NEW YORK – Every evening rush hour, hustlers lugging bags full of bootlegged movies walk the aisles of New York's subway trains, calling "two for five dollars!" as brazenly as if they were selling hot dogs at Yankee Stadium.
At those prices, the DVDs, often of current Hollywood blockbusters, sell well, despite laughable sound and picture quality. Few customers seem to care that the copies were made illegally.
Bootleggers apparently have little to fear, either. Under state law, people caught videotaping inside a movie theater face a maximum fine of $250.
As part of its worldwide campaign against piracy, the film industry is pushing for tougher penalties for smuggling a camcorder into a cinema in New York, which has the country's worst bootlegging problem and some of the weakest penalties for those caught in the act.
A bill pushed by the Motion Picture Association of America would make operating recording equipment inside a theater a criminal misdemeanor, raising the maximum punishment to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
Making the crime a misdemeanor also would empower police to arrest violators on the spot, rather than the current practice of issuing them summonses.
People caught for a second time would be charged with a felony.
"We have to do something, because right now there's no risk," said William J. Shannon, a Yonkers-based deputy director of the MPAA's U.S. anti-piracy operation. "Right now, you're looking at something about the same as a parking ticket."
Legislators, film industry representatives and lawyers met Wednesday in Manhattan to discuss the new proposal, which would make New York one of several states to adopt tougher rules on movie piracy in recent years.
But the bill isn't without critics.
Defense attorney Marvin Schecter warned during Wednesday's discussion that, as currently written, the tougher penalties would apply to an obnoxious 16-year-old who holds up a camera phone during the coming attractions to snap a photograph of the screen.
Pace Law School professor David N. Cassuto likened the use of tough criminal penalties to attack the lowest-level offenders in pirating operations to "using a howitzer to solve a roach problem."
About half of all the bootleg films recorded live in a theater, duplicated thousands of times and then sent around the globe, originated in New York City, according to the MPAA.
Through intricate watermarking technology, investigators can now determine in which theater a film was playing when it was recorded by someone with a handheld camera.
Film producer Lydia Pilcher, who worked on 2004's "Vanity Fair," starring Reese Witherspoon, lamented during Wednesday's meeting that in more than 15 years of her making movies, there's not one that wasn't bootlegged and sold on a New York sidewalk.