Judge lifts film screener ban

— A federal judge Friday freed movie distributors to send copies of films to awards voters -- a decision seen as a victory for independent film producers as awards season approaches.

U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey lifted a rule imposed by the Motion Picture Association of America that blocked studios from sending the videotape copies, or "screeners," to voters.

The association had argued that the ban, issued in September, was a means of slowing the explosion of movie piracy. Digital copies of many films turn up on the Internet long before they're released to video stores.

But independent film producers, who lack the huge advertising budgets of major studios, said screeners dramatically raised their chances of receiving critical buzz, winning awards -- and making more money.

Mukasey decided the independent film producers had shown sufficient evidence that withholding screeners violates antitrust law and hurts competition.

Screeners allow awards voters to view movies on their own time, in their homes. Banning them, small film producers argued, means voters must attend one-time-only premieres or see the films in a limited number of theaters.

The ban was modified in October to allow the 5,600 voters who decide the Academy Awards to receive the videotapes.

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