Oscars disarray as Academy member linked to piracy

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Hollywood's awards season was thrown into disarray yesterday after the FBI said it had uncovered an elaborate video piracy ring and traced it back to private "screener" tapes entrusted to a veteran Hollywood actor to help him with his voting choices for the Oscars.

The 70-year-old actor, Carmine Caridi, a specialist in mob and tough-guy roles, routinely passed the screener tapes on to a friend in Illinois, who transferred them to DVD format and bootlegged them over the Internet, the FBI said.

While Caridi played Detective Vince Gotelli on NYPD Blue for five years in the 1990s, his film roles have typically been hoods and mafiosi, including parts in The Godfather Parts II and III and a television production called Blood Vows: The Story of a Mafia Wife.

His friend, Russell Sprague, was under arrest yesterday after police found about 100 illegal copies of prominent new films at his home, as well as illegal duplication equipment for transferring films from VHS to DVD. He was due to appear in court in Chicago to answer charges of criminal copyright infringement.

The case comes as a profound embarrassment to Hollywood just days before Tuesday's announcement of this year's Oscar nominations. The big studios spent most of the second half of last year lobbying to end the practice of sending out screener copies of their films to voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - precisely to stop the kind of piracy the FBI has now uncovered.

The studios were challenged, however, by smaller independent producers who said that sending out video copies was the only effective way to get their films seen and taken seriously. That challenge was upheld in court in December, paving the way for the screeners to be sent out as usual.

In recent weeks, copies of films such as Love Actually, Richard Curtis's ensemble comedy, the Clint Eastwood thriller Mystic River and the Tom Cruise historical epic The Last Samurai have popped up on the internet, prompting the studios which made them to alert law enforcement.

The FBI's job was made easier by the inclusion of numbered digital watermarks on all screener copies, which is what led them to Caridi's door. The actor told investigators he had been sending his screeners to Mr Sprague for years as a friendly favour and had "no idea anyone else would be seeing them", according to an FBI affidavit. A search of Caridi's home uncovered FedEx boxes and labels with Mr Sprague's address on them. Police in Homewood, Illinois, then swooped on Mr Sprague's house on Thursday and, after discovering the bootleg films and the duplication equipment, placed him under arrest.

Caridi has not been charged with any crime but is likely to face disciplinary proceedings and possible expulsion from the Academy. Although the screeners were not banned this year, Academy members were obliged to sign a contract holding them directly responsible for their use and abuse.