In a move to curb what the Hollywood studios are claiming is a primary source of the illegal pirating and bootlegging of their movies on the Internet, Warner Brothers announced Monday it is cancelling all preview screenings of its summer blockbusters in Canada.

Citing a failure by the government of Canada to make illegal the recording of movies directly from the screen by camcorder, the studio will not issue advance screenings of such audience pleasers like "Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix" and "Ocean's 13." The ban will not affect press screenings.

The CEO of Cineplex Entertainment said illegal recording is a big concern because once a movie is bootlegged in a theatre, it then becomes accessible via the Internet.

"The technology has changed but the copyright laws in Canada haven't kept pace with it," Ellis Jacob told CTV Newsnet in Toronto on Tuesday.

Jacob said Canada's copyright laws should be updated to get in line with those of other countries: "where it would be a criminal offence for somebody caught (recording) in a theatre, which would include both fines plus jail time."

Some reports say pirated movies are costing Hollywood studios more than US$6 billion each year. Earlier this year Twentieth Century Fox investigators claimed that at one point in 2006, almost half of all illegal movies originated from theatrical recording.

"In most cases, they're copies where you can see (audience members) standing up through the movie," said Jacob in an earlier interview.

"As the cameras get better and more sophisticated, the quality improves dramatically."

Technology exists to accurately determine which theatre pirated films were recorded in, and analysts say up to a quarter of illegally copied films originate from Canada.

"In the last three years we've created the technology that puts a watermark on every movie print that's sent out of Hollywood," Douglas Frith, of the Canadian Motion Pictures Distributors Association, told CTV's Mike Duffy Live.

"So when you find a pirated version anywhere on the Internet, from that watermark we can determine where it was camcorded. And for 20 to 25 per cent of the cases worldwide in 2005, it was camcorded in Canada. That number, compared to the size of our population, is astronomical."

Filming inside a theatre is not a criminal offence in Canada, and theatre owners are lobbying Ottawa to bring in tougher laws to combat the practice.

"We're pushing to have a Criminal Code amendment so that if you're caught camcording in the theatre, it's a criminal offence," said Frith.

"That's essentially what we need to do to begin to even put a dent in camcording and piracy in Canada."

Heritage Minister Bev Oda released a statement Monday, saying she is currently working on a plan to tackle piracy in Canada.

"Our government is aware of the problem of piracy and the role of camcording in contributing to that problem," she said.

"We are committed to protect the work of creators and take this issue seriously. I am currently working with my colleague, the minister of justice, on measures to address this issue."

Jacob says the same issue existed in the United States until laws in close to 40 states were amended to make film pirating a criminal offence.

"It pretty well eliminated piracy in the U.S.," he says.

Frith notes that the real target of the laws would be organized criminals.

"We're not looking at the individuals who go in for fun to camcord a film in a theatre. It's organized crime. People are going in, they get paid between $5,000 to $7,000 for a very good copy of a film."

Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa had a different take on the matter. He suggested that "knee-jerk legislation" based on "unverified and inconsistent data" is not a wise move, "given that since legislation, making recording a movie an infringement already exists."

According to Geist, there is a lack of consistency amongst the various studios and their respective lobbies in the figures they cite as Canada's contribution to the problem. "In the past few months they have cited 20 per cent, 40 per cent, 50 per cent and now 70 per cent, none of which are based on independent, audited studies," he said.

Finally, Geist pointed out we must also remember there were claims circulating that "Spider-Man 3" was available on the streets of Beijing a full two weeks before its release, yet it still set box office records.

Piracy stats

  • The maximum fine under the federal Copyright Act is $1 million and five years in jail for camcording a movie for commercial distribution.
  • The Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association says movie pirating in Canada accounted for 20 per cent of camcorded copies of DVDs worldwide.
  • In 2005, movie piracy cost the Canadian film industry US$225 million and the Canadian government US$34 million, according to a Motion Picture Association of America study.
  • WB claims that more than 70 per cent of all pirated Warner titles released over the past 18 months originated in Canada.
  • The Motion Picture Association of America ("MPAA") calculates total losses to the studios from piracy at around US$6 billion annually.