Italy has the highest level of piracy in the western world, according to the latest data released by national anti-piracy watchdog FAPAV.

While legal DVD and video sales netted Euros 417m in Italy last year, the black market was estimated at more than Euros 250m - around 30% of the total market - and that's without counting the emerging trend of internet piracy which has started to take off in Italy too.

Police carried out 145 raids in Italy last year and seized 334,875 illegal DVDs, but estimate that around 4m pirate DVDs are currently circulating in the country, a conference heard on Wednesday.

"In reality, the problem is still vastly undervalued. The black market in Italy is actually worth much more than Euros 250m," said Aurelio De Laurentiis, head of Italy's national producers union, UNPF.

Says De Laurentiis: "The problem has always been underestimated in Italy. I first started chasing pirate copies of films 12 years ago. But then I got a phone call from two investigating judges who told me to stop investigating or I'd probably be killed by the Mafia as it was such a huge business."

De Laurentiis also denounced the lack of regulations in Italy, which enable entrepreneurs such as Telecom Italia president Marco Tronchetti Provera to "regularly buy pages of ads in national newspapers and happily advertise downloading films on Telecom's broadband web service."

"Why hasn't anyone ever mentioned this before, or done anything to stop him and others'" De Laurentiis said.

Interestingly, despite the rampant piracy, the legal home entertainment market still managed for the first time last year to overtake the theatrical market in terms of revenue.

The theatrical market grossed Euros 627m in 2003 according to copyright organisation SIAE's estimates of ticket sales across the country.

But according to Italian video watchdog UNIVIDEO, the local film industry earned Euros 707m from home entertainment sales and rentals in 2003 - a figure which includes both newly released films and catalogue titles sold or rented last year.

In particular, the 17% rise on 2002 was due to a boom in the DVD market, which saw rentals rise a massive 124% in 2003 and sales increase 59%.