Pirates by the Sea

LAST Sunday, as photographers gathered in front of the Millennium Theater on Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn, a muscular man in a bulletproof vest dramatically hoisted a cardboard box full of ostensibly illegal DVD copies of the Russian-American spy thriller ”Nelegal” (”Illegal”), a film that was having its U.S. premiere that night.

”Oleg, your hat, put on your hat,” urged an associate in a leather jacket and suede loafers. Oleg obliged, pulling from one of his pockets a baseball cap stenciled with the letters ”F.B.I.” Turning toward the photographers, the duo hammed it up.

Appearances notwithstanding, no law enforcement agents were present. The two men mugging for the cameras were Oleg Prudis, who appeared briefly in ”Nelegal,” and Georgy Gavrilov, the film’s Russian-American director. Mr. Gavrilov is suing RBC Video, a local business owned by Russian-Americans, for selling allegedly pirated versions of his film. He had decided to use the premiere to publicize the issue; his plan was to invite the neighborhood’s Russian speakers to sign a petition against piracy, a common practice at the area’s Russian-language video outlets, which sell films and music from Russia and by Russian immigrants in the United States.

Pirated DVDs are hardly confined to Brighton Beach, but the problem is particularly widespread there. And Mr. Gavrilov’s anti-piracy drive signifies the first time anyone has tried to re-educate the heavily Russian community, many of whose members were reared in a country where contraband was often the only means of procuring goods.

”A lot of the actors who were in the film live in the New York area,” Mr. Gavrilov said, ”and they started calling me and saying, ‘Hey, we really liked the film.’ Which was a shock for me, because I hadn’t released it yet.”

Mr. Gavrilov says he was told the copies had come from RBC Video. In a kind of amateur undercover sting, he sent to the store a surrogate, who, he said, was able to purchase five copies of the film. In his lawsuit, filed in federal court in Brooklyn last month, Mr. Gavrilov alleges that the owners of RBC — the brothers Yevgeny, Alexander and Vladimir Rabinovich — made illegal copies of his film, which had been shown in Russia in December. Vladimir Rabinovich denied the allegations. ”Our company is kosher compared to the others, 99.9 percent kosher,” he said. ”And the rest is confusion over territorial rights.”

However resolved, the dispute reveals the challenges of determining and deterring foreign-language copyright infringement in an ethnic market in the United States. Pirating of English-language films in the Brighton area has subsided noticeably since several recent F.B.I. crackdowns, but Russian-language production is tougher to police.

”If a U.S. marshal walks into a Russian-language store, how is he to understand who owns the rights?” asked Oleg Sulkin, the film critic for Novoye Russkoye Slovo, New York’s main Russian-language newspaper. ”When it’s Paramount, it’s easy enough — it’s registered in the Library of Congress. But the Russian market is a jungle. Piracy thrives in ethnic enclaves.

”In any case, why should Americans defend the interests of Russian rights holders if Russian law enforcement agencies aren’t doing the same for American films in Russia?” he added. ”Sixty to seventy percent of the Russian market is pirated, and most of that is American films.” Mr. Sulkin believes that Russian copyright holders, who ”see Wall Street skyscrapers, not two-story Brighton Beach homes, when they think of America,” have encouraged piracy by demanding astronomical fees from Brighton Beach vendors who have tried to secure the rights legally.

Unscrupulous Russian DVD wholesalers aggravate the problem. Frequently, Russian-American vendors are so poorly acquainted with international copyright law that they have no idea that they are buying unlicensed Russian films. Others know better, but they take advantage of Russia’s weak copyright enforcement.

Bruce Helman, a supervisor with the F.B.I., confirmed the intransigence of the problem. ”We have had several investigations focusing on subjects in the Brighton Beach area,” he said. ”But there are so many people involved, because there’s lots of money to be made here. If you pick up 20 or 30 people, the following day there are 50 more ready to take their place. It’s an easy crime to commit, so it’s not very dangerous, and it attracts people who want to make easy money.”

BECAUSE Russian copyright holders find it hard to restrain offenders 5,000 miles away, Russian-American filmmakers like Mr. Gavrilov may be in the best position to confront violators. But for small companies that depend on a niche audience, the costs of protecting copyrights often exceed the rewards. ”The court costs are just enormous,” said Natalia Ganem, who is the president of Close-Up International, a Russian-American distribution firm. ”So, every time you have a movie coming out, you have to contact all the Brighton stores and tell them: ‘Hey, this one is ours. Please don’t bootleg it.”’

The pirates are helped by willing, even eager customers. ”So what if I buy it illegally?” Mr. Gavrilov said, mimicking the typical Brighton customer’s attitude.

”This is Soviet thinking, when everything was forbidden or not available, and you couldn’t find the genuine item,” he explained. ”These people live in a world they’ve created for themselves, not the real America. They even say, ‘We don’t go to America,’ meaning Manhattan. The restaurants are from the time when they left the Soviet Union, and the clothes are what was fashionable back then. It’s like entering a time machine.”

Vladimir Rabinovich of RBC Video is skeptical about Mr. Gavrilov’s anti-piracy crusade. ”It’s a Soviet action,” he said of last Sunday’s event. ”You can’t force people to do something. It’s just a P.R. stunt. Have you seen the movie? It’s terrible. He has to explain to his investors why it’s going to fail, so he needs someone to blame.”

At the premiere, which drew nearly 1,000 Russian-Americans, who trampled blank CD’s labeled ”Piracy” as they entered the theater, and garnered 132 signatures for Mr. Gavrilov’s petition, the outrage factor was high.

”The lawlessness has to end!” one guest insisted.

After prodding, however, quite a few sheepishly admitted to having had a peek at a bootleg film now and then. ”Well, it’s my right to buy it, you know?” the same guest said. ”And it’s Gavrilov’s right to defend himself.”

Mr. Gavrilov remains optimistic. ”I’m counting on the desire of people in my community to get a quality product,” he said.

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