on the internet.

CHICAGO (AP) – A man arrested on suspicion of helping illegally post Oscar screeners on the Internet was charged Friday with violating Hollywood studios’ copyrights.

FBI agents arrested Russell Sprague Thursday night at his suburban Chicago home. He appeared briefly Friday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin C. Ashman.

This is the first time anyone has been arrested in the pirating of so-called screener copies of films supplied in advance to Academy Award voters, according to the FBI.

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

The judge set $25,000 bond for the 51-year-old Sprague and scheduled a hearing for Monday on a move by federal prosecutors to send him to Los Angeles for trial.

As he left the courthouse, Sprague denied the government’s claim that he was part of a plot to violate Hollywood copyrights.

“That’s baloney, they have an agenda,” Sprague said, adding that he copied films as a favor to friends and made no money at it. “No one should make money on someone else’s copyrighted work – I agree with that philosophy. But when they make an example out of me, that’s over the top.”

He said he worked in Hollywood for 20 years installing audio and visual equipment in the homes of Academy members, but moved here in 1999 “because I got tired of the Hollywood scene.” He denied putting movies on the Internet.

Sprague was charged in Los Angeles with conspiring to violate copyrights on “The Last Samurai,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and “The Matrix Revolutions.”

He was also charged with making equipment designed to download and decode satellite-to-home television signals without paying for them.

Sprague told the judge he’s been working for a medical services company. His court-appointed defense attorney, Matthew Madden, had no immediate comment.

Sprague told agents he’s been getting copies of films for three years from a friend, academy member Carmine Caridi, and copying them, agents said.

Agents said in court papers that the investigation began when Hollywood studios traced pirated versions of the movies posted illegally to the Internet to Caridi, a 69-year-old actor who appeared in the “The Godfather: Part II” and television’s “NYPD Blue.”

The studios had placed coding on the screener movies they sent to Academy members in an effort to prevent piracy, and used that coding to determine whose copy was on the Internet.

Agents said Caridi was interviewed Jan. 16 and told them that copies of as many as 60 pictures have been sent to his West Hollywood, Calif., home for the last five years and he’s been forwarding them to Sprague.

He said he received no money for sending the films and did it as a favor, agents said.

Besides DVDs and videos of the movies, agents found duplication equipment, including recorders and computers in their search of Sprague’s home, they said.

Agents quoted Sprague as saying he had been receiving Academy Award VHS screeners from Caridi for the last three or four years. He said he would generally use code-breaking software to copy the VHS movies onto DVD and then return the original tape and two copies to Caridi.

According to agents, Sprague admitted making as many as six copies of each DVD and distributing them to family members or friends.

AP-ES-01-23-04 1831EST



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