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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 December, 2004, 11:15 GMT
Pirates of the High Street
By Emma Griffiths
BBC News

Sales of pirate DVDs have reached "epidemic proportions" while law enforcers struggle. As the UK's anti-piracy taskforce prepares to publish an extensive report on the problem, why are people buying them and what's the quality like?

"Put an end to piracy. Movies, they're worth it."

So says actor George Clooney as part of an anti-piracy message at the start of the DVD.

Except it's not George. It's veteran film industry set painter David Goldstein - but the picture is dark and slightly pixelated, making it hard to tell.

Ironically, the trailer is itself on a counterfeit DVD, of The Incredibles, the Christmas Hollywood blockbuster that's playing in a cinema near you now, or available for about a fiver from markets, suitcases, pubs and car boots across the UK.

Silhouettes, jumpy pictures and foreign subtitles - the perils of counterfeit DVDs

As the film rolls on, the sound crackles, the blurry picture jumps and you get the occasional black spots. But it's not hard to see what's going on.

The counterfeit Incredibles compares pretty well to a pirate version of The Day After Tomorrow, clearly filmed from a cinema seat and featuring opening credits at a skewed angle and silhouettes of late arrivals looking for their seats.

Another, Shark Tale, is clearer but suffers from poor sound quality, while its French opening credits reveal it to be "Gang de Requins".

But poor quality is not putting off punters, who are snapping up the estimated 60 million counterfeit DVDs flooding the UK market. Besides, sometimes the quality of pirate films is not as bad as these examples.

Quality 'varies hugely'

Even those trying to stem the tide of pirate DVDs admit quality "varies hugely". Some counterfeiters have got their hands on master disks and make direct digital copies.

According to Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact) investigator Jim Angell, everyone is buying them - not just those on a tight budget. And the problem has reached "epidemic proportions" in the UK.

"It's the 'want value' of getting something before it's on general release," he says. "It's a cross section of people, I suppose younger kids are more likely than people in their 20s and 30s. But if you go into the markets you get grans buying them and mums and dads for their kids."

There's always people selling them at a weekend
Barry, 47
Fact estimates three million pirate DVDs will have been confiscated by the end of 2004, representing perhaps just 5% of the total in the UK. The forged DVD industry is thought to have made more than 400m last year.

At a west London market there was certainly no shortage of people willing to risk 5 to see the latest releases.

Serena, 26, from Derby, admits to watching "shed loads" of counterfeit DVDs.

"The quality ranges from really good to crap - the ones that are recorded in cinemas - but some insiders take them from the cutting room," she says.

No pirate DVDs were on sale at the market at lunchtime on Tuesday, but plenty of people reported seeing men carrying bags of disks over their shoulders.

"There's always people selling them at a weekend," says Barry, 47. "You get Chinese people walking into pubs and selling them. I have got them here before and they have been rubbish, but the last few have been pretty good."

Low-risk, high profits

Trading standards and Fact say gangs of Chinese and Eastern Europeans control much of the market in Britain's big cities. Counterfeiting is a low risk, high profit side of organised crime. Gangs are thought to employ illegal immigrants trying to pay off their debts for a passage to the UK or to cover their lodgings.

"The only real approach we have been able to take is to make life difficult by seizing the stuff," says trading standards officer Iain McCord.

"Our problem is that as soon as we approach them and explain who we are - they just pretend not to speak English. We can't get a name or address and without that it's pointless considering prosecution.

People who buy from them are doing so with their eyes open
Iain McCord, Hammersmith and Fulham trading standards

"We have had some help from the police who have arrested more persistent offenders - but they just clam up."

And others are joining in. This year investigators have noticed a cottage industry of people with DVD burners creating their own copies of pirate disks and selling them on auction websites.

A report published next week by the UK's anti-piracy taskforce will estimate the scale of film piracy and suggest ways of tackling it. Fact says the courts are getting tougher on counterfeiting, pointing out seven recent prison sentences, 15 Community Service Orders, and nine fines ranging from 300 to 4,000.

But while the UK Film Council argues it is a major money spinner for criminals, it's failing to put off those grabbing the chance to watch new films, often days after their US cinema release.

Decorator Patrick, 30, says he is a big supporter of piracy and he doesn't care where the money goes.

"I buy a DVD to go and watch it, I don't need to be thinking about that, but you know it's happening," he says. "You see movies advertised and have to wait for ages but the pirates have got them now... most of them are pretty good."

Even when they are sold blank disks, or films that are unwatchable, few, if any, make an official complaint against those selling counterfeit disks.

"People who buy from them are doing so with their eyes open," says Iain McCord. "They know they're not getting the best quality, but then they're not paying for it."

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