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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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