The high cost of cheap movies

Mike Barwick is a big movie buff. He owns about 250 movies, and buys a new one about once a week. Recently, on a stroll through Toronto’s Chinatown, he bought a brand-new copy of “Poseidon” on DVD.

As most movie collectors know, just-released DVDs don’t come cheap. At least, they usually don’t. “I paid about five bucks, or was it 10?” Barwick says.

So how does he get these brand-new movies so cheaply? It’s no great secret. Illegal DVDs are cheap and easy to find in Toronto these days. Tables full of pirated merchandise are right out on the street. “They’re just sitting out there,” Barwick says.

Since the vendors flout the law so blatantly, Barwick certainly isn’t concerned about it. “It doesn’t even cross my mind,” he shrugs.

Lack of tough legal deterrents has spawned a fast-growing DVD piracy market in Toronto.

Toronto police raided the biggest DVD piracy ring in Canadian history, estimated to be worth over $400,000. Det. Const. Tamari Caccamo, who was involved in the raid, says the lucrative potential of piracy far outweighs the lax penalties that pirates face.

“Pirates make millions”

“Look at the penalties versus the profits,” she says. “(Pirates) make millions of dollars and they might get fined a thousand. If nothing too bad will happen, why not do it?”

The recent record-setting bust is a perfect example. The Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association (CMPDA), which owns the rights to most of the copied discs, estimated the operation could produce over 3 million discs in one year, generating illegal revenue of more than $17 million.

The suspects have been charged with possession of property obtained by crime over $5,000 and fraud over $5,000. While such charges can merit jail time, recent studies have shown that almost 60 per cent of such cases only result in a conditional sentence or fines.

Piracy “no big deal”

Further compounding the problem is the general public perception of piracy.
“The public perceives (piracy) like it’s not a big deal, like illegal parking,” Caccamo says. “People say ‘Who’s getting hurt? Nobody’s dying.’”

The film industry’s huge profits further fuel that perception. Barwick feels that while Hollywood may be a victim, it’s hard to feel sympathy.

“I don’t worry that Tom Cruise is going to lose a million dollars because I buy a bootleg DVD,” he said. “I’m sure (the movie industry) is still making a hell of lot of money.”

Caccamo sympathizes with that sentiment. “When you see that the top movie made $92 million last weekend, it’s harder to feel bad,” she admits.

Harsher penalties needed

Unless that perception changes, the legal penalties are unlikely to. Caccamo says only public pressure will convince lawmakers to tighten the laws.

“We hope people will put more pressure on the justice system to make penalties more effective,” she says. Knowing that the risk is so minimal, Barwick isn’t concerned about any penalties, although he admits that tougher laws would deter him from buying illegal DVDs.

“If (police) cracked down more, I wouldn’t do it as much,” he says.

Prevention “almost impossible”

Until stronger penalties begin deterring pirates, authourities are fighting an uphill battle. Pirated DVDs are easy to produce secretly, meaning that little can be done until the movies hit the street. Most large piracy operations run “mini-labs:” small apartments or retail spaces full of DVD burners.

Jim Sweeney, a spokesperson for anti-piracy operations at the CMPDA admits that the covert nature of piracy makes it extremely difficult to prevent. “It’s almost impossible to be proactive in eliminating (piracy),” he says.

Caccamo agrees, noting that most copying equipment is easily bought. “Cameras and DVD burners are legitimate,” she says. “We can’t tell stores not to sell them.”

Once pirates get their hands on that equipment, it’s easy to make their copies, Caccamo says. One very common method of copying films is smuggling a video camera into theatres, and penalties for that are also weak.

Impact on the industry is clear

“There’s no criminal law against brining a camera into a theatre,” Caccamo admits. “It just falls under the Trespass Act.”

The maximum penalty under Ontario’s Trespass to Property Act is a $2,000 fine, although tightening that law only eliminates one of several options for copying movies. Sweeny reveals that theft of promotional “screeners” distributed to video stores prior to a films’ video release is another very common, low-risk way to obtain new films to copy.

The impact on the industry is clear. The CMPDA says its related studios lost $225 million to Canadian piracy in 2005. Seizures of pirated DVDs rose 960 per cent, from 41,600 in 2004 to 400,000 in 2005.  Caccamo hopes the public will soon realize that the victim of piracy isn’t just Hollywood.

“People need to realize it’s not just big movie houses that are affected,” she insists. “There have been lost jobs. People have lost their livelihood. This affects people in the community. There are personal victims.”