The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Russell Sprague, 51, in the midwestern state of Illinois on charges of criminal copyright infringement and illegal interception of a satellite
signal, prosecutors in Los Angeles said on Thursday.

Sprague is accused of pirating hit movies such as this year's Oscar hopefuls Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with Russell Crowe, Last Samurai with Tom Cruise and Clint Eastwood's Mystic River.

Other recent films including Something's Gotta Give, Brit-flick Calendar Girls, and Thirteen, were also put on the Web after being illegally passed to Sprague by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member Carmine Caridi, prosecutors said.

"Stealing movies is tantamount to taking money out of the pockets of everyone involved with the film industry," said United States Attorney Debra Yang.

Growing problem

"Illegally copying movies and illegally posting them on the Internet is a growing problem, and my office is working with Hollywood to combat this theft of intellectual property," she added.

The FBI and prosecutors allege that Caridi, a veteran character actor and 22-year member of the Academy which runs the Oscars, has supplied Sprague with advances copies of movies over the last three years at least.

"Stealing movies is tantamount to taking money out of the pockets of everyone involved with the film industry." 

Debra Yang, United States Attorney

Over that period, Caridi illegally passed on almost every one of the 60-odd advance copies of movies, known as screeners, that he receives on video each year to allow him to consider which films to vote for as an Oscars voter, prosecutors claim.

The movie industry moved late last year to ban supplying copies of screeners to members of movie voting juries - with the exception of Oscar voters - because of rampant piracy.

Forensic analysis of films allegedly posted on the Internet by Sprague revealed that many bore digital watermarks showing they had been copied from a screener, prosecutors said. The watermark also reveals who the screener was originally sent to.

Recording equipment uncovered

Prosecutors said that a search of Sprague's house turned up hundreds of Academy screeners, many of which had been converted to DVD, along with an array of duplicating equipment.

The search also turned up devices that can be used to pirate signals of a satellite television company called DirecTV.

Sprague was due to make his initial appearance in federal court in Chicago on Friday.

Officials of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has warned members that they could be expelled if caught flouting the strict rules attached to screeners, were not immediately available for comment.