The UK Cinema Association has today welcomed the stiff prison sentences handed down to a group of men convicted of illegally distributing films online following an investigation by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT).

The five, who were jailed for a combined total of 17 years at Wolverhampton Crown Court last week, had formed a so-called ‘release group’ and conspired to be the first to release copies of stolen films onto the web. This is the first prosecution of such a group.

Over a number of years, the group illegally released online more than 2,500 films including Argo, Avengers Assemble and Skyfall, resulting in millions of illegal downloads of valuable titles. The majority of the leaked films were of reasonably high quality and were either currently showing at cinemas or awaiting release on video. The group often paid for illegal recording of films in cinemas, known as ‘cams’, and improved the quality through editing and encoding before releasing online.

Their criminal actions are estimated to have cost the industry many millions of pounds. During the sentencing hearing all five men accepted that they had caused total losses in excess of £5 million, each accepting a loss of more than £1 million.

Sentencing the men, Judge Nicholas Webb said:

The film industry is a multi-billion pound industry where a great deal of money is put at risk. Just about all the expenditure is up front and if successful the investors make a profit to reinvest into another project. Many films do not cover production costs, less than 50 per cent do, and they have to rely on the sales of DVDs and Blu-Rays. Any activity that jeopardises that reduces the chance of it making a profit. “It also means there can be less employment in the cinemas, which in turn relies on different trades and services. Most intelligent people see the economic truth in that.”

Welcoming the sentencing, UK Cinema Association Chief Executive Phil Clapp said:

“While the sector does all it can – with the support of colleagues in film distribution and FACT – to ensure that cinema sites remains as secure as possible against film thieves, we recognise that this is just one part of a wider and complex chain. The challenging work that FACT undertakes in tackling online distribution of illegally-recorded film, of which this latest successful prosecution is a great example, deserves everyone’s support and recognition.

The full FACT Press Release can be seen here.