In a step toward combating rampant movie piracy in China, the Motion Picture Association has signed an agreement with the Chinese government to protect foreign films from DVD pirates during their first run at the cinema.

The memorandum of understanding between the Hollywood trade group, China's Ministry of Culture and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television marks the first time the three have coordinated anti-piracy efforts to help protect the box office. The move also comes as the United States is putting more pressure on Beijing to address China's lapses in guarding intellectual property.

Hollywood increasingly believes Chinese box-office sales, which doubled to more than $300 million last year, will be an important source of international revenue. Yet China's long-running battle against piracy has seriously slowed growth, particularly for imported Hollywood fare, which is almost always available on the street from DVD pirates by the time a movie hits theaters.

The new agreement "will bring some focus on the new titles coming out," said Mike Ellis, the MPA's Asia-Pacific regional director. "A piece of paper is only as good as what you do with it, but I am optimistic that we can get better protection than we have been."

The new agreement does not change piracy laws but sets up a framework for the two government agencies to coordinate their bureaucracies to better enforce existing laws. Now the Ministry of Culture -- which is charged with stopping DVD piracy but not distributing films to theaters -- will have a watch list of movies scheduled for theatrical release in the country, which is regulated by the Radio, Film and Television administration.

Ministry of Culture authorities will treat as illegal all videos found in markets in the run-up to, during and immediately after the films' theatrical release. In the past, Hollywood studios have complained that Chinese authorities cooperate with anti-piracy efforts only on a case-by-case basis, when specific instances are pointed out.