Out of the Theater, Into the Courtroom

Jhannet Sejas taped a few seconds of "Transformers." (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007

Jhannet Sejas and her boyfriend were celebrating her 19th birthday by taking in a matinee showing of the hit movie "Transformers" at the theater at Ballston Common mall.

Sejas was enjoying the movie so much that she decided to film a short clip of the sci-fi adventure's climax to get her little brother hyped to go see it.

Minutes later, two Arlington County police officers were pointing their flashlights at the young couple in the darkened theater and ordering them out. They confiscated the digital camera as evidence and charged Sejas, a Marymount University sophomore and Annandale resident, with a crime: illegally recording a motion picture.

"I was terrified," said Sejas, her voice breaking. "I was crying. I've never been in trouble before." She said the assistant manager of the theater saw her holding up the Canon Power Shot and reported it to the general manager, who called police.

Sejas said she had no intention of selling the 20-second film clip. She just wanted to show it to her 13-year-old brother, who had said he wanted to see the movie. She was shocked when the officers showed up.

Sejas faces up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500 when she goes to trial this month in the July 17 incident. Arlington police spokesman John Lisle said it was the decision of Regal Cinemas Ballston Common 12 to prosecute the case, a first for Arlington police.

"They were the victim in this case, and they felt strongly enough about it," he said. The general manager of Regal Cinemas declined to comment yesterday.

Movie pirating cost the industry $18.2 billion worldwide in 2005, the last year for which figures were available, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Moviegoers are increasingly carrying cellphones, digital cameras and other devices capable of recording.

"Ninety percent of recently released films that are pirated are done by camcording in movie theaters," said Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America. "It's happening all over. And there's been a rash of camcording in the Washington area of late."

Besides facing a misdemeanor charge, Sejas was also banned for life from the movie theater she has frequented. Sejas, a Bolivian immigrant who works two part-time jobs to help finance her education, works at the Victoria's Secret store near the movie theater.

Her boyfriend, Ivar Villazon, said the camera belongs to his sister; the couple borrowed it, Sejas said, to "make memories" on her birthday.

Kendrick Macdowell, general counsel for the Washington-based National Association of Theatre Owners, said that illegal pirating of films costs the industry billions of dollars and that the industry was stepping up efforts to stamp it out.

Because of that, he said, there has to be a "zero-tolerance policy at the theater level."

"We cannot educate theater managers to be judges and juries in what is acceptable," he said. "Theater managers cannot distinguish between good and bad stealing."

Macdowell said the trade association, which represents 28,000 screens nationwide, realizes there is a difference between "egregious acts of stealing our movies and more innocent ones." But he said that distinction needed to be made in court rather than by theater managers.

Not everyone agrees.

"The movie industry needs to recognize that their audience isn't the enemy," said Cindy Cohn, general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that specializes in digital rights issues. "They need to stop treating their fans like criminals. . . . What they're doing is extremely unreasonable, coming down on this poor girl who was actually trying to promote their movie."

Copying a motion picture from a theater performance is a felony under the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005, punishable by up to three years in a federal prison. Several states, including Virginia, also have anti-piracy laws.

Jason Schultz, senior staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he is aware of only one case prosecuted under the federal statute. In September 2005, a Missouri theater employee pleaded guilty to two counts of using a camcorder to copy two movies.

He said he has never heard of a case like Sejas's.

"I've heard of people's devices being confiscated, or them being kicked out of the theater," Schultz said. "This is the first criminal arrest for someone filming for personal use that I know of."

Sandy Hughes, Sejas's attorney, said she hopes she can resolve the case before it goes to trial Aug. 21 in Arlington General District Court.

Villazon said he and his girlfriend had taken a bunch of birthday pictures of each other in the mall, posing with a "guy and girl in a cow suit" at the Chick-fil-A restaurant in the food court.

They got to the movie a few minutes after it started. And even though they paid $15 for two matinee tickets, they missed the end.


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