Wednesday, July 23, 2008


It's 1:00PM Saturday afternoon and the Asian lady makes her semi-regular visit to the neighborhood bar to peddle her DVD's. She charges five bucks a pop, or three for 12. Something like that. I've bought her DVD's before, knowing full well they're bootlegs and illegal. She's one of hundreds of people in New York City who sell pirated copies of first run movies. Some are better than others. I'd say one out of five will end up being blank. Three out of ten are professional quality, complete with features like bloopers, interviews with actors and cut-out scenes. Most have been recorded on video camera by someone hired to actually sit in a movie theater and record the film off the big screen. On these DVD's it's not uncommon to hear people coughing or laughing or even standing up in front of the camera to go to the snack bar.

The Motion Picture Association of America has been working with prosecutors across the country to crack down on the copyright infringement. One of the biggest busts was on Canal street in Manhattan, where cops raided over a dozen shops and booths that had been selling everything from knock off DVDs to Prada and Gucci bags and fake perfume. Their inventory was seized and the shops padlocked.

What's really amazing, dogs have been trained by local and federal authorities to actually sniff out bootleg DVD's. I'm not quite sure how they tell the difference between a pirated disc and one that is not counterfeit. But, somehow they do. Heck, several large hotels have now employed dogs to sniff out bed bugs! Go figure.

This story isn't so much about the phenomenon of bootlegging, but how quickly these counterfeiters turn their product around. Back to 1:00PM on Saturday. The Asian lady, who the locals are all familiar with, strolls into the bar with her bag of DVD's. My friend Ross and I split the bundle and start looking through the selections.

To my surprise, I find the new Batman: The Dark Knight DVD. Keep in mind this movie just premiered in a handful of Manhattan theaters only hours earlier. They had a midnight showing on Friday night. Here it is, early afternoon on Saturday, and the bootleggers already have made copies of the film. So, we actually have the flick in our hands and on DVD hours before most Americans would actually see Batman in theaters. Just as freaky was the fact that in that same bundle was the just released movie, Mama Mia. It came packaged in a nice plastic sack, complete with a professional looking promo cover.

I buy these DVD's knowing full well of the risk I take of ending up with a blank or shoddy recording. Typically, if the movie comes out the night before and they're selling it to you the next day, you can guarantee the quality will suck. I say wait a week or two to give the bootleggers a chance to make a clean copy of one of the actual promo discs that circulate in the industry. One of the other techniques used by these copyright thieves is to make friends with the projectionists at select movie theaters. Those employees are often paid a fee to allow the bootlegger access to the booth to videotape the movie from an undisturbed location. Sometimes the bootlegger can actually plug in his recorder to the audio output of the projector and get an uninterrupted, clean recording of the audio track of the movie, while the camera focuses in on the big screen.

I know this is wrong. I know authorities should continue to crack down on these knockoff masters, but you know something, they provide a service I need. I like watching videos, I don't often get to the theater and I like the convenience of having someone come up to me or set up a table on the street and sell me a bootlegged DVD at an affordable price, a DVD that features a film currently in the theaters. You pay $10 to see that flick. I pay five.

Note to prosecutors everywhere: I have destroyed all of my evidence. You will not find bootlegged DVDs in my possession. In fact, after I watch them, I shoot them from a gizmo very much like skeet machines and from my back deck shoot at them with my shotgun. This of course disturbs my Brooklyn neighbors and I am aware that it is totally illegal to discharge a weapon within city limits. But, if you believe that story, I've got some prime real estate I'd like to sell you in Florida.

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