Theodore Schwinke takes a look at the problems of camcording and counterfeit DVDs in Russia.

On one level, film piracy in Russia, which is mostly counterfeit DVDs, seems to be abating. Legal DVD sales for Russian and Motion Picture Association of America members’ titles increased from 24 million in 2005, to 42 million in 2006, to 67.4 million in 2007, to more than 78 million in 2008.

But Russian society in general and even many in the Russian film industry appear to condone piracy, says Mikhail Vyaskov, director of the Russian DVD Producers’ Association. “Everybody watches pirated films and no-one ever thinks, ‘I’m breaking the law’ or ‘I’m hurting the film industry’. Nobody cares.”

The unauthorised production of DVDs in Russia is a huge industry. Police raids at several optical disc facilities in the past two years have turned up hundreds of thousands of illegal discs in each case.

According to the US-based International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), Russian law enforcement conducted fewer raids against piracy operations in 2008 than in 2007. Courts seldom hand down significant penalties against plant operators and employees, and, so far, never against plant owners. Equipment is sometimes seized, but the plants are often left to continue operation.

Vyaskov says the police and courts are ineffective. “Corruption is a huge problem. It’s near impossible to sue anyone over piracy. Bribes are always welcome.”

“It’s common knowledge that all these illegal DVD plants are ‘roofed’, as we say, by influential military and law-enforcement organisations, whether it be the militia or the army,” says a leading Moscow-based distributor.

Vyaskov says legal loopholes further hinder prosecutors. Defendants in piracy cases often demand the prosecution presents contractual evidence tracing the rights to a film from the producer all the way to the Russian distributor. “It’s almost impossible and very expensive to get all the paperwork. If any of the documents are missing, they get off the hook,” he says.

The IIPA says the primary source for pirated films is now unauthorised camcording in theatres. Thirty-five Russian films alone were illegally camcorded in 2008, an increase of 59% from the previous year. “Some are cheeky enough to do it openly,” Vyaskov says. “There is a loophole in the law, wherein if you pay for the ticket and own a camera, you can film whatever you like around you.”

But Michael Schlicht, president of Sony Pictures Entertainment Russia, doubts the predominance of camcording as a source of pirated material.

“Illegal camcording produces a very, very low quality. If you look through what’s on the market, it’s high quality,” he says. “My best guess is it still comes, as it did earlier, from sources in the [US] studios.”

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