Aussie alarms go off as biz battles piracy

Sands convinced illegal DVDs hurt ticket sales

SYDNEY — DVD/video piracy is growing alarmingly in Australia and eating into the B.O. potential of major films, prompting the film, video and pay TV industries to form a coalition to lobby federal and state governments, courts and police to nail and jail offenders.

Village Roadshow’s Ian Sands, who heads the Australian Film Industry Coalition, estimates vid piracy now reps more than 8% of the total industry after averaging 4%-5% for the last 10 years.

He’s convinced the availability of U.S. films on DVD before their Australian theatrical release, and in some cases before their Stateside bow, is hurting ticket sales. He cites “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” vids, which were on sale at weekend town hall markets and other bazaars in Melbourne 11 days before the pic opened in Oz last November.

There are more than 60 markets in Melbourne alone where counterfeit copies are flagrantly traded, Sands says.

From his research, he calculates piracy is costing the film and vid industries $120 million a year in lost revenues at the retail level.

He regards the coalition’s efforts as complementary to the investigative work done by the Motion Picture Assn.-funded Australasian Film & Video Security Office. The office is a member of the coalition, along with the Motion Picture Distributors Assn. of Australia, indie distribs, the three major cinema chains, indie exhibs, video distribs and retailers, the Screen Producers Assn. and paybox Foxel.

“We need to send a clear message to the government, courts and police that piracy is a crime which is hurting Australian businesses, not just U.S. businesses,” he said.

The coalition has hired a law firm to advise on changes that are needed to make copyright laws easier to enforce and to increase penalties. And it has hired consultants in Canberra to lobby the federal government. Sands contends the present range of fines handed out by courts is no deterrent. Judges can sentence offenders to jail terms of up to five years for each offense, but none has ever been jailed.

A Malaysian national convicted by a Melbourne court of 40 offenses involving counterfeit DVDs last May was fined $12,000 and given a suspended six month jail term. The case followed a police raid in which 35,000 DVDs were seized. The fine was never collected as he was deported to Malaysia.

Another area of concern is Internet sites that are illegally selling vids of U.S. movies; Sands notes one site is already taking pre-orders for “The Matrix Reloaded.”

And Sands worries that as broadband cable penetration takes off Down Under, that will facilitate the downloading of movies.

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