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California signs up for nutty law banning camcorders from cinemas

'He stole my camcorder. No Officer, I was just making a citizen’s arrest'

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You’ve been out at the beach all day and you met a friend in a bar who says she is going to take in a film. You join her and caught up in the conversation and don’t notice some of the new signs up at the cinema. Suddenly someone wants to search your back pack and the next thing you know you’re in prison for a one year stretch for taking the camcorder which you forgot was in your pack, into a cinema. The $2,500 fine isn’t funny either.

This scene isn’t fantasy, it’s not from some strange oppressive regime either. This is the future of downtown California, the home of Hollywood.

Increasingly this is the hysterical reaction to the outbreak of video file sharing over the Internet, and the world has suddenly become convinced that camcorders in cinemas are responsible for the bulk of this crime.

And the Californian State reaction is also the classic US panic. Don’t punish the breaking of the law, instead take the accoutrements that might be required to break a law and make them illegal. They are much easier to police than the act of committing the crime itself. According to Associated Press, California is said to be days away from making it a crime to sneak a camcorder into a movie theater. The legal move is a step way ahead of the another recent move to push this forward as a federal offense, all over the US and comes from direct pressure by the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA offers evidence that 92% of all illegal copies of films that appear for sale over the Internet are made in this way, by camcorder in a cinema. But it doesn’t source the research or go into detail.

There is a small problem with this. It’s all fiction. While we cannot, will not and do not condone illegal downloading of video files, if you were to go to Kazaa or any other P2P file sharing service and see what’s out there you will find that they are not camcorder copies of films, it’s the DVD copies that are threatening film studios. Go to a market in any of the poorer countries and you’ll find that the DVD copies comes with a printed copy of the cover notes, and sell for half price and they are DVD copies of the original film made by bypassing the copy protection or where there never was any copy protection. As we have said before, new Federal legislation on the subject in the US has little chance of being ratified in a climate that is beginning to see a heavy handed industry, indiscriminately suing its customers, whether guilty or not. Also this is more of the outbreak of panic laws in response to frantic, poorly thought out lobbying.

The new law, which takes effect on the first of January, allows moviegoers to make a citizen's arrest if they see someone in a theater with a recording device. That’s going to make for some interesting scenes. “He stole my camcorder. No Officer, I was just making a citizen’s arrest.”

Signs will be posted in Los Angeles County theaters informing customers of the new law. The law has been written with future technologies in mind and can equally apply to any type of recorder, including a mobile phone. So in California at least it is soon going to be illegal to take your phone into the cinema.

How Californians are going to stop this imagined threat from happening in the other 165,000 cinemas all over the world, no-one has quite explained. It only needs one copy of a film to get out and thereafter it can spread like a virus. Perhaps a universal digital rights management system is a better idea.

The cynical quote accompanying the story, namely "These thieves are stealing from Los Angeles and are stealing from American creativity," from the local city attorney is perhaps a little misplaced. Perhaps he should rephrase it to, “These imaginary thieves are stealing from faceless corporations who feel it is THEIR right to rip off American (and foreign) creativity, not anybody else’s.”

© Copyright 2003 Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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