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With movie piracy seemingly entrenched across Australian society as an acceptable form of theft, the film industry’s watchdog is launching a new campaign in early 2007, and amendments to legislation are beefing up the law to try and change our mindset, as well as target the organised operators, reports Andrew L. Urban.

With ordinary Australians – including a large chunk of youths between the ages of 10 and 25 - responsible for stealing $233 million worth of movies and tv shows last year, this nation of just over 20 million people has its collective fingers in other people’s wallets. One disturbing aspect is that a large number of the thieves are school children who steal with the active co-operation of their parents, including lawyers, doctors, bankers and other middle class professionals. A significant 23% of Australians aged 10 and over were involved in copyright theft in 2005, mostly 16 – 24 year olds.

"nobody seems to think this is wrong"

But the single most disturbing aspect is that nobody seems to think this is wrong.

Both anecdotal information and research suggests that buying illegally copied movies and tv shows (or burning them illegally from genuine DVDs, downloading them from rogue websites) is generally regarded as a cool thing to do; the pirated DVD is a frequent trophy of Asian holiday trips, and far from being frowned on as morally weak, movie ‘pirates’ are actively encouraged by peer group pressure across most age groups. (‘Pirates’ is a word with too many romantic connotations – as in Pirates of the Caribbean - and many in the industry want to see it dropped.) Research commissioned by AFACT (Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft) showed that 92% of Australians, while recognising that this type of piracy is a crime, do not consider it to be morally wrong.

A study on behalf of the film and tv industries by Bergent Research estimates that nearly one in five Australians watched a movie on a pirate DVD last year – before its cinema release. A report by L.E.K. Consulting, commissioned by the Motion Picture Association, estimates that more than 47 million illegal copies of movies on DVD were in circulation in Australia (as at April 2005), while legal sales for the year totalled 52.3 million units. Most parents across all demographics were found to do nothing to stop their children, indeed, many were themselves involved directly or indirectly in movie theft, says Bergent’s director, John Berenyi.

The matter is taken seriously enough by the Attorney General, Philip Ruddock, to have put his weight behind moves to strengthen the Copyright Act as well as to help educate Australians – especially younger ones – to recognise right from wrong. Indeed, he attended AFACT’s launch of its new Copyright Or Copywrong campaign on September 22 at a piracy forum in Sydney. “We must ensure that the community knows what the laws are, how they operate and how consumers benefit from copyright protection,” said Ruddock.

Among other things, the amendments to the Copyright Act (due to come into effect on January 1, 2007) will give police and prosecutors a wider range of enforcement options. For example, police will be able to issue on the spot fines for first time offenders at street markets. On the other hand, police will be able to take large scale operators to court and recover any proceeds of crime.

But can legislation change such a deep seated mind set?

The Copyright or Copywrong initiative to be launched early in 2007, developed by AFACT in association with the film and TV industry, aims “to promote copyright education and awareness to the Australian public through schools, work-places, the community and law enforcement,” says AFACT’s Executive Director Adrianne Pecotic. The program was developed in tandem with the Copyright Advisory Group for the Ministerial Council on Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, led by Delia Browne, National Copyright Director.

"teaching awareness, understanding and respect for intellectual property"

“The objective of this initiative is to devise and test a program for teachers and children across Australia to assist in teaching awareness, understanding and respect for intellectual property through the creation by school children of their own creative copyright works,” says Browne. “The message we want to get across to children is when they can use others’ materials legally, when they need permission and how to give permission to others to use their material,” she added. The Copyright or Copywrong program, initially aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, will explain copyright laws, explain the consequences of copyright theft to the community and in general try and change attitudes to encourage respect for copyright laws.

As Pecotic points out, children are not taught the rights and wrongs of intellectual property from an early age in the same way they are taught about respecting other people’s physical property.

Internet piracy accounted for the largest proportion of lost revenue in Australia – estimated to be $92 million, followed closely by bootleg (counterfeit) copies, which cost the industry $82 million. Another $59 million was lost by thieves copying directly from genuine DVDs.

