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Latha Jishnu: The dangerous business of film piracy

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Bollywood is breaking out the champagne. Last week, the Maharashtra government decided to equate video and audio piracy with drug peddling, bootlegging and other dangerously nefarious activities and decided that a draconian law, which covers the latter group, would apply to film and music pirates, too. The ordinance, signed by Governor S C Jamir, brought audio-video piracy into the purview of the Maharashtra Prevention of Dangerous Activities (MPDA) Act of 1981, which allows the police to lock up offenders or potential offenders for as long as three months without bail, and up to a maximum of 12 months.  

To beef up its campaign against pirates, the state government is also setting up an anti-piracy cell to enforce the new provisions of the MPDA Act. The film industry, which has been bleeding because of the widespread piracy, is bubbly with delight. Mahesh Bhatt, for instance, is quoted as saying the ordinance signals that “this vibrant industry won’t be left to die”. It also indicates that the government views “piracy as not just a copyrights issue but an economic offence,” says the prolific filmmaker.

Under the new ordinance, first-time offenders are to be charged under the Copyright Act where punishment is a jail term ranging from six months to three years and/or a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 2,00,000. Repeat offenders will be detained under the MPDA Act which allows the police to jail them without bail for up to a year.

Industry reports reveal that the government passed the ordinance after the industry complained that it was losing an estimated 820,000 jobs and $4 billion annually because pirated CDs and DVDs would flood the market within days of a new film being released. The figures of loss may be exaggerated or a flawed estimate as in the case of pirated software since all pirated film CDs or DVDs cannot be automatically calculated as loss of business. But the moot point is whether the new law will put a stop to the lucrative business of film piracy.

The outlook is not as reassuring as the cinema industry would like to believe it is. Four years ago, a similar law was enacted in Tamil Nadu when it brought such piracy under its tough Goonda Act. The number of raids conducted shot up dramatically as a special anti-piracy cell was set up to enforce the law. But piracy still thrives in the state.

One view is that industry itself is to blame for the growing piracy. Unlike the music industry which provides the resources to the police in carrying out anti-piracy raids —TSeries is an oft-cited example — and ensuring that copyright violations are penalised, filmmakers have not been involved in setting up systems to combat piracy. But the central issue is whether enforcement is the answer to film piracy.

Quite a few filmmakers have been sceptical of the measures being sought to stamp out piracy and some have been openly in favour of piracy. Cult filmmaker Anurag Kashyap blows away the predictable arguments in favour of copyright by his heretical declaration that he is all for piracy. The price difference between the original and the pirated film is so wide that movie buffs are forced to go in pirated versions. So the movie industry should not complain about piracy, says Kashyap, maker of such recent hits as Gulaal and Dev D who suggests cheaper videos of films.

It is a solution that at least one company has found extremely rewarding. Moser Baer believes its unique business model of churning out movie CDs and DVDs at dirt cheap rates is the answer to piracy in India and not enforcement. The home video market is expanding at a tremendous rate, helped, no doubt, by the aggressive pricing policy of Moser Baer which sells it legitimate CDs for as little as Rs 45. Although it follows a differential pricing method (packs with additional features and better packaging cost a little more) its offer to the customer is unbeatable: Quality videos at rock bottom prices.

A sure way to beat the pirates, according to the company, would be to reduce the time between the release of the film and launch of home videos. While Moser Baer is rooting for the gap to come down to 2-3 days, theatre owners would oppose this tooth and nail.

Tailpiece: Should Mahesh Bhatt, who is as famous for his peace activism as his controversial films, be supporting a draconian law which allows the police to lock people without bail for months on end? Such laws, it is well known, are notorious for being misused by the police. Right now, the former Director-General of Police A N Roy and five other policemen are fighting a case in the Bombay High Court for allegedly using forged documents to detain an activist in 2006 under MPDA Act.

First Published: Wed, July 22 2009. 00:25 IST