A bill that would define recording films at a theater with an audio-visual device as a felony passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee after quick approval from the House of Delegates.
"This kind of camera theft has been around for some time," said Todd Flournoy, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) vice president and counsel. "It's always been a problem. But bootleg copies used to be sold on the street. The quality was poor, and there was no easy means of distribution."
Today's cameras are digital. They're smaller. They have better line-of-sight. For high-quality sound, they can connect to outlets usually reserved for patrons with hearing disabilities. They can be clipped to a theater seat, where they record silently without movement.
"If you would record a movie Friday night, it could be on the streets in New York the next day and in China by Monday," Flournoy said. "It's that quick. ... And these copies look professional. They cost a couple of bucks, and the quality is great. Some of these DVDs are amazing."
The bootlegs could be replicated on DVD and sold on the streets, but today's pirates prefer sailing on the Internet. Uploading a film and making it available on a Web site is easy.
"What was a fairly sizeable problem has become a very real threat to the movie industry. ... The reason this has become such a priority for us is that with the touch of one button someone could have a network where millions of people can download a movie," said Flournoy, who recently visited Charleston to push the legislation.
So far, 21 states have passed laws concerning anti-piracy. The MPAA is lobbying 18 others, including West Virginia, this year.
"It's important to protect the movie industry in West Virginia," said Sen. Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, Judiciary Committee chairman. "In the end, we hope to preserve a product that could be made in West Virginia and enhance the state's economy."
The average cost of producing and marketing a movie, Flournoy said, is $103 million. About one out of 10 films make enough at the box office to cover those costs. The rest must recoup costs through rentals, DVD sales, premium television channels and, later, cable TV.
Pirating, Flournoy said, eliminates the distributors' ability to make profits on some movies. MPAA estimates the industry loses about $3.5 billion annually because of illegal activity.
"We expect the loss will be much larger in the near future," he said.
Flournoy hopes the new law would be a deterrent. Stopping illegal distribution on the streets and on the Internet is difficult, he said,"so we need to cut it off at the source."
Flournoy said the MPAA is educating the public about the harm caused by piracy and is developing technology to prevent devices from detecting anything on the movie screen (the audience could see the film, but the camera couldn't.)
"But right now we want to give law enforcement officials the tools they need to stop this kind of activity," Flournoy said.
Recording a movie at the theater violates federal copyright laws, "but it's almost impossible to enforce that at the state and local levels," Flournoy said. Theater management can ask someone recording a movie to leave, but they cannot confiscate the equipment.
With the anti-piracy legislation, theater management would have the right to detain individuals caught recording films until law enforcement arrives. That person then could face felony charges. Derek Hyman, president of the Greater Huntington Theater Corp., which runs four theaters in Charleston and Huntington, said his staff has caught only one person taping a film in one of his facilities.
"I don't know if it's that big of a problem in West Virginia, but it's a problem elsewhere. That affects us," said Hyman, a member of the National Association of Theater Owners, which supports the law. "We need protection. It does happen, and it's stealing."