By Andres Oppenheimer
When I told a friend from Latin America recently that I had just seen a new movie called Slumdog Millionaire, he looked at me as if I were living in the Stone Age − he had seen it a long time ago, on a pirated DVD.
It shouldn’t have surprised me: A new ranking of respect for intellectual property rights around the world released this week by the Property Rights Alliance, a Washington, DC, advocacy group, says that some Latin American countries are among the world champions of illegal reproduction of movies, music, books, medicines and other goods subject to royalties.
The study, conducted for the third consecutive year, says European nations − led by Germany (first), Finland, Denmark, Netherlands and the United States (all tied for second) − are the most respectful of intellectual property rights. Many Latin American and Caribbean countries − with the exception of Chile (33rd) and Trinidad and Tobago (41st) − are way down the list of 115 countries.
Consider where some of the biggest countries in the region are ranked: Colombia is 45th, Mexico is 55th, Brazil and Argentina are 60th, Peru is 88th, Nicaragua is 92nd, Bolivia is 94th, Venezuela is 99th and Paraguay is 102nd.
“The situation is so bad that it couldn’t get much worse,” Federico de la Garza, general manager of the Motion Pictures Association’s Mexico office, told me in a telephone interview.
“Ninety per cent of the videos sold in Mexico are pirated. How much worse can it get?”
Because Mexico has the world’s fifth-largest market of movie-goers, this represents huge losses to movie makers. The industry is losing nearly $600 million a year in unpaid intellectual property rights, he said.
Typically, movie pirates tape movies as soon as they come out anywhere in the world with hand-held cameras in movie theatres, and sell their pirated versions in the region − in Mexico, for about $1.25 each − even before they hit the movie theatres.
While US laws carry prison sentences for people taping illegally in movie theatres, Mexican laws have plenty of loopholes and are hard to enforce, De la Garza said.
“Mexico’s laws require that there be a profit motive to put somebody in jail,” he said.
“So if you say you are taping something in a movie theatre because you want to make a present to your grandmother, you’re off the hook.”
It’s the same with music, industry officials say. An estimated 250 million pirated CDs are sold in Latin America every year, representing about $1 billion in unpaid property rights, according to the International Federation of Phonographic Industry (IFPI) estimates.
An estimated 110 million pirated CDs a year are sold in Mexico, and another 40 million in Brazil. And that’s not counting the more than two billion songs illegally downloaded from the Internet every year in each of these two countries, according to IFPI data.
“We’re facing the perfect storm,” says Raúl Vazquez, IFPI’s Latin America’s regional director.
“First, we had high levels of physical piracy in Latin America. Then, we got illegal downloads of music from the Internet. And now, the bigger the economic crisis gets, the more consumption of illegitimate products we will see.”
Tough laws needed
What can be done? I asked both industry representatives. Countries have to pass tougher anti-piracy laws, improve law enforcement and, in the long run, educate people about the harm they do to themselves by consuming pirated goods, they said.
About 75 per cent of all records sold in Latin America are of local singers or composers, and a smaller − but growing − percentage of all movies shown in the region are local, even if they are distributed by multinational firms. If the local music and film industries are killed by a culture of piracy, there will be fewer local productions, and Latin America will lose some of its biggest and most promising cultural exports.
My opinion: The solution to the problem lies, more than anything, in more education.
Not much progress will be made until people are convinced that piracy is not just hurting Hollywood tycoons − and countries that are making films such as Slumdog Millionaire − but their own local singers, actors, writers and inventors.
© The Miami Herald, 2009. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Media Services.