Modern pirates thrive in Russia Bootlegging: Moscow's outdoor markets are havens for vendors peddling illegally duplicated CDs, software and films.

January 27, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Vasily Zubarev went home one evening last week and popped his new copy of "Alien Resurrection," starring Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder, into the VCR.

Haven't seen it at your local video store yet? Well, you're not dealing with the kind of buccaneers who have turned Russia into a haven for video pirating.

Unlicensed videos are so readily available here -- six months after the government announced a crackdown against them -- that the only mystery in Zubarev's case is why he waited so long to buy the video. The movie "Alien Resurrection" was released in the United States way back in November. At places like the Mitino Market, on the outskirts of Moscow, the video's availability is ancient history.

He could have bought "Titanic" (opened Dec. 19) or "Mr. Magoo" (Dec. 25) or "The Postman" (Dec. 26). Or how about "The Boxer" or "Wag the Dog"? Both were released Jan. 9, and both showed up as videos in Moscow within a week.

"'I've bought most of my films here. They have everything," said Zubarev as he stood in a narrow, muddy lane where rows of vendors at the outdoor market were selling pirated videos -- and CDs and software. "As soon as a movie is released, they have it here. I would rather buy unlicensed ones because I can have two movies for the price of one."

No one disputes that video piracy is a big business here. The Motion Picture Association of America calculated last year that pirates sold $300 million worth of videos annually -- close to 100 million copies. That may be understated. In the regions outside Moscow, almost all the videos sold are pirated.

Well-coordinated trade

The videos come in authentic-looking boxes that even sport an address and phone number for the distributor -- generally in some far-away place like the Siberian city of Tomsk. They always prove to be fictitious.

Most of the videos are apparently made in Moscow. The people who handle them have a reputation for ruthlessness and violence.

They get the movies by several routes. Some have been known to leak out of film festivals. Some are obtained by confederates working in the Hollywood studios. Most are simply videotaped in movie theaters and then flown to Moscow.

There are a couple of drawbacks with that last approach. If the person doing the taping sits in the front row, the image on the tape will be noticeably distorted. If the tape is made from further back, it will inevitably feature a few restless patrons popping up and down for popcorn or a trip to the rest room. Russians call them shadows. You live with it.

The tapes are copied a few thousand times. A cassette of "Jackie Brown" (opened Dec. 25), purchased for $4 at the big weekend market called the Gorbushka, looked as if it had been made with watercolors and then left out in the rain. Typically, all the dialogue was dubbed by a single voice.

Nobody feels taken by this. One vendor at the Gorbushka, when asked if his copy of "The Postman" was of good quality, replied forthrightly, "How can it be good quality? It's stolen."

This could change. The big pirate operations are reportedly starting to use digital equipment to improve the quality of the tapes they sell.

Government fights back

For years, Russia has been one of the prime markets for pirated videos. It began in the days of the Soviet Union, when people were thrilled to get a look at Western culture and no one was worrying about copyrights. But over the past few years, American film companies and Russian government officials have begun to realize how much money is at stake.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin announced last summer a crackdown on video piracy. For starters, the government-controlled television network agreed to stop broadcasting unlicensed films. A special section was to be established within the Interior Ministry. "Pirati," or pirates, were threatened with imprisonment.

The results have been spotty, at best. A vendor at the Gorbushka market, Vladimir Lebedev, said the police come around every three weeks or so checking up on things. If a vendor is caught, his entire stock is confiscated.

Another seller there, who did not want to give his name, said he'd been beaten up recently -- either by plain-clothes police or racketeers. He wasn't sure. But he was still in business.

"The government cannot tackle this problem yet," said Dmitri Popov, director of a legitimate video distributor called Classic Style. "The pirate companies are behind seven locks and seven doors."

Economy lends a hand

But where government action has had mixed results, the development of private businesses here is having a more noticeable effect.

In the center of Moscow, sidewalk stands and kiosks have been driven out by well-appointed stores, and this has helped deprive video pirates of places to sell their wares. That's why they've settled at outdoor markets like Mitino and Gorbushka.

Moreover, as Muscovites' incomes have risen, there is more willingness to wait six months and pay $7 for a legitimate video.

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