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Cash for Glass: MPAA dangles $500 for theater employees who rat out cam bandits

On Monday, reports surfaced that local police and officers from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency under the Department of Homeland Security tasked with handling federal anti-piracy efforts, detained an Ohio man for wearing Google Glass at an AMC Theater near Columbus. After agents allegedly searched through every photo on his device, and confiscated his cell phone and wallet, the man, known only as T.U., was set free.

While much of the coverage – including Digital Trends’ – focused on the involvement of ICE, and whether it’s right or wrong to wear Glass in a movie screening, the incident surfaced a long-ignored fact: The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) pays theater workers to spy on moviegoers. 

At a time when government surveillance sits near the top of the national debate, we decided to take a deeper look at what may be the most direct and consequential instance of corporate surveillance to which the average American is exposed.

Take Action!

In September 2004, the MPAA and the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) launched a new initiative to help prevent so-called “camcorder” piracy. Dubbed Take Action!, the program rewards theater employees upwards of $500 each time they successfully report someone for recording a movie from their theater.

“Let the proper authorities determine what laws may have been violated and what enforcement action should be taken.”

It is not entirely clear whether the Take Action! program plays a role in T.U.’s story. In a statement to The Verge, AMC Theaters’ public relations director Ryan Noonan said this: 

Movie theft is something we take very seriously, and our theater managers contact the Motion Picture Association of America any time it’s suspected that someone may be illegally recording content on screen. While we’re huge fans of technology and innovation, wearing a device that has the capability to record video is not appropriate at the movie theatre. At AMC Easton 30 last weekend, a guest was questioned for possible movie theft after he was identified wearing a recording device during a film. The presence of this recording device prompted an investigation by the MPAA, which was on site. The MPAA then contacted Homeland Security, which oversees movie theft. The investigation determined the guest was not recording content.

It is hard to argue that Google Glass is “appropriate at the movie theatre.” But that’s neither here nor there. What’s more important: We do not know what it means that T.U.’s Google Glass “prompted an investigation by the MPAA, which was on site.” And neither the MPAA nor AMC Theaters has yet responded to our request for comment. (Updates aplenty if they do.) So let’s just assume that Take Action! does not show up in this story anywhere, ever – the program could still use some sunlight.

Zero Tolerance!

The age of shakily recorded bootleg movies may seem like a piracy tactic of the past, but the MPAA asserts (PDF) that “over 90 percent of the illegal film content available during the theatrical release of a film is due to camcording.” MPAA member studios have attempted to cut down on “cam” piracy by including watermarks on their film prints in order to track down the theaters from which pirated films originate. But clearly, that tactic alone isn’t enough. And that’s where Take Action! comes in.

In a document released by the MPAA last year (PDF), the organization stresses that “theaters adopt a Zero Tolerance [sic] policy that prohibits the video or audio recording and the taking of photographs of any portion of a movie.” This means that the use of any device that may have video or audio recording capabilities be considered suspect. “Do not assume that a cell phone or digital camera is being used to take still photographs and not a full-length video recording,” writes the MPAA. “Let the proper authorities determine what laws may have been violated and what enforcement action should be taken.”

In other words, the questioning of a Google Glass user by police and federal agents for wearing the device in a theater wasn’t just a fluke; it was standard policy. 

Dos & don’ts 

When a person is suspected of being a “movie thief,” the MPAA requires “theater personnel” to carry out the following list of procedures. From the MPAA Take Action! guidelines:

NATO-MPAA-MT-Poster-Final-small-small
  • Identification of a person operating a video camera or other recording device in a theater.
  • Immediate notification to the police.
  • Notification to the MPAA Anti-Camcording Hot-Line (1-800-371-9884). IT IS RECOMMENDED THAT THE THEATER NOTIFY MPAA IMMEDIATELY AFTER POLICE ARE CALLED; otherwise, MPAA should be notified within 24 hours of the incident.
  • Stop the camcording. [Emphasis theirs]
  • Filing of a Police Report. (Obtain copy of the Report. If one is not available, obtain Incident Report #, Officer’s name(s), and contact information).
  • Have open display of Anti-Camcording signage in public view (refer to Page 3 for an example). This is a requirement for Reward qualification.

In addition to laying out the proper procedure, the MPAA provides a wealth of information about how to spot movie thieves. For example, the organization advises theater workers to look for “the unusual,” such as “someone wearing a long or unseasonably heavy coat in warm weather, odd shapes outlined in pockets or patrons carrying shopping bags.” It also suggests keeping a close eye on screenings with small audiences, watching theater patrons well before the movie begins in order to catch people setting up their recording gear prior to show time, and keeping an eye on theater workers’ “friends” who might be snagging films from the projection booth. 

One thing the MPAA repeatedly makes clear in its guidelines is that theater workers not touch a person caught or suspected of cam piracy. And based on at least one account, that seems like sage advice.

“Very rarely would you catch people with their cameras out, because most people have the common sense to pay for a ticket and enjoy themselves like a normal human, but when you finally did, it was always special,” wrote Cracked columnist and former movie theater employee Daniel Dockery. “Modern man has formed a very tight connection between ourselves and our technology, and when that connection is threatened, we go f**king crazy.”

Money on the table

As of August 2013, 701 theater employees have received a total of $299,025 in rewards since Take Action! launched nearly 10 years ago, according to NATO. That brings the average total paid out to each employee to just over $426, with about 70 successful reports of cam piracy attempts per year.  We reached out to MPAA and NATO to get a better sense of how they determine who deserves what reward amount, but that information was not immediately available. While it’s unclear what the return on investment is for that $300,000 in payouts, it pales in comparison to the estimated $6.1 billion studios lose each year to piracy (though, presumably, not just the cam variety).

In 2006, MPAA, NATO, and partner organizations in Canada sweetened the pot for theater workers with the launch of an online “tutorial and quiz” on the website FightFilmTheft.org (PDF). Any employee who completes the quiz is entered into a quarterly $300 drawing. So, they have that going for them, which is nice.

Long arm of the law

Currently, 41 states; Washington, DC; and Puerto Rico have so-called anti-camcorder laws that prohibit the use of recording equipment in movie theaters. Ohio, home of the mystery Google Glass wearer, is one of them. First-time offenders in that state may be charged with a misdemeanor, and face jail time of up to 180 days and a maximum fine of $1,000.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 2.26.44 PM

The penalty jumps significantly, however, when the federal government is involved. Thanks to the happy-sounding Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005, first-timers stare down the barrel of a legal gun loaded with up to three years behind bars – or five “if the offense was committed for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain,” according to the law – and fines upwards of $250,000.

If it struck you as odd that the federal government would get mixed up in a case of mis-wearing Google Glass, it shouldn’t have. No fewer than 15 federal agencies – including ICE and the FBI – make up the US National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center), which goes after all forms of copyright infringement, from cam piracy to knock-off pharmaceuticals. And while IPR Center agents often go after larger targets, the MPAA and AMC Theaters followed well-established fed procedure when someone is suspected of try to “steal” a movie.

Let’s go to the movies!

So, what does this mean for those of us who go to movie theaters to, you know, go see a movie? First, if you’re not recording, you probably don’t have to worry too much about being frisked by police. If you’re wearing Google Glass (or messing around with your cell phone during a screening), however, that might be another story. The MPAA told Digital Trends that it does not view Google’s next-generation wearable tech as a “significant threat” to the film industry. But this week’s story shows us that they aren’t afraid to go overboard when theater workers think someone might be up to no good … especially when there’s $500 on the line.

[Images via MPAA/NATO]; Updated with additional reporting