Salvador Nunez Jr. has a special sister. As a member of The International Animated Film Society and an Oscars voter, she is one of the privileged few who gain access to the latest movies far in advance of the general public.
For members of ‘The Scene’ – a shadowy collective of internet pirates inhabiting networks dedicated to releasing movies, music and software onto the internet (often before they are officially available), Nunez’s sister and people like her are a very valuable resource. Often unwitting, people like her are a common source of the coveted DVD screener – a promotional DVD copy of a motion picture sent by movie studios to reviewers, critics and censors before the official movie release date.
After Nunez’s sister received her copies of the movies ‘Flushed Away’ and ‘Happy Feet’ for review, it’s alleged by prosecutors that the 27 year old saw his opportunity and obtained at least one of the movies from his sister with the intention of releasing it onto the internet.
In January, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences received a tip off that ‘Flushed Away’ had been uploaded to the internet. According to VCDQuality – a site providing news relating to the availability and quality of pirated movies on the internet – the first copy appeared on 22nd December 2006 with a second report 2 days later.
Unfortunately for Nunez, the movie contained a digital watermark and although watermarks are usually removed by the Scene release group to protect its source (via a process called ‘de-dotting’), in this case this clearly did not happen. It’s a possibility that Nunez was unaware of the presence of a watermark and decided to ‘go it alone’ by releasing the movie without the support and experience of an established Scene release group. This approach has been taken before with DVD screeners, with disastrous consequences. Whatever the reason, the watermark not only identified the copy as an Academy screener but also allowed it to be traced back to his sister.
Confronted by FBI agents, Nunez confessed not only to the uploading of ‘Flushed Away’ but also to the uploading of the Oscar-nominated ‘Happy Feet’. However, a subsequent FBI forensic examination of his computer revealed only evidence relating to ‘Flushed Away’.
As the prosecution’s case is believed to fall within the realms of The Family Entertainment Act (an act partly crafted to sentence distributors of pre-release copies of films, songs or other works) Nunez finds himself charged with criminal copyright infringement.
If found guilty at his March 2007 trial, he faces up to three years in jail.
Previous convictions under the Family Entertainment Act include those of Scott McCausland and Grant T. Stanley. Both were sentenced to five months in prison followed by five months of home detention for their role in the operation of the EliteTorrents BitTorrent tracker and specifically the internet distribution of a workprint copy of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, 6 hours prior to its theatrical release.
It’s doubtful that the almost inevitable conviction of Mr Nunez will deter others from DVD screener piracy. Feeling the pressure from a perceived increase in DVD Screener piracy, in 2003 the MPAA banned Oscar screeners but eventually they were re-instated. Since then, the industry has touted technical solutions such as Cinea to protect their content but for various reasons it hasn’t stopped the worldwide proliferation of this years’ candidates.
Even with the threat of jail sentences hanging in the air for original uploaders of pre-release material, virtually every Oscar nominated movie can be downloaded completely free of charge via sites such as the cheekily named www.oscartorrents.com.
This is one battle the movie studios cannot seem to win.