There are two kinds of movie thieves: the amateurs who buy 100 cheap DVDs in Bali (or Thailand or any one of several Asian holiday destinations) or download illegal copies and burn them in a peer group network. Because of their widespread nature, even these activities impact on small businesses such as local cinemas and video stores. One multi-store operator (who wishes to remain anonymous for commercial reasons) said that he’d been steadily retrenching staff - about 12 over some months - until the second Bali bombing on October 1, 2005. “We didn’t realise what an impact those illegal DVD sales in Bali were having. Within a week of the bombing, our rental turnover started to rise and was up about 15% across all our stores – and has stayed there. About half of the Australians who go to Bali are from Western Australia,” he says, “and when they stopped going, our business improved and we are hiring again.”

At an estimated loss of $100,000 in annual rental turnover per video store, the immediate impact of piracy is “not on Hollywood studios,” he says, “but on me, my family and my staff.” The unthinking tourists are spreading their cheap largesse amongst family and friends, in an ever widening circle of copyright theft that hurts their neighbours.

This video store operator doesn’t believe “we should criminalise the whole nation” over the issue and believes that “once Australians understand who they are really hurting, they’ll say ‘OK, fair enough’….” His optimism is admirable, but is it realistic?

Probably not, as far as youngsters are concerned, says Denis Parkes who runs the Picture Show Man twin cinema in Merimbula on NSW’s South Coast, and is President of the Independent Cinema Owners Association. “It’s a little bit naďve to think that young kids could grapple with copyright issues. But the parents should understand.” Even there, though, there are intrinsic, deep seated problems. Parkes confronted one set of parents just back from Asia with DVDs “en masse … I tried telling them it was wrong and illegal but it didn’t seem to get through.”

"in Asia it’s a great alternative to drug running – with no death penalty"

As AFACT’s Adrianne Pecotic says, “illegal DVD copying offers a 1000% profit margin.” And as Parkes points out, “in Asia it’s a great alternative to drug running – with no death penalty.” In the Asia Pacific region, China leads the way with 93% of potential revenue lost due to piracy, according to the L.E.K. survey, followed by Thailand on 62%, Taiwan with 51% and India with 29%. But Australia, at 11%, loses more than Hong Kong (9%) or Korea, which loses 7% - the same as the US.

The high profit margins attract the second type of movie thief: the criminal, often part of an organised group. As a general rule, copyright theft is just one of the illegal activities in which they engage; pornography is associated with traffickers in 95% of cases, says Pecotic. One illegal DVD titled on the sleeve as the children’s film Racing Stripes seized at a market in Melbourne was found to contain the X rated porn flick Deep Inside Keisha.

In a raid on a Blacktown store in July that netted more than 1,800 counterfeit DVDs, two children under 10 were found behind the counter, despite pornography that had been refused classification being clearly displayed. Their grandmother, who is suspected by police of being an illegal immigrant, was taken into custody and faces deportation.

To add injury to insult for taxpayers, criminals engaged in movie theft are almost always (90%) also illegally receiving social security benefits, usually the dole.

In their quest for a cheap copy of a movie, some Australians engaging in copyright theft are supporting organised crime, pornographers and drug dealers, at the expense of their fellow Australians – including filmmakers whose stolen works are sold at flea markets from all over Asia to Melbourne - and anywhere else. Pecotic has a little pink plastic bag of recently acquired illegal samples: in Pakistan in September she picked up a copy of Kokoda; in Bangkok at the Pantip market in May this year, she collected illegal copies of Wolf Creek, Look Both Ways, The Proposition, Ned Kelly and the ABC TV series Kath and Kim.

Published November 30, 2006

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A raid in a Pakistan market finds copies of Kokoda (among others)

Pirated copies of Wolf Creek with dreadful cover art

Look Both Ways - illegal copies in Bangkok

The Proposition - illegal copies in Bangkok

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