New Zealand vidstores play by different rules

Battle rages between major distribs and new importers

AUCKLAND — New Zealand’s biggest video rental chain is going to court to try to stamp out non-franchised importers of homevideos and DVDs.

The move is the latest in a three-year battle between major distribs, licensed by Hollywood studios to sell and rent homevideo titles, and newly arrived importers who have taken advantage of a loophole in the country’s copyright laws that denies protection to established operators.

Video Ezy, the 130-store chain that is the country’s biggest, this week will file papers in the high court seeking a declaratory judgment that the studios — through their authorized agents — have the right to control release dates of their own films.

The chain’s joint managing director, Russell Clark, said the industry was tired of waiting for the government to do something. “They haven’t, so now we are,” he says.

The left-leaning coalition government, elected in late 1999, had promised to close the statutory loophole, but so far has done nothing.

So-called “parallel importing” has been rampant in the homevid, book and software industries since a 1998 change in law. Importers source titles from Northern Hemisphere wholesalers months before the legitimate releases and, in some cases, while films are still playing theatrically.

The Ang Lee kickfest “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” for example, was widely available here on DVD before it had ended its theatrical run.

Roadshow, the leading distrib, has asked rental outlets to pledge in writing not to stock parallel-imported videos and DVDs, but Clark says franchisees were reluctant to give such a commitment while the matter is before the court.

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