On a cold night last November, a man called Cheesy stood next to a purple and gray two-toned Chevrolet Suburban in the parking lot of the Unidale Mall , a shopping center in St. Paul near the corner of University Avenue West and Dale Street North.
Selling pirated movies had become Cheesy’s full-time job. He had established a loyal clientele that kept a stream of customers surrounding his worn SUV that night with little attempt at inconspicuousness. On the hood sat four plastic crates overflowing with discs in white paper sleeves and two thick binders cataloguing available titles, most of which were still in theaters.
On March 6, Cheesy, real name Edward Kennedy , was arrested along with five other people for his part in a movie piracy ring that festered in St. Paul for months. Kennedy and one other – Andre Bailey – were the only two charged, both with felony intellectual property infringement, to which they plead guilty earlier this month .
Kennedy and Bailey are the first adults to be charged with counterfeited intellectual property infringement in Ramsey County in at least five years, according to Paul Gustafson, Ramsey County Attorney’s Office spokesperson , which speaks to the difficulty of policing movie piracy in the age of advanced DVD burning and file sharing technology.
Now the St. Paul police and the Motion Picture Association of America — which played a significant role in Kennedy’s arrest — are engaged in active investigations searching for other people involved in the piracy operation, both believing Kennedy was merely the most visible piece of a larger-scale operation.
Unbeknownst to Kennedy and his clients, an investigation was already underway on that mid-November night.
A private investigator working for the MPAA began keeping tabs on Kennedy’s inventory earlier that month.
In addition to the volume of complaints they had received from area residents about the open-air piracy operation, the MPAA was interested in a few of Kennedy’s titles, Gary Kissinger, MPAA regional director of anti-piracy investigations, said.
One in particular was Kennedy’s most popular movie that night, “James Bond: The Quantum of Solace .” The movie was released in American theaters only a few days earlier, and Kennedy was selling it even before that. Kissinger said the movie was likely copied in Russia, where it was released earlier than in the United States.
“Quantum of Solace was one of those [movies] that had been leaked early, and so we had made a major effort particularly regarding that title,” Kissinger said.
In the four-month investigation that followed, the MPAA agent, who would not speak for this story, worked closely with a St. Paul police task force in monitoring Kennedy, ultimately leading to his March arrest.
Kennedy was sentenced to a one-year prison term that will go into effect if he violates the stipulations of his three-year supervised probation, according to Ramsey County court documents. He will also serve 15 days in jail — minus four already served — beginning Wednesday.
The relationship, if any, between Bailey and Kennedy is still unclear to authorities, said Sgt. Paul Schnell , St. Paul police information officer.
In addition to Kennedy’s criminal sentence, the MPAA is demanding $11.20 in restitution for each of the pirated discs found in Kennedy’s possession during the time of his arrest, totaling about $47,000, Kissinger said.
The role of an MPAA agent in high-threat piracy investigations is not unusual. The MPAA contracts with 60 to 100 private investigating firms at any given time, Mike Robinson , MPAA director of North American anti-piracy operations, said.
These investigators work with local and federal law enforcement on major piracy cases like Kennedy’s to reduce the amount of pirated movies being sold domestically and overseas, in turn trying to curb the dire annual profit losses that threaten the U.S. motion picture industry.
In the most recent study on movie piracy performed by the MPAA, they reported a $6.1 billion industry loss in 2005 alone.
“The piracy business — and that’s what it is, it’s an illegitimate business — it takes away from the legitimate folks who are trying to earn a living,” Robinson said.
Ten years ago, investigators searched for warehouses full of VCRs wired together to copy video cassette tapes. But with the emergence of DVD duplication technology, movies can now be copied faster and in smaller spaces, making it even more difficult to police.
Movie piracy has also moved to peer-to-peer file sharing. In 2005, the MPAA attributed in the study nearly $4 billion in losses to hard goods piracy and slightly more than $2 billion to piracy on the internet. Elizabeth Kaltman, MPAA spokesperson , said Internet movie piracy has become more pervasive in the past four years.
Nearly 40 percent of movie piracy recipients are between the ages of 16 and 24, according to 2005 MPAA statistics.
Kissinger said the prevalence of movie piracy in Minnesota ranks “fifth or sixth” in comparison to the 13 states in the North Central region of the United States which he monitors.
Though Kennedy has been prosecuted, both the MPAA and St. Paul police are still actively investigating the Unidale Mall piracy ring, hoping Kennedy will lead them to others involved.
“There’s always an interest in trying to go back to so-called bigger fish and try and find the sources,” Schnell said, adding that further investigations often lead outside local law enforcement jurisdiction.
Kissinger expressed a similar sentiment. He said the MPAA will continue working with St. Paul police in trying to find the higher-food-chain sources of Kennedy’s pirated movies.
The MPAA will also deliver a victim impact statement to the courts demanding restitution from Kennedy, Kissinger said.
–Andy Mannix is the Managing Editor of The Minnesota Daily.
|Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.|