DVD shopping in the Ukraine. Photo by AP
Russia is one of the world’s largest pirate markets for electronic media. From music and DVDs to video games and software, Russia is ranked right up with world-leaders in piracy China and Indonesia. Fake shit is sold everywhere here, from underground walkway stalls to large bazaars and train stations — and it all costs American businesses an estimated $1.8 billion a year.
Since about half of Russians live in poverty, pirated media is almost a matter of national security: thanks to all this nearly-free entertainment, the young masses are safely glued to their knock-off PCs and shitty 21-inch Akai TVs rather than running around somewhere burning shit down.
Just yesterday I went to a pirate kiosk in front of the KGB headquarters and picked up DVD copies of Munich and some new Harrison Ford thriller for the equivalent of three bucks each. I could have also picked up the latest CDs from Mary J. Blige or The Strokes, and the nice thing is that having mainstream taste would have only set me back $3 a pop. If you’re the monthly flavor indie rock type, you’ll have to shell out more like four to five bucks for your Arctic Monkeys or Blood Brothers CD, and you’ll have to head to a bigger market like Gorbushka to find them.
The only goods that this orgy of pirated entertainment lacks are pirated Sony PlayStation 2 games. That’s because Sony has hired a private company called APCC, or “The Association for Prevention of Computer Crime,” to regularly prowl Moscow’s markets and streets for pirated games.
According to Felix Rosenthal, president of APCC, the total market for PlayStation 2 games in Russia is about $200 million a year — well over 90 percent of which used to be pirate copies. However, thanks to APCC, the percentage of pirated PS2 games in Moscow — Russia’s largest market by far — is now down to about 40 percent. But that’s only Moscow. In the far-flung regions at least 80 percent of the PS2 games are pirated, and in notoriously corrupt St. Petersburg, that figure is well above 90 percent.
The reason is simple economics: a brand new, legal, licensed game runs about $50. A pirated game goes for about $6. Sony has fought this price differential by quickly lowering the price of their games shortly after their release to as low as $10, depending on how a particular title is.
But the real war against piracy isn’t in pricing, it’s in policing. One of the things that make it so hard to bust pirate factories is that many of the production lines are located on defense factory grounds or on “strategic” sites, making raids all but impossible. Add massive corruption into the mix — one pirate factory line was recently found in central Moscow on territory controlled by the Kremlin’s Presidential Administration — and it’s easy to see why the fight against piracy is so difficult.
The way the APCC works is rather simple. Here’s how they make a bust:
1. Paid “informants” scour Russia’s markets and kiosks. These shills can be anyone from a cop looking to make a little extra on the side to hard-up students. A student-informant can be paid about $50 to check out up to five markets, buy a sample of games, and mark the exact locations of the kiosks where the purchases were made. Usually this will take about two full days’ work.
2. Once the APCC has determined that a product is indeed pirated, and they have the location of the seller(s), they inform their contacts in the proper police agency, generally from one of the “anti-economic crimes” departments like OBEP.
3. The police then arrange an undercover sting, which, for legal purposes, involves one undercover cop with hidden-mic making the purchase, and two “witnesses” observing the purpose. Usually he’ll buy between one to three discs at each spot.
4. The police bring back the discs for expert testing to see if they’re pirated.
5. If pirated, they get a warrant from the prosecutor to conduct a raid. A raid usually involves just one or two uniformed cops, who have the right to check all of the goods in the kiosk, plus an unspecified number of investigators.
And this is where the story gets depressing in a drug-world sort of way. Most of the time it’s the poor sap who sells the pirated goods who takes the rap. For obvious reasons, a kiosk-grunt is usually reluctant to snitch on his track-suited bosses — even though a typical kiosk worker makes about $200-$300 a month, often working 12-hour shifts. The penalty ranges from a fine to up to five years in prison, depending on how many discs were confiscated on the day of the raid.
Considering that a Russian prison is little more than a tuberculosis-infested gang-rape factory that was recently condemned by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, even Rosenthal admits it can be depressing. “Unfortunately, this is the way it is,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to get the higher-ups.”