Legislation, passed this month, that criminalizes copyright infringement is being heralded as the first volley in a battle to dislodge the Bulgarian Mafia from almost complete control of video distribution in this market.

Passage of this law, which mandates a five-year prison term and fines as high as 500,000 leva ($7,500) for film piracy, has come none too soon for Bulgaria’s embattled and ailing distribution industry.

According to Boriana Neykova, distribution chief of the National Film Centre, the Bulgarian video distribution industry was valued at $40 million in 1994, and only a sliver of this lucrative pie went to lawful licensees.

Currently, the market is controlled by illicit video distribution companies such as Top Fighter and the Security Insurance Co., which copy Western movies, dub them into Bulgarian, and market the releases in flawless colored packages that feature stills from the stolen film, fake bar codes and a bogus copyright warning naming their outfit the sole rights owner in this territory.

Consumers eat up these products because outlaw distributors like Top Fighter, which pay neither copyright nor licensing fees, are able to undercut the price of legitimate videos by 200%. Mafia-made home movies are rented for as little as 120 in Sophia.

Even armed with this new law, fighting Bulgarian video pirates will be tough. “It’s foolish to expect something to happen overnight,” said Christo Dermendjiev, executive manager of the Sofia-based distributor Alexandra Films. “The authorities don’t know what to do yet. They have this new law but they don’t know what it means. They will know eventually. We will help them. We hope to educate them on the matter.”

Dermendjiev and Alexandra president Stefan Minchev have long been leaders in the fight against Mafia activity in Bulgaria’s video distribution industry. Before the legislation, “the only way to fight these guys (was) by their own means… to go undercover and shoot them, ” Minchev joked.

Minchev and Dermendjiev have collected reams of evidence identifying the major players in this illegal trade. Last May, Minchev told Variety: “We know exactly who they are… We know who to kill.”

Minchev’s tough talk underscores the viciousness of this black market.

Top Fighter and SIC are linked to Bulgaria’s most violent crime syndicates. Mafia enforcers are reportedly employed to bully rental shop owners into accepting illegal videos. “They are afraid not to buy from them,” admitted Minchev. Even bogus copyright notices on Mafia tapes carry a uniquely thuggish message: “… (Rights) violators will be punished by Top Fighter. Check this out for yourself.”

Despite the power and fierceness of these black marketeers, there is hope that the legitimate video trade will prevail. Bulgaria’s Mafia is currently embroiled in a gang war, and officials appear to be praying that the mob will ultimately devour itself.

If not, there is a Balkan precedent for success in the legal fight. Minchev points out that police in neighboring Serbia were able to eradicate bootleg video distribution overnight after a similar copyright law was passed in the former Yugoslavia.

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