An Illinois man was arrested with hundreds of copies of Oscar “screeners.”

LOS ANGELES (AP) – An Illinois man was indicted Thursday on charges of illegally copying and distributing scores of popular films, including best-picture Oscar nominees “Mystic River” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

The indictment of Russell W. Sprague came a day after three former employees of a Hollywood post-production company were charged with misdemeanor counts of conspiring to violate federal copyright laws by illegally making copies of Mel Gibson’s still-unreleased “The Passion of the Christ” and other films.

U.S. Attorney Debra Yang said the two cases show that authorities will not tolerate the pirating of films, which she said costs the movie industry an estimated $3 billion a year and also damages the nation’s economy.

Sprague, 51, of Homewood, Ill., was arrested at his home last month by FBI agents who said they found hundreds of copies of so-called screeners for films such as “The Last Samurai,” “In America” and “Shattered Glass,” as well as equipment for copying them. Screeners are copies of films that are sent by studios to voters in organizations that hand out awards.

According to a criminal indictment filed in federal court Thursday, authorities believe Sprague obtained videotaped screeners of those and other films from a Los Angeles actor, who’s listed as an unindicted co-conspirator, and either copied them onto DVDs or transmitted them over the Internet.

Yang said the unindicted co-conspirator listed in the indictment was veteran character actor Carmine Caridi, who has appeared in such films as the “The Godfather: Part II,” “Carlo’s Wake,” “Bugsy” and “Whacked.”

“At this point he has not been charged,” she said.

Authorities said so-called digital watermarks placed on films sent to all members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allowed them to trace Sprague’s films to Caridi. The 70-year-old actor has denied any wrongdoing, saying he only provided his screener copies to Sprague as a friend and didn’t know they were being copied.

If convicted of all charges, Sprague faces as much as eight years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

Sprague, who is free on $25,000 bail pending arraignment, has said he only made copies of films for friends, not for profit, and never placed any on the Internet.

AP-ES-02-12-04 2034EST

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