Focus: CD Pirates Sweep in from the Steppes

Article excerpt

THE COLONEL, a professor of geopolitics in a Russian military college, was savouring a victory. Before him lay several thick stacks of freshly printed documents covering English history from the druids to mad King George III. Precisely the sort of material he was seeking for his students, Moscow's future soldiers.

Better still, he explained, this was not the work of the authors of Soviet textbooks, but excerpts from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And he had acquired it for less than the price of a pint of bitter in an English pub.

The colonel delved among his shelves, eager to show off his secret to a foreigner, and emerged brandishing a box of CDs bearing the encyclopaedia's name. To an untrained eye, the box looked genuine, complete with the warning against unauthorised duplication. Nothing about the product betrayed the truth: that it was the work of pirates sold on the Russian black market for 50 roubles - pounds 1.30.

Had he not bought an illegal version, the colonel explained, his students would have had to do without this particular history lesson, remaining in ignorance of the origins of Stonehenge or of King George's conviction that he was a poached egg. Neither the colonel nor his college could have afforded the legal product. According to prices quoted on the Internet this week, an Encyclopaedia Britannica CD set costs some pounds 60, not far off the colonel's monthly salary. "I had no choice," he said, "it was pirate or nothing."

This case is, overwhelmingly, the rule rather than the exception in much of the world. CD manufacturers say piracy is running amok, and the results are filtering back into western markets, including Britain. So numerous are pirated CDs in Russia that finding legally produced stocks - be they music or computer programs - can be difficult. Yet you can buy pirated CDs of John Lennon, filched from EMI Records, or the Encarta World Atlas for a tenth of the usual western retail price in almost every Moscow market place, and metro underpass.

The latest research commissioned by the software industry's two leading trade associations - the Business Software Alliance (BSA) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) - paints the picture in stark colours. It says that some $11bn (pounds 7bn) in revenue was lost to the industry worldwide in 1998 due to piracy (although it is hard to see how you accurately measure this as uncertainty abounds over how much legitimate produce would be sold in low-income economies if the pirates were closed down).

The same report for the two trade bodies - which represent big hitters like Adobe, Attachmate, Autodesk, Corel, Lotus Development, Macromedia, Microsoft, Novell, Symantec, Visio and more - found that more than a third of software installed in businesses around the world during the past year was, in effect, stolen.

And now a new villain is emerging, a new piracy blackspot to add to the global list of offenders traditionally led by Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. Until a year or two ago, when it succumbed to international pressure and clamped down, Bulgaria was the pariah of eastern Europe, its biggest producer of pirate CDs. Their product was so good that some Chinese pirates printed "Made in Bulgaria" on their own shoddier work.

But now the odds are that the colonel's encyclopaedia came from Ukraine. Western manufacturers say that over the past two years the impoverished republic has begun churning out tens of millions of CDs, becoming Europe's fastest growing pirate industry. Some of the same illicit operations, chased out of Bulgaria, have set up shop there.

The problem with CD piracy is that it has become relatively inexpensive, and hugely profitable. Gone are the days when it was a complex surgical operation, requiring white hats, dust covers and a doctorate in computer science. Pirates can acquire optical disc "replication" machines for $500,000 - less, if secondhand - on which they can comfortably knock out some five million CDs a year with a couple of staff in a room the size of a garage. …