Now, doing the same thing with a video camera will soon be a crime. Along with several other states, including California, Ohio has passed legislation, at Hollywood's urging, that lets police arrest people for videotaping movies in theaters.
These new laws add to an arsenal of weapons against video piracy that also includes searching the bags of people entering some movie houses to look for recording equipment. It is all part of the film industry's response to the technological advances that have made it easy to distribute videos digitally.
Some analysts say that Hollywood's tactics are too heavy-handed and could backfire. The movie industry, they say, should be more concerned about the illegal copying of films by its own.
A recent study by AT&T Laboratories found that three of every four movies leaked on the Internet had come from industry insiders - a trend that motivated the Motion Picture Academy's suspension last year of sending tapes and DVD's to Oscar voters.
Digital piracy from within "is much more of a threat than someone sneaking in with a video camera," said David Joyce, a media industry analyst at Guzman Co. "You're going to have really poor quality - it's not going to duplicate as quickly as an actual digital file."
Ohio's bill, signed in December by Governor Robert Taft and taking effect in March, gives theaters the right to detain people suspected of videotaping movies, just as a department store can hold someone suspected of shoplifting.
A similar law took effect with the new year in California. Michigan lawmakers introduced one in December, and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania passed equivalent laws in 1999. The Motion Picture Association of America says it plans to lobby at least a dozen more states this year for the laws.
The industry estimates that pirated movies cost it $3.5 billion annually.
"It's the same way an honest consumer is hurt by shoplifting," said John Fithian, president of North American Theater Owners.
California already has felony-level laws that could be used to prosecute movie pirates. Its new law creates a less serious charge that would be easier for district attorneys to use, said James Provenza, legislative counsel for the district attorney's office in Los Angeles. Although the new charge is a misdemeanor, it carries as much as one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Under the Ohio law, a first offense would be punishable by six months in jail and a fine of as much as $1,000. Michigan's bill would set penalties as high as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The state laws make it easier to prosecute people caught in theaters because the charges focus simply on the operation of a camera - avoiding the more prickly details of federal copyright law.
"Enforcement is always a last resort, but we hope this will be a deterrent," said Vans Stevenson, senior vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group, is concerned that the state laws often are written too broadly and ignore traditional "fair use" copying of small portions of a movie for personal or educational use. Jason Schultz, a staff attorney at the foundation, offered the example of going to a movie, finding it bad and wanting to illustrate to friends just how bad it is. "I take a five-second picture clip and send it to friends," he said. "Have I now violated the law and committed a felony?" Studios are also beefing up security around movie theaters. At the Arena Grand Theatre in Columbus, security guards hired by the studios regularly check patrons' bags. It's also not unusual for a guard to watch projectionists assemble the film and then sit in the booth as it is shown, said Seth Distelzweig, an Arena Grand assistant manager.
For a recent preview of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," two security officers accompanied the movie from Los Angeles. At a preview for "Honey," guards walked through the darkened theater wearing night-vision goggles to check for cameras.
In the study by AT&T Labs, researchers located 285 of the 312 most popular movies released between January 2002 and June 2003 on the Internet. Then they looked for evidence like visible boom mikes in scenes, a sign that the copies were unedited versions; watermarks on film; or text like the phrase "for screening purposes only."
They concluded that 77 percent of the films had come from insider sources at motion picture companies or employees taping from projection booths.