Authorities hustle to catch up with video pirates


At the Havre de Grace city fair last month, parents were offered an unbeatable bargain: videotapes of the just-released "Pocahontas" for $10 a pop.

But some of the parents who snapped up the videotapes discovered something disturbing when they let their children watch the animated Disney feature. At the end of the movie, there was some footage that clearly didn't have anything to do with John Smith and Pocahontas. It was adults-only fare.

After parents complained, a Baltimore man was arrested at the fair for selling two pirated videotapes to an undercover officer.

Warner P. Sappington Jr., of the 500 block of Glen Allen Drive, was released on his own recognizance and is awaiting an October trial in the District Court for Harford County.

When he was arrested, he had about 325 videotapes of such movies as "Pocahontas," "Congo," and "Disclosure," police said. The first two are still playing in movie theaters around the country and have not been released on videotape.

Mr. Sappington's arrest is a small piece of a growing problem for the movie industry -- the sale of pirated videotapes.

Every year the movie industry loses an average of $250 million nationally, says Dennis Supik, a field representative for the anti-piracy division of the Motion Picture Association of America.

"Worldwide, we're talking about the industry losing $2.5 billion annually," he says.

A year ago, there were two field representatives investigating illegal pirating of videotapes. Now there are six, says Phil Parker, the mid-Atlantic's field representative.

In 1993, more than 300,000 pirated video cassettes were seized nationally, says Mr. Parker, who works out of an office in Norfolk, Va. That increased to 425,000 in 1994. The investigators also seized 800 video cassette recorders used to illegally copy tapes in 1993, he said. That rose to 2,350 in 1994.

About 50 to 75 video pirates were arrested in this area last year. "Video pirating operations are springing up everywhere, but police in Washington and Baltimore are doing a good job keeping tabs on them," Mr. Parker says.

"Video pirates do a big lunchtime trade in Washington," Mr. Parker says. "They usual- ly stick to the streets, flea markets, fairs, although we have had cases where they conned mom-and-pop video stores into buying quantities of illegally produced cassettes."

Mr. Supik says several pirated copies of "First Knight" and

"Species" have been confiscated in Washington. "Those two movies were just released in theaters [July 14]," he says.

Video pirates go into theaters -- with or without permission of the theater owners -- and use camcorders to make one illegal copy," he says.

"The pirates then take that copy to their duplicating facilities and make all the copies they want," he says. Sometimes they copy right over another movie, he says.

The quality of the cassettes is so poor that the soundtracks often feature the sounds of people coughing or sneezing. Yet, the video pirates usually make a quick profit before complaints begin to surface.

By then, Mr. Parker says, the pirates have either moved on, or they have made copies of a bona fide videotape and are selling reproduced copies of that.

To make the video cassettes appealing to unwary customers, Mr. Supik says, the pirates make a photograph of a movie poster, have it reduced and glue it on plastic cases.

The average buyer sees a real bargain and doesn't question the tape's legality, Mr. Supik says.

Consumers should know how to spot suspicious tapes, Mr. Parker says. "If the movie has just come out in the theaters and the price of the tape is in the $10-to-$15 range, the odds are very good that it is a pirated copy. The quality is poor. It's just not worth $10."

Mr. Parker says packaging can also be a giveaway because the color and the printing on the cardboard sleeve often appears fuzzy.

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