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Hartford’s Pirate Problem

The capital city has a robust underground market of bootleg DVDs

By ADAM BULGER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

November 01, 2007

The five DVDs I bought for $20 varied widely in quality. Ocean's Thirteen was crystal clear, with bright vibrant colors, and included a DVD menu. 30 Days of Night, which had only been in the theater for about five days when I bought the DVD, was unwatchable. It was taped in a theater by a camcorder.

I bought the DVDs at a tent on a South End Hartford street. It was one of dozens of semi-permanent venues trafficking in bootleg DVDs in the city.

Pirated DVD sales are evidently a robust part of the city's underground economy. The tents tend to open in the late afternoon, and are easy to spot. But brick and mortar locations throughout the city offer them as well, selling pirated films ranging from popcorn movies like Resident Evil: Extinction to highbrow fare, like Michael Moore's Sicko and 3:10 to Yuma.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, camcorder-sourced pirate DVDs are becoming increasingly common across America.

"Unfortunately, it's happening almost anywhere. It's not limited to big cities," MPAA spokesperson Elizabeth Kaltman said. "We've busted people with camcorders in small southern towns and big metropolitan cites throughout the US."

Improvements in consumer electronics have made movie piracy easier and of higher quality. Patrick Corcoran, the director of media research for the National Association of Theater Owners, estimated that films could be copied and replicated on a massive scale for an investment of about $1,000. "Once you've got that in place, you can run an assembly line and make copies very quickly," Corcoran said.

While the technology is readily available, the pirated DVDs sold in Hartford don't seem to be produced locally. The pirated DVD sellers I spoke with said their discs came from New York City.

Joseph Masher, COO of Bow Tie Cinemas, who manages Hartford's Cinema City and Palace 17 movie theaters, said his employees haven't reported people recording movies at their theaters.

"We haven't had any incidents of piracy at the Palace in Hartford. I believe the videos are coming from the New York City area," Masher said.

While piracy has been a major concern for the motion picture industry for years, industry professionals were once more conscious about pirated movies being shared over the Internet than about copies of DVDs being produced.

But hard disc piracy — creating and selling bootleg discs — has ultimately become a larger problem.

"We thought the real problem was that these things would end up overseas," Corcoran said. "That's still a problem, but what's come to light over the last couple of years is that it's a local problem and that it's being copied and sold locally."

"It's an enormous problem. It's an $18 billion problem for the world wide film industry. Seven billion of that was attributed to Internet piracy and 11 billion was attributed to hard disc piracy," Kaltman said.

Connecticut's branch of the United States Attorney's office has prosecuted a handful of cases of bootleg DVD sales in the state.

"Obviously, from the perspective of the manufacturers, it's stealing," U.S. Attorney for Connecticut Kevin O'Connor said.

The pirated movie cases prosecuted by O'Connor's office mostly involve Internet file sharing of movies, but one ongoing case concerned the physical creation of DVDs. Forty-six-year-old Robert P. Miller, owner of Sarge's Comics Store in New London, pleaded guilty to criminal copyright infringement in August after federal agents executed a search warrant at his store and found approximately 778 pirated DVDs and CDs and burning equipment. That case was somewhat of an anomaly.

O'Connor said his office periodically makes arrests to put a scare into people. "I don't want anyone to think they're immune to prosecution."

Copyright infringement is a federal crime, but not one that's vigorously enforced.

"It's a lower priority in the bureau. As you know, our number-one priority is counter-terrorism, intelligence, preventing another 9/11," said Mary Beth Miklos, spokesperson for the Connecticut bureau of the FBI.

In 2005, law enforcement professionals attempted to link the war on terrorism with prosecution of intellectual property crimes. John Stedman an intellectual property crime investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said in Senate testimony that "some associates of terrorist groups may be involved in [intellectual property rights] crime."

Whether or not pirate DVDs are related to terrorism, motion picture professionals say they have a devastating effect on local economies.

"If a mom and pop store is trying to survive selling legitimate DVDs, and there's someone on the sidewalk selling bootleg DVDs, that's a lost sale for the legitimate store, and lost tax revenue," Kaltman said. "In 2005, we did an economics study which found that $10 billion in state and federal taxes were lost to piracy."

In addition, there's an argument to be made that buyers of bootleg DVDs are chiefly harming themselves.

"People are spending their money on an inferior product and missing out on the movie-going experience," Corcoran said. "Particularly the camcorder versions of DVDs are just horrible to watch. It's shaky, you see people getting up in front of you, it sounds like it's miles away."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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