Thursday, July 9, 2015

I Surfed With Chinese Pirates*

Probably the most widely known caveat in the world is the one to be found at the start of every video, DVD, and Blu-ray disc sold in the U.S.: "FBI WARNING Federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution or exhibition of copyrighted motion pictures, video tapes or video discs. Criminal copyright infringement is investigated by the FBI and may constitute a felony with a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine." It also happens to be the caveat that is most widely violated.

Despite the popularity of the movie franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, in some parts of the world like the seas off the Horn of Africa, pirates are as real a threat to commercial shipping as ever. But you don't need to set foot on a ship any more to be regarded as a pirate. In fact, a new form of piracy, costing record producers, recording artists, and film and television producers billions in lost revenues annually, has easily eclipsed maritime piracy as a criminal enterprise. In the Philippines, where I happen to be living, a wide variety of pirated media is easily accessible just about everywhere.

East Asia is, among other things, the land of the knock-off. Pirate CDs and DVDs exist primarily because, in the poorer places of a developing Asia, there is an enormous demand for them. Representatives of the American music and movie industries would have a stroke if they were to pay a visit to just about any local market here in the Philippines. Unlike stores in the the supermalls, that have to keep their merchandise more or less above board and where prices for CDs, VCDs, and DVDs are controlled by their legitimate distributors, the markets are populated by unlicensed vendors selling whatever they please. Since the people shopping in these markets simply cannot afford most of what is sold in the malls, the prices the vendors charge for their merchandise are always subject to haggling. Music discs, which can be CDs but are usually CD-Rs, are loaded with MP3s, and the DVDs are almost invariably DVD-9s.

There are periodic well-publicized raids conducted by the OMB (Optical Media Board) on places in Manila where pirate CDs and DVDs are manufactured. The TV networks are notified well in advance and their camera crews are dispatched to cover them. The raids, led by Ronnie Ricketts, former action movie star and current director of OMB, collect the discs in canvas bags along with the machines, called tower burners, that make them. They are taken to a place close to the OMB offices and put in a big pile and, always with cameras present, run over with a steamroller. It's nothing but theater- the steamroller doesn't quite flatten the pile of discs and tower burners. Of course, no one bothers to ask if these high-profile raids might be anything more than a show staged for the media to demonstrate to legitimate foreign movie and music producers that the Philippines is doing something to address the enormous problem of piracy.

Meanwhile, just down the street and around every corner in the open air markets in Manila and everywhere else, identical CDs and DVDs in incalculable numbers are on sale for a few dollars. The police and the OMB evidently know this, and do nothing, either because there is no genuine political will (i.e., funding) to eradicate the trade or else they're getting a piece of the action.

Local recording artists and movie actors, who are by no means getting rich in this poor country, appear on TV exhorting ordinary Filipinos to "buy original," and pay ten times what they would pay for a pirate disc. Another problem is that anywhere but in Manila, or in a large provincial city like Cebu or Davao, original discs are unavailable, simply because the stores and the malls that sell them don't exist. The province where I live has no movie theaters and only one radio station. (There is also not a single library, since, in a country this poor, no one who borrows a book can be trusted to bring it back.) CDs and DVDs are the only show in town. And if the average Joe can get a dozen or more movies or sixty songs on one disc, why on earth would he buy an original disc, except to keep Ronnie Ricketts happy?

When I arrived here with my own collection of DVDs purchased in the States, a Filipino friend wondered why there was only one movie on each of my discs. He showed me a pile of pirate DVDs that, in his somewhat surprised innocence, he was not aware were pirated. I examined one of his DVDs; it was professionally packaged and labelled and it contained sixteen movies. Every one of the discs featured a hodgepodge of movies under a somewhat shaky theme, like "Matt Damon Versus George Clooney," which contained eight movies starring Damon pitted against eight starring Clooney. Curious, I played the disc on my machine and it started with a generic "Blu-ray Disc" logo (it was not a blu-ray disc), followed by an interactive menu listing all the movies. I clicked on one of them and, as soon as it started, I noticed that the original widescreen aspect ratio was reproduced but the sound quality was poor and the disc, though apparently clean, was riddled with digital flaws that caused the laser to skip. Evidently, the discs are made quickly and in such numbers that quality control is impossible. The data is also so compressed that the size of each movie file is considerably reduced. The simple fact that the optional subtitles on the copied movies are in English and Chinese gives a fair indication of their country of origin. Like nearly all other consumer products for sale in these islands, they are made in China.

Some of the copied discs contain various interesting caveats that expose their origins. For example, the copy of Stuck On You that I watched featured the message (repeated every ten minutes): "Promotional DVD only. Sale or rental prohibited. If you rented or purchased this disc, please call (888) 223-4FOX." Another movie (Appaloosa) I watched contained the message: "YOU ARE PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS DISC AND ITS CONTENT. This disc is digitally watermarked to identify you the member. Do not loan, rent, sell, give away or otherwise transfer to any third party for any reason." The discs were apparently screening copies sent to judges when the movies were under consideration for an award.

You may have noticed that, when new movies open all over Asia, they open last in the Philippines. Quite often, pirate discs arrive in the markets within hours after some movies have premiered in China. And whenever the Philippines' national hero, boxer Manny Pacquiao, fights in Las Vegas or in Macao, a DVD recording of the pay-per-view event will be on sale everywhere within hours. The island I live on is only accessible via one highway bridge and by ferry boats, so the discs are likely produced locally or shipped here at breakneck speed.

Most of the time, a pirate disc contains copies of original material acquired goodness knows how, but occasionally I would watch one and notice the sound of someone coughing and realize that it wasn't coming from the movie. Obviously, rather than being copied from original DVDs, some of the movies on the pirate discs were recorded by some intrepid person in a movie theater with a digital camcorder. These movies are unintentionally hilarious to watch, but give one a very distorted idea of the movie's intrinsic qualities. Since the camera had to be concealed, sometimes an approaching patron will result in the movie picture being blocked by the operator's hand or some other object. Sometimes the shadow of a viewer who nonchalantly walks between the camera and the screen momentarily obscures the movie. On one occasion, during a screening of the latest Thor movie, I heard a cellphone ringtone and a voice telling the person calling, "I'm watching a movie!" in English. Almost invariably, the recordings come to an abrupt stop before the end credits, when audience members get out of their seats and the surreptitious camera operator fumbles to hide the camera. If nothing else, one could program a movie marathon at home just for laughs.

*I owe the title of this piece to an obscure book called I Sailed With Chinese Pirates by a Finnish writer named Aleko Lilius, first published in English in 1931.

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