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Digital Piracy’s Reluctant Star

Don’t bet on Hollywood making a biopic anytime soon about Johnny Ray Gasca, the “prince of piracy” who was arrested Tuesday in a Kissimmee, Fla., hotel room chock full of recording devices and DVDs. No doubt a film (starring reel-world pirate Johnny Depp?) would quickly spread the word that authorities are serious about cracking down on movie piracy. And the bold fashion in which Gasca allegedly ripped off Hollywood studios -- authorities say he kept a diary that detailed his exploits -- offers a compelling story line. But Gasca’s tale contains plenty of embarrassing material, including how easily he schmoozed his way into screenings and exploited gaping holes in studio security.

Hollywood instead will be content to leverage media coverage and Internet chatter sparked by the arrest of a man who boasted of earning $4,000 during a good week from secretly videotaping movies and making the digital copies available for online downloads. Gasca had been arrested two previous times for allegedly using a hand-held camcorder to pirate copies of new films. He went on the lam in January 2004, just days before he was to stand trial on copyright infringement and extortion charges.

Gasca’s latest arrest should rattle digital pirates, who wrongly seem to think they are engaged in more of a game than a heinous criminal enterprise, and also seem confident that they won’t get caught. Gasca is considered a major villain by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, but there are untold numbers of pirates costing the industry an estimated $3.5 billion a year in lost revenue. Gasca’s arrest also underscores that it will take more than tougher federal legislation to stop piracy. It took a concerted effort by studio security forces, local police departments and federal agents to track him down to the Florida hotel room.

Studios understandably are calling for stronger copyright protection laws and tougher enforcement in the U.S. and abroad. But the industry also must continue to strengthen anti-theft protections for movies distributed on DVDs, via cable television, on the Internet and in theaters. And somehow, Hollywood’s storytellers need to make the world understand that sneaking in video cameras to movie theaters is a despicable act. In this sense, Gasca got one thing right during a 2003 jailhouse interview with The Times. Along with professing his innocence, he claimed that Hollywood was “just trying to use my case to send a message.” The message is that digital piracy is as wrong as shoplifting DVDs from the corner video store.

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