In today's Russia, pirates find there's gold in copying

November 14, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- A Warner Bros. executive stopped at a sidewalk kiosk outside the Kievski train station here and picked up a videocassette of a Warner Bros. movie that won't even be released in the United States until December.

And that was two months ago.

That's when the executive, Gerhard Weber, knew that piracy of tapes had gotten out of hand here.

Yesterday he was back in Moscow, part of a delegation of Western business executives who had come to preach the doctrine of copyright law.

"Piracy levels in this country are virtually 100 percent," said Eric Smith, executive director of a Washington organization that brings together film, music, publishing and software trade organizations.

That makes it impossible for legitimate companies to do business here, he said.

Washington granted Russia most-favored-nation trading status in June on condition that lawmakers introduce new copyright legislation before the end of the year. The Russian government is now pushing for legislation compatible with international standards. But officials will face a tough battle enforcing any new law.

The estimate of losses to Western firms because of pirating in the former Soviet Union runs about $200 million.

A customer who brings his own cassette tape to the right kiosk can get whatever he wants copied onto it. Computer software is so commonly copied (there are 7 million personal computers in Russia) that it's difficult to find software disks for sale in stores.

Michel Kains of EMI Music said a "conservative" estimate would put the amount of pirated Western tapes and records here at about 98 percent. He figures there are at least 10 million to 12 million pirated recordings sold each year in the former Soviet Union.

One book publisher recently reproduced an English-Russian dictionary issued by John Wiley and Sons, a U.S. publishing house. The buccaneering publisher not only sold the book in Russia, but shipped it to New York, where copies sold in bookstores for $6 -- $64 less than the legitimate list price.

"There is a fundamental illness," Charles Ellis, president of John Wiley and Sons, said yesterday.

Mikhail Fedotov, president of the Russian Intellectual Property Agency, a government body, said the government had ordered Russian customs to hold up further shipments of the dictionary, and asked the state prosecutor to begin criminal proceedings against the publisher.

"Good protection of intellectual property has a powerful impact on the economy of any country," said Yuri Ryzhov, a legislator who backs the proposed copyright law and who met with the Western delegation.

The impact is twofold, he said. Foreign companies are more willing to do business, and local artists, writers and filmmakers are not forced to compete with a flood of pirated material from abroad.

Russia developed a copyright law in the 1800s, Mr. Fedotov said. But with the Russian Revolution of 1917 came the slogan, "Art Belongs to the People" -- which meant it didn't belong to the artist, particularly if that artist worked for a major Western corporation.

Mr. Fedotov said his agency "will do its utmost to fight piracy in this country." But he noted that even in the government that commitment wasn't universal.

The attractive thing about pirated art is that it is cheap, and for a Russian who makes about $25 a month, it means the difference between buying a tape, or not buying one at all.

Another reason Russians haven't gotten too worked up over pirating is that they are hardly alone in it. Mr. Smith, the Washington trade-group organizer, said that worldwide pirating losses amount to $12 billion to $14 billion.

For instance, close to 100 percent of computer software is pirated here, according to Bradford Smith, of the Business Software Alliance.

But the overall losses are much greater in the United States, he said, where about 35 percent of the software in use is pirated -- or several billion dollars' worth.

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