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The Problem of Bootleg DVDs

Archived Editorials

This month's Bill Zone isn't so much an editorial, as it is an issue, that I feel it important to alert you all about. Over the past few months, I've been looking into a number of suspicious DVD titles, that have begun appearing for sale on the Internet. It all started when a friend in Australia alerted me that he had seen DVD copies of Disney animated movies for sale, while on a business trip to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, as many of you may know, is a modern Mecca of software piracy of all kinds. You can find stores there selling pirated copies of Windows 98 for as little as $15, for example, along with bootleg music CDs, and VHS tapes and Video CDs mastered from recordings made with camcorders, smuggled into movie theaters here in the States. In fact, no sooner had Titanic appeared in theaters, 2 disc VCD sets were already available from retailers on the Internet, for as much as $100 (who said bootleg software was always cheap).

My friend suspected these DVDs (which included non-Disney titles as well) to be pirated immediately, but was surprised to see a local government inspector (who is supposed to watch out for such pirated software), simply walk by the rack of discs with barely a look. My friend grabbed a few of the titles (which you see below), and sent them to me to investigate further.

Bootleg Alice in Wonderland Bootleg Bambi Bootleg Cinderella

Bootleg Fantasia Bootleg Pinocchio Bootleg Snow White

Bootleg Sword in the StoneBootleg Gone With the Wind

A cursory inspection reveals that the discs come in very cheap-looking, plastic clamshell cases (of the type common in Asia). An insert bears the artwork for the particular movie, and the statement that the disc is from The Best Movie Collection. All of the actual studio artwork is used, but curiously, the studio name and logo is nowhere to be seen (note that one of the titles even bears the actual Oscar statuette, without any credit to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Markings on the case specify that the discs are DVD-Video, MPEG-2, Close Captioned, in Dolby Digital, in NTSC format and are in 4:3 aspect ratio. Also, the discs are said to contain English, Chinese and Indonisian subtitles. Audio is listed as English only.

The discs themselves are recorded on deep gold colored media (as opposed to the lighter gold of an RSDL disc) - often a dead giveaway of recordable media. The only piece of information that could be found which identified their place of manufacture, was a credit to an Evervision Corp, which is found on most of the discs. Upon inserting them in my DVD player, I discovered that they were, in fact, DVD discs with no region coding. Many of the discs feature film-themed menu screens of poor quality. And I quickly discovered two things: the menus work poorly (sometimes with numerous errors), and the disc features are often mislabeled. Gone With the Wind, for example, says "Deluxe Letterbox" on the inside ring (the clamp area) of the disc - it's in full frame.

The quality of the discs are extremely disappointing. Judging by the amount color bleed, chroma noise and edge enhancement visible, my bet is that they are mastered (poorly) using earlier laserdisc releases of the film (although, in at least one case, the quality is so bad that I believe the source was VHS). What's worse, the films have been, in many cases, altered significantly. In virtually every case, the credits for the film have been removed (opening and closing). Occasional scenes within some of the films have also been removed completely, although for what reason, I can't say. On one of the discs, the Dolby Digital Egypt trailer appears, in such good quality, that I have no doubt it was copied directly from the Delos DVD Spectacular disc (which was coded for all regions). On all of the discs, Chinese (Cantonese) subtitles come on by default. I guess whoever made these discs knew who their audience was (the video disc market in Asia is booming).

Copyright is a very tricky issue in many countries. Often times, a country considers any work, whose copyright has lapsed in that country according to local law, public domain, and thus fair game. But clearly, by any reasonable understanding of copyright, these are illegal DVDs. I have spoken to studio personnel, who, while they would not go on record, assured me that legal measures were being taken to address the problem (I am hoping to have official statements soon). People wonder why the studios are reluctant to issue their films on DVD without significant copy-protection measures - well, this is why. This is also why the Divx option is so attractive to them. These illegal discs have begun appearing for sale on-line, with auction services, the newsgroups, and several on-line retailers that specialize in import and bootleg software. Some people have even paid outrageous prices for them - $100 or more per disc.

I would urge you NOT to even consider purchasing them. These are not collectable titles, nor are they in any way special. They are of exceedingly poor quality. I can understand the desire for some of these movies on DVD. But creating a demand in Region 1 for these titles, only serves to harm the DVD format. The sale of illegal DVDs will only make the studios, who own the rights to these films, more reluctant to release them legally, as well-mastered, high-quality DVDs. So we may now have an even longer wait for Disney classic animated films on DVD.

Consider this for a moment: what if you were an author, or filmmaker, and had invested months of your life on a project, only to see it stolen and sold everywhere, for exorbitant amounts of money (of which you received nothing)? Worse yet, you saw your book or film is edited without your permission, destroying your creative intent. Even your credit - the most important thing for any creative person - is removed. Not a pleasant idea, is it?

By purchasing these DVDs, or any such pirated item, you are doing the gravest disservice to those involved in creating these films, to those of us who may thus have to wait longer for legal versions on DVD, and to yourself.
It's time to raise the bar, people.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Bill Hunt, Editor
The Digital Bits

Previous Editorials:

The Big Squeeze: The ABCs of Anamorphic DVD 10/2/98
Close Encounters and the Biggest Problem Facing DVD 5/20/98
Divx - Not Worth the Worry? 2/19/98
The Truth About Divx's Facts Not Chat 12/6/97

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