Video Piracy In Russia, An Endless Saga

Stack of old VCRs
Stack of old VCRs
Vladimir Gendlin

MOSCOW — At the beginning of the 1990s, no one was talking about fighting copyright piracy. It was a wild time, and the government in Moscow had more urgent things to think about as the Soviet Union was unraveling.

Back then, amateur thieves didn't think twice about slipping into an apartment — or even a school — to steal a VCR. There were video halls on every corner, where crowds gathered to become familiar with everything from the world's film classics to the world's best pornography. It's not hard to guess that neither the video hall owners nor the people they bought their recordings from were losing sleep over issues of copyright and licensing.

Of course, this wasn't just about movies: People felt more or less the same about music, computer programs and other products. But video piracy was visible, and it was where the most money was.

In 1997, the Russian criminal code was amended, and video piracy was officially declared illegal. It's possible that the government wanted to show the world that it was civilized, and that it respected international intellectual property rights. Even more important, however, were the economic interests of Russian movie distributors, who wanted to be able to import Hollywood blockbusters. Ironically, most of those large distributors had gotten their start in the pirated film business.

The fight took place differently, often led by television companies. One of the first actions the companies took was to publish an explanation in Russia's major newspapers saying that pirated videos were of poorer quality than licensed ones.

A somewhat more effective method for fighting piracy was to launch police raids of the markets where the pirated videos were produced. Often, the companies caught in the raids were legal companies that were pirating videos on order from their customers. In August 1997, a group of reporters from this magazine took part in one of these raids, and learned a number of interesting things. For example, in addition to the small, black-market piraters, there were major companies, including companies that officially said that they were selling only licensed videos, participating in the black market.

Everyone's doing it

The reporters also learned that the fight against piracy was good for everyone except consumers. "In general, everyone who is now part of the legal video business was once doing piracy," Kommersant wrote then. "No one used to care about it, because everyone was stealing. But then large, official video production companies arrived on the scene. They brought prices that were nearly five times higher, even for pirated copies, which right now are essentially identical to official copies."

At the time, Aleksander Khromchik, the head of the legal department at West Video, said, "We don't need piraters to be sitting in jail or paying a fine. We'd rather have them coming to us and acquiring a license to copy our films."

In other words, former piraters were given a chance to get a license. The conclusion: "The piraters are becoming dealers for the video companies. That means that the quality of the copies is not getting better. All the copiers get is the master copy and the cover, and then they copy it with their own equipment until it deteriorates."

It might be paradoxical, but the fight against piracy has been good for piraters themselves. The companies didn't ask for huge sums of money to get a license, and it was easier for the piraters to pay than to face a trial.

In addition, the raids were happening almost exclusively in Moscow. In the rest of the country, no one even gave lip service to intellectual property rights, and nine out of 10 video cassettes on the market was pirated.

As time went on, the fight continued, led by absurd headlines announcing the death of Hollywood due to piracy in Russia. In 2002, an investigation revealed that of 22 companies suspected of being involved in piracy, 11 were located on property owned by the Russian federal government, including one located at the Presidential Administration Department.

The days of pirates copying and recopying cassette tapes in apartment studios is behind us now, but that doesn't mean that the war on piracy has been won. Instead, today's pirates work digitally, with torrents and illegal downloads. And we're still fighting a losing battle.

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.

It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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